Wednesday, July 1, 2015

What is the Inciting Incident?

What is the Inciting Incident?
Imagine this:
     Presumed Innocent
  • Your name is Rusty Sabich.
  • You’re the prosecutor for Kindle County.
  • There’s been a death.
  • It’s someone you know – a recent but past lover (yes, you’re married) has been found raped and murdered.
           (Your world is not in chaos yet –until. . .)
  • Analysis shows that it’s your semen that was found in her.
                  Yikes! Is your world now upside down? You bet. 
This is, of course, the starting point for Scott Turows great novel - Presumed Innocent.

The above scenario is what called an ‘inciting incident.’
Sometimes it’s called an “exciting incident.” Before it, there is relative peace and equilibrium in the lives of the protagonists. The inciting incident changes that. Dramatically (literally). It’s the reason for the story in the first place. The rest of the story is the protagonist solving the problem, regaining the lost equilibrium.

Repeat: The inciting incident is the reason for the story in the first place.  

Here's an inciting innocent on the first page of a book I'm currently reading.
"I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. I could have beena bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I say: a small human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water."
Does this paragraph get your attention? This is from Sara J. Henry's Learning to Swim.  Does the protagonist jump in to save the child?  (You'll have to read the book.)  Does it change her life completely?  (No surprise there. Yes.)

Or, take Hamlet: What is the inciting innocent?  It's when, upon the death of Hamlet’s father, his mother immediately moves to marry his father’s brother. Hamlet goes mad. His world is upside down. The rest of the play is Hamlet trying to turn his world right side up.

Product Details

Oh, and what about Joe Turner? Remember him – the Robert Redford character in 3 Days of the Condor? He goes to work one day, in a downtown Brownstone, at his usual job as a CIA reader. Fine. He has his life. He has his love interest. He has his great job where he reads things -- looking for ideas that might help the CIA. 

What can go wrong? (Your kidding, right?)
Product Details

Joe Turner goes out the back door and comes back with sandwiches for everyone in the office. But they are all dead. Massacred. His life is turned upside down. Who can he trust? (It’s the CIA after all.)  Are they really after him? What does he know that endangers him? The rest of the story is Joe Turner battling the CIA (in ingenious ways) to right the turmoil in his life. (If you haven’t read it or seen it, you’ve missed a terrific story.)

Or The Godfather. The normal equilibrium of the Corleone family is gambling, prostitution, and murder. Hard for them to have an inciting incident, yes?  But there is one – when the Godfather himself is gunned down in the street. That sets the book and the movie in motion, and the rest of the story is the family trying to save him and right their world.
 The truth will sock you in the guy.Does the inciting innocent have to be violent?  No.

“If you build it, he will come.” Yikes! It turns the Iowa corn farmer into a tizzy.  What’s next? As he tries to make his dream real, the story builds and builds and builds. Neighbors reject him. His family thinks he's crazy. His farm is going into foreclosure.  But it was premised on the inciting incident --this one simple sentence, If you build it, they will come.

Oh, and the great book Grapes of Wrath. Here the inciting incident is the dust bowl during the depression. It turns the Joad family’s world upside down, forcing all of them into one car to make it to California (their own field of dreams.)

Does the inciting incident have to be negative: No

Take the terrific novel by Steven Smith - A Simple Plan.  The inciting incident is the finding of money. Lots and lots of it. Nice! Good news, yes? Not so fast. 
Product Details
The chain of events that lead from finding the money turns everyone’s world upside down.  The rest of the story consists of the characters trying to right their world so that they can survive.

Are there rules for the inciting incident? Here’s 5:
     What Happens When the CIA Gets Inside Your Mind?
  1. It should come fairly early in your story (10-15 pages), along with the development of the genre, first scene, and characters. 
  2. It pulls the main character(s) into the plot.
  3. It has to be of sufficient interest to the reader – actually hook him or her. 
  4. It has to provide enough energy to sustain the story.
  5. The inciting incident has to be satisfactorily resolved at the end of our stories.  (Of course, the ending must be a surprise, but logical. And, it must give the reader what he or she wants, but not in they way they expect it.) 
Homework: As we read our books and watch our films and TV shows, look for the inciting incident. 

  • Identify where it is placed in the story. 
  • Does it interest us? 
  • Does it pull the main character(s) into the story? 
  • Is it violent or nonviolent.
  • Do we care? 
  • Why do we care? 
  • Does it provide enough energy to launch the story?
  • Does it sustain the story through to the end.

If we study like this, we are examining other stories to see what works, and what doesn’t. It’s just one way that we become better writers.

 a love story of suspense

Monday, June 1, 2015

What is Backstory?

What is backstory?

Let’s face it, you have issues. Or you had them. Or you’re still working them out. You know which ones—the unresolved conflicts from childhood, from a bad marriage, wounds from something you saw as a child or an adult. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that as an author, you can use them. 

The reason some novels aren’t as compelling as some other novels is because the characters’ don’t have their own issues. They only do things and say things. They fall in love. They fight crime. Or they fight the law. They have great sex. Or weird sex. They quit their job. They fight with their husbands or wives or parents or friends.

And our readers don’t feel them. They aren’t real.

Your characters must have issues. Something haunts them. Or they have a fatal flaw. Otherwise they are not all that interesting. They are, as is said in the business, like cardboard characters.

What is backstory?  Backstory is everything that happened before your story starts. It’s the subtext to your story and what your characters do, and in a lot of cases, it explains your whole story.

In other words, your story doesn’t begin at the beginning. It begins before the beginning.

Your backstory doesn’t have to be said.
Text is what you say. Subtext is what you don’t say, but which is there nonetheless.

Take Batman, for example. We know that his backstory is the reason he does what he does, the reason he is the dark knight, the reason he is morose and even depressed; Bruce Wayne is the person he is because, as a boy, he saw his parents gunned down by a small-time criminal. Right then, before Joker, before all the other villains, Batman begins. 

These murders are the subtext to each episode whether on film or comic books. In some episodes the murders aren’t even mentioned. They don’t need to be. Even if we don’t know the backstory at all, at some level we know that something is wrong with him. Perhaps wonderfully wrong. We might not know exactly what it is or why, but without a past like that, there would be no person like that. Batman has big issues.

Or take the suburb novel In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. It’s a tame title to what is definitely not a tame story. It takes place in Minnesota. But John and Kathy Wade’s backstory is clear: Vietnam. No, not the Vietnam we think we know. The backstory of John Wade in Vietnam doesn’t just move the story forward; it launches. The war we’ve all heard about, and maybe are tired of hearing about, is a stunning backdrop to a wholly different and utterly compelling story.
What happens when the CIAgets inside your mine?

In my novel, OperationFantasy Plan, Peter Gaines is kicked out of the CIA after 17 years and he doesn’t know why. He can go forward now, and see Yellowstone, Rushmore, all the places he’s never seen in the country which is his own, but which he hasn’t seen because he’s been operational in so many other countries

But something haunts Peter Gaines. Something he did in Thailand. Years ago. He realizes that he can’t go forward with his new life yet. First he has to go back and undo something he’s done.
That’s the backstory. The rest is the story going forward, and what unravels for him personally as well as internationally as he tries to right this single terrible wrong.

How do we build a backstory?
Begin by considering your own issues, your own backstory. What makes you tick? What makes you different? What makes you write? What draws you to what you read? What are your quirky personal habits? Your quirky sexual habits? What causes you to be lazy? Or to work hard? What don’t others know about you but nevertheless makes you who you are? 

Then Interview your characters:
What is their home background? Geographical location, parents’ history, interactions with parents, family problems such as alcoholism, molestation, inability to be affectionate, playing around. Or were the families of your characters perfect, hardworking, honest, unafraid, thrifty and brave. Probably not. What flaws do they have? Make a list--one, two, three. What is their economic background? Has family fortune gone up and down? Down and up? Just down? What political views do they hold?  What religious views? What is their formal and informal education? What do they read? Or, perhaps don’t read. That’s important too.

What are your characters afraid of?  Something as simple as spiders? Or maybe snakes, like Indiana Jones. Or are they afraid of success? Or failure? Or marriage? Or divorce? Or death? Or the law? Or maybe God?

 "The truth will sock you in the guy."
"The Truth will sock you in the gut."
What values do your characters hold? What do they hold dearest to themselves? What do they consider right and wrong? What line won’t they cross? What are they looking for in a friend or a lover? What kind of person are they attracted to?

What is the most significant event in your characters’ lives? Start by asking yourself what the most significant even in your life is. Loss of a parent? Some other physical or emotion event? A time at war? A time when you came home from war? The finding of a loving partner? A marriage? Or loss of a loving partner? The loss of a job. An especially humiliating event?
Remember too, that while others may not know us well, our own personal backstories are always with us. They are present to us, but hidden from others. To write real characters we have to be our own psychologist as well as the psychologist of our characters.

Don’t make your characters’ issues too familiar. Struggles with alcoholism, for example. We’ve read that story enough times. If your main character is an alcoholic, he’s going to have to be really different in some other way.

Often we build our characters backward.
We start with a person and a setting, and see how they react to some event. We let them surprise us. Often they do. Then we go back and try to explain to ourselves why they acted that way.  And as we go forward with the story, the character we thought we knew may surprise us again, or may change, become violent, or more loving. Then go back and build the reasons he or she has done what they’ve done.

The backstories of our characters don’t have to be overt at all. They don’t ever have to be fully spelled out.  But we have to know what they are because we have to understand them. If we write well, our readers will feel the presence of the backstories even if we haven’t spelled it out for them.
This is the story of
what really happened to Madeleine

It is sometimes said that our characters are really pieces of their authors. Perhaps that’s true. But if it is true, and if our story is fiction and yet with authentically human troubles and faults, our readers will find their own backstories inside our stories. Then our readers won’t just be looking down at the page. They will be drawn into the story itself, even hooked, because we’re reminding them of who they are, as well as showing them who our characters are. 

Peter Gilboy 

Friday, May 8, 2015

How to Write Great Dialogue through Subtext

How to write great dialogue through subtext

The son finally returns home. He's been away at war.
He opens the door. His father is at the breakfast table.

      Father: I thought you were dead.
          Son: I was in a POW camp.
      Father: Why didn't you escape?

Just three lines from the film Maria’s Lovers and we know the heart of this father-son relationship—that the son is never good enough.

Did the words say that? No.

But it’s clear anyway.

That’s subtext. That’s what makes a good dialogue even better.

·       A good story is never about what the story is about. Or let me say that differently: A good story is never about what it’s about on the surface.

In this film, Maria’s Lovers, a lesser writer might have used flashbacks to show the father was disappointed in the son for not measuring up—at a ballgame, when getting grades back, etc.  

But subtext said it better. In this case it laid their relationship bare in just three lines. Now the writer can get on with the plot—what’s going to happen in the story.

·       Subtext is like an iceberg. The reader sees only the “top” of what is said, but is made aware of the hidden mass below which isn’t said.
   John: I’m sending you something.
  Stella: Does it smell nice?
   John: No, but it’s sparkly.
  Stella: Does it come with a receipt? 

That’s from The Italian Job. Stella didn’t say—I know you’re a thief. You probably stole it? I don’t trust you. I’m exasperated with the work you do.  But we get the meaning anyway.

·       Subtext hints while straight-text tells. And because it hints, it engages the reader because the reader knows that something is hidden. The reader is let in on the secret. Have you heard this one?

“Not tonight, honey. I’m tired.”

Here are three famous lines that reach far beyond the words themselves.

“What if this is as good as it gets?”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

In the last line Vito Corleone is really saying that he’s in control and that he get what he wants. The reader feels the tension. His or her mind races forward to all sorts of possibilities. Bribe the guy? Maim him? Yikes, kill him? 

No, it’s worse. It’s going to be a dead horse in the guy’s bed. But the writer made us wait for it. And we knew it was going to be big. The subtext added tension. It added depth to the story and the character.

What happens when the CIA gets inside your mind?
·       People don’t say what they mean.

In some cases the subtext might not reveal its true meaning right away, but it will as the plot develops. Take, for example, a husband who is growing softer and fatter by the day. He’s gained 40 pounds. At dinner he asks for another helping of turkey and potatoes.

Wife: “Are you sure you want more?”

Lots of possible subtexts here: Maybe she’s unwilling to confront him for the sake of the marriage. Maybe she’s physically afraid of him. Maybe she’s really saying that she wants her attractive lover back. We’ll have to read further.

·       Subtext can also be through action, or inaction.

If a boy pulls a girls hair, does it mean he doesn’t like her?

If at a party, a man glances at a woman’s cleavage and then approaches her, what is he really saying?

·       Often the subtext depends on the context:

If Francis Underwood, the character in House of Cards, tells you, “Don’t worry, you can count on me,” it means something very different than if your mother says it.

And this:
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up in a minivan.
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up in a red BMW
-          Phil watched as the blond pulled up on a motorcycle.

There’s only one difference between the above sentences. And in each sentences we assume something different about the blond. That’s also subtext.

·       Subtext is understood

Does Vito Corleone ever say that he loves his family? That he’s looking out for them? That he’ll do anything for them?

No. It’s already in the subtext of each scene. For him to say actually “I’ll do anything for you,” would be redundant and even absurd. The audience might actually out loud. Besides, “I’ll do anything for you” or “I love you” would add nothing to the story or to what we already know about the character.

·       The plot is what happens in the story.

·       The subtext is what’s really happening.

 Mary: "Do you love me?"
             John opens the refrigerator door. 
 John: "Of course."

·       Subtext shows conflict and reveals character without saying it.

        Son: “Why can’t I go to college?”
    Father: “You think what I do isn’t good enough?”

        Wife: Where are we going on our vacation?
Husband: We went someplace last year.

Girlfriend: “Did you kiss Betty?”
Boyfriend: “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Employer: You catch up on your work?
Employee: I’m getting there?
Employer: I hope so.

Girlfriend: “You gonna take me to the prom?”
Boyfriend: “Why is that so important?”

    Father: “How are your grades?”
                      Daughter: “Grades aren’t everything

 Nobody in the above instances answered the question. They said something else. And in saying that “something else” they revealed more about themselves than if they had answered directly.

·       Subtext is subtle. It points to a meaning without saying it.

          Art student: “Pretty cool oil painting I did, isn’t it?”
          Art teacher: “I really like the way you use red.”

The well-known writing teacher Robert McKee has said: “If your characters say what they mean, then your story is in deep sh**.”

·                 Subtext deepens our characters.

·                 Subtext deepens our stories.

The truth will sock youin the gut
But we already know subtext. We use it every day.
Yet when we sit down to write, it may escape us.

So, how do we learn to write in subtext? Simply listen carefully to what real people say. Maybe hang out at Starbucks, get a vente cappuccino or whatever and find a comfortable chair and eavesdrop on conversations. Or eavesdrop at the checkout stand. Or in your kitchen. Best of all, we should listen to how we ourselves speak.

Okay, but how do we write it!
Write down (or think about) what the character really means: “You really gonna to marry that slob?

Then say it like people really say it: “Are you sure about him?”

Here’s a familiar dialogue:

                                             What is said                      The Subtext
Guy: “Want to come up for a drink?”    “Let’s have sex.”

Girl: “Long day. I’m really tired.”           “I’m not sure.”

Guy: “You sure?”                       “I don’t care. I’m horny.”

Girl: “Maybe another time.”                  “Don’t push it.”

                                        I'll end with this one:
   Husband: Was it good for you too?
       Wife:  I’m speechless.
                     That's subtext.


"Yes, I know Madeleine's missing. But I can explain that. I can explain everything