Type the words ‘plot structure’ into Google, and you’ll come up with a near endless list of different ways to design a story. ABDCE- Action- Background-Development-Climax-Ending. The W pattern, i.e. starting at a high point in the protagonist’s life, and then following the shape of the letter W, taking him on a journey of highs and lows. The Story Arc. One huge arc, where the writer plots all of the story points from beginning to end, centered by the dreaded big swampy middle. All of these, as well as countless others, have their strengths and their limitations, and depending on the type story, they can be applied to great effect.
In this section, however, I want to address the building blocks that all of these methods utilize: The Inciting Incident, Acts and Subplots, The Climax, and The Ending or Epilogue. These categories are used in every story, and once we have each of them, we as an author have the skeleton which will hold up the rest of our story.
First comes the Inciting Incident. Pretty much exactly what it sounds like, the inciting incident is the event that shatters the protagonist’s normal routine and sets up the story question. This doesn’t necessarily mean we know all of the pieces of the story question, we may not yet be aware of the antagonist or even the exact object or goal, but it does give the story a launching point into the ultimate trajectory of the plot. Ideally, we place this event as soon as we’ve finished the proper introductions to our lead protagonist. Also, depending on our genre, the audience may need to be orientated to our world before we throw the event changing curveball. In a crime novel set in New York, we can quickly acclimate to the story. Middle Earth needed a touch more exposition to understand its fantastical world before we even meet Frodo. Once those two pieces are in place, we push over the inciting incident like the first domino, knowing the chain will eventually lead to the climactic finish.
These events are easy to find in stories, because they’re so foundational to storytelling. Luke and Obi-Wan finding R2D2 who shows the princess begging for help to save the rebellion. Harry Potter learning that Sirius Black has escaped, and he plans revenge against the boy. Gandalf revealing the true nature of Frodo’s ring, and the need to destroy it (technically here you have two phases of the inciting incident, first to get him to Rivendell, and second for him to make the commitment to take the ring to Mount Doom). In each of these examples, the protagonist’s life is upended, and then because they are driven, they seek to bring the story question to their desired conclusion.
Without an inciting incident, even if the character is motivated for a goal, we feel like we’re coming into a play a half an hour late. We may eventually figure out what they seek, but only after a particularly jarring and uncomfortable onboarding. It’s much better to have the reader join at the beginning of the character’s journey. We already have enough going against us as writers without making our task any more difficult.