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Inciting Incidents, Catalysts, Premise and Debate
Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 1:27 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Mari Adkins very helpfully linked to the following blog post in another discussion:


I found the post to be highly clarifying, and was disappointed that it didn't provoke more discussion within the original thread, so I thought I'd see if I could get a separate discussion going.

The gist of it is that every story needs some inciting incident that gets the ball rolling. But because a rolling ball can stop or change direction, the story also needs a catalyst to propel the action forward so that the premise can be realized. After the catalyst hits, the characters will debate how to proceed, and may even debate whether to proceed, but regardless of their choices, the premise is underway and unavoidable.

I'm a Star Wars geek, so here's how it works in the original 1977 film. The inciting incident is the opening attack on Princess Leia's blockade runner, which results in R2D2 being in possession of the stolen plans to the Death Star. The story is moving now, but it could go anywhere: Darth Vader could recapture the droids and crush the rebellion, or the Jawas could dismantle R2 for scrap, etc. To turn the movie into its premise -- the Hero's Journey of young Luke Skywalker -- requires a catalyst. That catalyst is the scene where Luke sees Princess Leia's holographic projection: "Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You are my only hope." From that moment, there is no way to stop the premise from unfolding.

Interestingly, in addition to the inciting incident and catalyst of the overall story, every principal character can have his or her own inciting incident, catalyst, and debate. For Luke, the projection of Leia's hologram is the inciting incident. His catalyst comes when he finds his aunt and uncle executed by the Empire's Stormtroopers. For Han Solo, the inciting incident is getting hired to take Luke and Ben Kenobi to Alderaan, and the catalyst is rescuing the princess from the Death Star. For Leia, the inciting incident took place before the movie began -- the original theft of the Death Star plans. Her catalyst is her capture by Darth Vader, which makes traps her on the Death Star until Luke and Han arrive.

In my current work in progress, I'm a little concerned about whether the opening act is too diffuse. The inciting incident is very clear, but there are a lot of viewpoint characters, and I'm having trouble pinning down a single catalyst retroactively. In retrospect, if I'd had my catalyst in mind and been writing toward it the whole time, act one might have flowed more smoothly and felt more purposeful.

At any rate, many thanks and a big tip of the crowquill to Mari for the link!

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Friday, March 22, 2013 1:43 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

Herb, I think your explanation of the blog post is both so thorough and thoughtful that the folks around here (myself included) are scratching their heads and wondering what else to add. 

You get extra points for the Star Wars example.
Herb Mallette
Posted: Friday, March 22, 2013 8:28 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Thanks, Nevena. Or maybe my title was just to straightforward. Maybe if I'd called it, "These aren't the inciting incidents you're looking for." Or "I have a bad feeling about this inciting incident..."
Posted: Sunday, March 24, 2013 11:01 PM
you're welcome. i marked this to come back to later, though - i'm so tired, i'm droopy!!

Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 11:35 AM
i want to leave this here, then i'm going to go back up to the top and read.


Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 11:40 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

LOL! Love it.
Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 12:41 PM
Here's how I pieced this all together in my notes when I first found the information:

Premise, Inciting Incident, Catalyst, Debate

1. Introduce characters and situation.
2. First inciting incident and/or complications
3. Stick characters up at the very top of a tree.*
4. Throw rocks at them.
5. Get them the hell down.

*for those who don’t know, one of the clichés of talking about writing is to say the essence of drama is sticking your characters up a tree and throwing rocks at them. yes, to be a writer you have to be a complete bastard.


Your Premise
Your Inciting Incident
Your Catalyst
The Debate

Inciting incident, catalyst, premise work together to hook the audience into the main draw of a story

Act I of your beat sheet looks something like this:

Set-Up (everything from the opening to the catalyst, which includes the inciting incident)

    the dilemma, the basis upon which a statement is assumed to be true and from which a conclusion can be drawn

Know your exact premise. If you're having trouble defining your catalyst, more than likely, you don't have a solid premise. In order to define your premise, you first have to know what type of story you're telling. Once you have a solid premise in mind, Act I of your story practically writes itself.

The sole purpose of Act I is getting the protagonist to the heart of that premise. It's much easier to create an appropriate inciting incident and catalyst if you have a specific situation in mind that you're pushing the character toward. The lead character has to have a goal from the very beginning, and that goal has to be relevant to your premise in some way.

Inciting Incident (opening event that marks a change)
    "to stimulate or prompt into action; to provoke"
    initial change in main character's world that stimulates his story into action
    inciting incident gets the story moving - the initial push

Catalyst (introduction of a new person, place, thing, or a specific event)
    "a substance that accelerates a reaction"
    occurs a bit further into the story
    "substance" can equal a person, place, or thing, a specific event
    gets the story going where it needs to go - the second push
    when the catalyst hits your character he is forced into the debate part of the story

Debate (forced to make a choice now - should I do this or shouldn't I?)
    he can't decide to back out without first going through this debate that the catalyst has thrust upon him
    gives character one last chance to back out before the meat of the premise takes over in Act II
    this is the point of no return - no way forward but through


<i>I'm a little concerned about whether the opening act is too diffuse. The inciting incident is very clear, but there are a lot of viewpoint characters, and</i>

Is it any way possible to scale back the number of POVs? Several years ago, I started a story with a bunch of POVs and eventually realized I just wasn't skilled enough yet to handle it, so it got back burnered. Someday I'll take it back out. I'm not saying that's <i>your</i> problem - I'm just saying.

<i>I'm having trouble pinning down a single catalyst retroactively</i>

What I did with Destiny's Story (working title) is take four sheets of composition notebook paper. I labeled the tops:

    the dilemma
Inciting Incident
    the initial changes in the MCs world
    substance that accelerates a reaction
    person, place, thing, event
    should i? shouldn't i?
    a look back before going forward

Beneath Premise, I jotted a sixty word summary. It boils down to: She must come to accept this part of herself or ignore it. All she wants is to survive sophomore geometry and hang out with her friends.

Then, I created a list of 'tags' that describe the story. These include: teenagers, death, friendship, sex, pregnancy, drugs, authority figures.

Beneath Inciting Incident, I wrote just that. I was able to come up with a list of five different things. Four aside from the very main thing. And I put them in "order of importance" - not in chronological order.

Beneath Catalyst, I figured out what that was, wrote it down, then made a list of five questions:

    how does she react?
    what does she understand?
    what does she not understand?
    What does she embrace?
    what does she hide?

Beneath Debate, I made a list of eight questions:

    should she embrace (her future)?
    what happens if she doesn't?
        how does this affect her future?
    what happens if she does?
        how does this affect her future?
    how will she tell her closest friends?
    what will they think?
    who does she tell first? why?

So this is what I'm working with while I write. Granted, I knew at least <i>some</i> of this before I ever got started. This whole project came about basically as a dare. I've written five books for an adult series, and for years a friend prodded me on about writing something YA. I got the bright idea to write my adult series from the POV of one of the teenagers -- which isn't, actually, how the stories are turning out (thank goodness; I couldn't go through that rehash!). So I've known what had to happen and how things turned out. But what I didn't know was all the emotional/psychological stuff and the keys that turned everything on. These stories are about her and her life and what she does with it -- and pretty much occurs on the outskirts of what happens through the adult stories. Does that make sense? (Have I lost my mind, finally!?)

<i>if I'd had my catalyst in mind and been writing toward it the whole time, act one might have flowed more smoothly and felt more purposeful</i>

Is there any way I can take a look?

Herb Mallette
Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 11:19 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Love the cartoon!

I have a journal volume that I make story notes in. Maybe instead of just pondering the inciting incident-catalyst-debate-premise interactions, I should take a page from your method and actually write some of the stuff down there. 

I can't really eliminate any of the viewpoints at the moment due to the nature of the story. It's a prequel to a set of four books I've already written, and it revolves around four characters whose relationships have already been fully established when those later books begin. So they're all viewpoint characters, but the reader is likely to know they all live happily and healthily past the end of this book, and therefore I have a couple of additional viewpoint characters to provide a little more tension and worry. Plus the bad guy has to be a viewpoint character, well, just because.

I skimmed back over the first act this evening -- something I ordinarily try really hard to avoid doing while I'm working on a rough draft. My goal is always to get all the way through the first draft with as little re-exposure to the writing as possible, so that when I return to start my revisions, I'll be reading the book with as close to an objective view of it as possible. All in all, I think it seems better constructed than I was concerned it might be.

Still, since you asked, I'm tempted to put up the opening chapters. That would put me at risk of having my current efforts colored by outside input in midstream, which is not my normal method, but the flip side is that it might also be more motivational than continuing to plug along in isolation.

Let me mull it over for a bit. Thanks very much for the offer!
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 6:03 PM
I'm doing an edit for a friend of mine - he pays me lol - and recently told him to go back to the beginning and get rid of all the POVs but the ones that really matter. I mean, he had the POV of everybody who came along, even if we see that person one time in the entire story. I was like WHY!!?? I want inside the heads of the people who matter - and in this story, there are four men who matter. Not the entire cast of characters.

See what I'm saying? Don't nix the characters - just nix their POV bits. I mean, really - are they necessary? Really?

Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 8:08 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

It's conceivable that I could cut two of the seven POVs. Maybe three if I decide that the reader doesn't need to know anything about what's going on with the villain. The peculiarities of the plot are such that in each case, though, cutting the POV would effectively eliminate the character, downgrading even the villain from a significant presence to more or less a plot device. For the time being, I feel compelled to keep them all. But there may be room for some axing once the whole book is done and I know better how key each of the three is to the feel of the story.
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 11:34 PM
I'm not understanding why eliminating the POV would eliminate the character? Also - seven POV characters? I'd get so lost -- as a writer and a reader.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 8:45 AM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Well, one POV character has been kidnapped by the villain and is being used as a hostage to force the four main heroes to undertake a series of tasks. The bulk of the book involves the heroes pursuing those tasks while also trying to figure out how to get the upper hand on the villain. Thus, there will be very long stretches of the book in which there is absolutely no interaction between the villain and the heroes, or between the heroes and the kidnap victim. If I remove the villain and kidnap victim as POVs, there will be no opportunity for the reader to see them for most of the book. The final POV character exists in a disembodied state. He interacts with the heroes, but has strong motivations for not identifying himself. Thus, if he is not a POV character, the reader will have a radically reduced understanding of him.

Now, I may get deeper into the book or all the way through it and discover that the reader does not actually need much understanding of these characters. But I still need to know what's going on with each of them while the heroes pursue their goals, so it makes sense to me to keep them in for now.

This is the largest cast of POV characters I've attempted, but I managed four without too much difficulty in the book that started this series off, and back in the day, I read a lot of Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle books and Stephen King epics that juggled seemingly dozens of viewpoints. I think it can be done, although it remains to be seen whether I'm doing it well!

Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 12:19 PM
Oh I'm not disagreeing that it can be done. I've done it with as many as a small handful. I also tried it with a "full cast of characters" and got myself lost before I realized I just didn't have the proper skill set yet to tackle something like that.

You're very right - you may well get further into the story and realize that what you think you need to know aren't things the reader, necessarily, needs to know. For me, editing is the fun part.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 1:10 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

The biggest issue so far is that the four heroes are in many ways like-minded individuals who bond in the way that they do partly because they enjoy and believe many of the same things. So the greatest peril for me is not that the other viewpoint characters will prove distracting, but that the four main protagonists will fail to remain distinct. I have to keep reminding myself to showcase their differences wherever possible.

Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 2:14 PM
Yeah, that can be a challenge - and it can also be polished in editing.


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