"Notice that Freytag's Pyramid includes an "inciting incident." I've become very interested in inciting incidents, or what I prefer to think of as a "disturbance to the protagonist's world." A post for another weekend."
Yeah, well, this is that other weekend.
What Is A Story Again?
Remember that a story is an account of something that happened to somebody and that event's significance. Here is a way to help clarify what I mean by that: Think of a joke that is told as a story. We're talking a funny story. In those cases, the story is an account of something that happened to somebody and the punchline is what's significant about what happened.
People who are setting about writing something presumably have some kind of idea. Otherwise, why would they be interested in writing? If the idea you have hasn't exploded from your mind as a story idea--something happening to somebody and so what?--then you need to develop it, to hunt for the story. That's what we've been talking about here for several months.
Stumbling Along Without A Story
Sometimes people will advise writers who don't have a full story idea to skip the development part and simply give their character a problem that s/he will have to solve over the course of the story. This is similar to the something-to-want plot plan we talked about a couple of weeks ago. You haven't done any character, setting, theme, or point of view work, you know virtually nothing about anything. So where are these problems and desires supposed to come from?
In his book Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell talks about a disturbance to a main character's world. He says, "In the beginning of your novel, you start out by introducing a character who lives a certain life. That is his starting point or, in mythic terms, the hero's ordinary world." "...something has to disturb the status quo." "It can be anything that disturbs the placid nature of the Lead's ordinary life." I find the idea of a disturbance to the protagonist's world hugely helpful. In fact, in looking back on my own writing, every single book involved a disturbance to the character's world. I just didn't know it at the time and couldn't make good use of it while plotting. Plotting was torture.
A disturbance to a world is dynamic because it sets the character up to respond to the disturbance and move on from there. Aliens land. A body is found. A new child moves to the neighborhood. A new school year begins. These are all disturbances. Disturbances are also all about story. Something happens to somebody, our definition of story. Aliens keep coming to Will and Rob's house and they have to deal with them. Jaspar is forced to sit between Butch and Spike on the first day of school and has to deal with them for the rest of the year. A substitute teacher turns up in Therese LeClerc's classroom and she has to deal with the report assignment he gives her, which she wasn't supposed to get. Michael Racine accepts an invitation to stay with two strangers and is stuck dealing with them.
The disturbance is what causes the rest of the action. It comes out of your initial story situation or idea. The disturbance gets the character moving naturally. Giving characters a problem or something to want, on the other hand, is sort of just dumping on them. It creates a much more static situation. There isn't much natural movement from that point.
For a writer, looking for a disturbance is a helpful way to get started on a plot.