Value Trumps

StoryAny story that involves a quest – and that is most stories – starts with a disturbing event known to writers and film-makers as the “inciting incident.” What does this event actually disturb? And why does it matter? Answering these questions requires understanding the role of “value.”

First things, first. The inciting incident. What is it?

Dogs of Riga

The Dogs of Riga

Consider this novel opening: A commercial boat motors across the Baltic toward the coast of Sweden. It is 1991. The Berlin wall has come down. The boat captain is running illegal contraband. He wants to make a few more runs, then retire in the warm sunny south. It is winter, snowing. En route to Sweden, the captain spies a life-raft adrift in open water, maybe six nautical miles off the coast. In the raft are two dead bodies, male, dressed in suits. What to do. Captain decides to tow the raft. Near shore, he cuts the raft adrift. Once on shore, he has second thoughts. What if they were seen? He calls the police in Ystad. This is the opening to The Dogs of Riga, a Kurt Wallander mystery by Henning Mankell.

What is the inciting incident? What values have been disturbed?

Robert McKee, writing in Story, claims that the inciting incident is the first major event in the story. What makes it “major”? It radically upsets the balance of forces in the character’s familiar world. In order to accomplish this, it must: 1) be a single event that is either caused by the protagonist, or that happens to the protagonist; 2) be concrete and not vague or abstract; 3) require the protagonist to react in an urgent manner; and 4) disturb the character’s deeply held values or core beliefs. That last observation is critical. Otherwise, even a cataclysmic event will be superficial.

Okay, our example. What is the first major event? Finding the bodies in the raft? The murder that produced the bodies? In the chapter that immediately follows, we meet Wallander, a police investigator, in his office yawning. Why is he yawning? Life is essentially dull and predictable, and that is the way he likes it. But, now that the call has been received, he is forced to respond. So now we understand. We have an event. Bodies have been found. It is neither vague nor abstract. It happens to a character. Because of his job, Wallander must respond. Because the killing involves international waters, the search for perpetrators will likely tap into a wide conspiracy.

So, why do we care? Wallander is doing his job. He solves crimes. Right? There is more to it. We are shown that Wallander wants quiet evenings in the country home he purchased post-divorce and to rekindle a relationship with his grown daughter and to settle down. He does not want to be drawn across the sea only to have his domestic family dream threatened to its core. In short, his value has been disturbed. It’s even more disturbed when the police officer from Latvia who is also working the crime is himself murdered, thrusting reluctant Wallander into the role of seeking justice for the threatened widow who might become a love interest.

Your job? Make sure the event disturbs a value that matters so profoundly that the very core of your character will be challenged.

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2 thoughts on “Value Trumps

  1. This is an intriguing post–I hadn’t really considered the incident that starts the plot rolling in this light. When a novel has no initial conflict, it has no direction. I’ve read some books and seen movies where it took half the book to get to the point, by which time I had put the book down, or left the theater. I think I understood the idea of the ‘inciting incident,’ but had not put it to words–and the ‘Wallander’ novels are an excellent example of this being introduced early on and in such a way the reader is immediately drawn into the tale.

  2. Yes, I think it is a good tool, much like in medias res, a Latin phrase meaning ‘in the midst of things’. It puts the reader right in the action, and one must keep reading to understand what is going on. The hard part is connecting the dots so that it will make sense to the reader in a profound way. I like the twist at the end ‘the widow will become a love interest’. That will surely shake up the character’s complacency and moral compass.

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