In my beginning is my end, April 2016

The title of this blog is a quote from the nearly incomprehensible poem Four Quartets by TS Elliot, and one of the many meanings that you can attach to it is that the end of a story is determined by its beginning. What I understand by this is that a story’s inciting incident should determine the way its ends (ie its  resolution) and how the story is structured. A good example of how this principle works in The Big Bang Theory. There are two strong candidates for the show’s inciting incident, one is when Leonard moves in with Sheldon and the second is when Penny moves into the flat opposite. The writers chose the second of those, and in the first episode of the first series Leonard and Sheldon are already sharing a flat and their equilibrium is disturbed when Penny arrives. In later episodes, we’re shown through flashbacks Leonard moving into the flat with Sheldon and the very significant impact that has on both their lives. However, this is a flashback to a time before the main story started.

The significance of choosing Penny moving in as the inciting incident is that the core of the story revolves around Leonard and Penny’s relationship, and by extension the relationships between the other male characters and the female ones. In other words it is a multi-stranded love story the resolution of which should relate to the character’s romantic attachments. If the show’s inciting incident was Leonard moving in with Sheldon, the core of the story should revolve around the friendship between Leonard and Sheldon (and by extension the relationship between the friends) and the resolution relate to how the tension between the friends is resolved. Both stories could be resolved by Penny and Leonard getting married and Leonard moving out, but continuing the story after this makes more sense if the romantic love part of the story is the focus because we still want to find out whether the other character’s love lives are resolved, whereas if friendship is the core of the story then the central issue (Sheldon and Leonard’s relationship and how they interact as flatmates) is more definitely resolved when Leonard moves out.

Interestingly the British sitcom Gavin and Stacy has a very similar structure which is resolved when the romantic relationship between the secondary couple reaches its own peculiar conclusion (Smithy stopping Nessa getting married and moving to Barry). In contrast, the inciting incident in Friends is Rachel’s arrival at the coffee shop having run away from her wedding. Though that re-sparks Ross’s interest in her, in fact the primary change that the incident leads to is that Rachel moves in with Monica and the six-strong friendship group is formed. The final resolution of the show is when Monica and Rachel move out of the flat, and the nature of the friendship group changes.

But it’s not just the ends of stories that need to fit in with the inciting incident, it is the structure of the whole story. In one of my own stories, The Blue Man of the Minch, the inciting incident is a young boy being sent down the hill to tell his mysterious (and alcoholic neighbour) that one of their cows is about to give birth. I choose this as the inciting incident – the boy going down the hill to see the neighbour – rather than the cow going into labour because what I was primarily interested in was the relationship between the boy and the neighbour, not the crisis of the cow getting into trouble. So when it came to the part of the story when the boy had to bring the neighbour back to help the cow, I had a choice about how much of the birth to show.

The writing group I was in at the time advised me to describe the birth scene, for the good reason that it would be very visceral and have tension. But I decided not to describe it directly because that would be diversion from the main story. Instead I cut between the boy bringing the neighbour up to his house and him taking him back down after the calf is born, because it kept the focus firmly on the relationship between the two them. I did refer back to what happened with the neighbour helping the calf to be born, but as a way of the boy reflecting on his new view of the neighbour rather than for itself. The result I think was to make the story tighter with all parts working to support the key theme, which meant it was a stronger story overall. I think the important point is that there are many possible inciting incidents to any story, and as a writer you need to think carefully about which one you choose because it should affect the way you subsequent structure and resolve the story, as well as your readers’ expectations of both.

Writing exercise

Take story from a newspaper and think about how you could reframe it to place the focus on a different angle of the story or a different character. Then think what the inciting incident would be for that story rather that the one reported in the paper. For example, say there’s a story about a hiker who got lost in the mountains, and that story begins when the hiker decides they don’t need to take a map and ends when they get rescued. An alternative story might be about the landlady of the hostel where they hiker was staying who told them they didn’t need a map because she was in a bad mood because she’d had an argument with her husband. That story starts with the argument with her husband and it might end with her husband covering for her when the police come to find out what happened or alternatively her husband leaving her because she is so disgusted with her behaviour. Either way, the resolution is to do with the relationship with the husband not the fate of the hiker.

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