Inciting incidents are the story events that pull the rug out from under your protagonist, knocking their lives out of balance. Listen to episode 114 to find out how to make the most of these upsetting happenings.
In this episode, I'm joined by best-selling author and fiction editor Valerie Francis while Clark is away. We critique the prologue of Shadow Falls, a thriller novel by Maxwell Perkins. Scenes are the building blocks of your story, but how do you know if an individual scene works? Valerie and I use Shawn Coyne's Story Grid analysis to look at what's working in this opening scene and how the author might make it stronger.
We have a special treat for you. The author is a professional audiobook narrator, and agreed to share a reading of his submission with us. We weren't able to include it in the podcast episode that aired, but we've included it here in the show notes. We're considering having professional narrators read the submissions in future episodes. If you have a moment, please let us know in the comments or at email@example.com if this sounds like a good addition to the podcast.
Listen to the Writership Podcast
Wise Words on scenes
Mentioned in the Episode
You can find the video about Ian Rankin's writing process here.
Want to learn more about Valerie? You can find her here.
Editorial Mission—Check Your Scenes
Review a scene in your story to discover whether it's working, and why or why not, by unpacking the six elements of a successful scene (You can see our analysis of the submission in the letter to the author below):
- Inciting incident: an action or coincidence that throws the main character in the scene off balance
- Progressive complications: the obstacles that get in the way of your main character's scene goal
- Turning point: an action or revelation that brings the main character to a point of no return
- Crisis question: having reached a point of no return, the character faces a choice of the best or two bad choices or two irreconcilable good choices
- Climax: the main character's choice
- Resolution: what happens as a result.
If you find something that’s missing or that could be made stronger, add it to your list of items you need to fix (rather than trying to fix it right away).
Editing Advice to Our Author
Thanks so much for your submission! Valerie and I both enjoyed reading your prologue and getting to know your characters and found that this scene had us fondly remembering Stand by Me.
I’m concerned after the fact that this may not be as helpful to you as we’d like it to be in light of the fact that the characters don’t appear again in the book and that we’re seeing this scene out of context more so than we normally do for a submission. I hope some of this discussion will be useful to you, though, if not with this scene than with others.
We looked at the scene through the Story Grid (SG) filter, and it’s certainly not the only way to assess a scene, but it’s one we’re both familiar with and that we’ve found helpful. I can’t speak for Valerie, but for my part this framework provides specific and actionable feedback that’s better than a vague sense of something’s not quite right here. Shawn Coyne developed this tool out of necessity. He needed a way to show authors how to fix their stories so that they could become best sellers because acquiring a certain number of successful books every year was a requirement of employment. But it also makes sense to me in light of what I know about story and where stories come from and why we tell them. I could go on about that, but this is meant to be a written critique of your scene. I could see how this might feel like unwarranted criticism, though, so I wanted to explain this.
I want to make it clear that in our assessment we don’t speak for Shawn Coyne, and this isn’t an official SG pronouncement. With these caveats, we present one way you could look at the scene using this framework.
The Story Grid has five commandments of story and one “little buddy”:
- Inciting incident: something happens that throws the character or world out of balance.
- Progressive complications: escalating degrees of conflict related to what the main character in the scene wants (sometimes to regain the status quo, sometimes something else).
- Turning point (little buddy of the second commandment): a point where someone acts or information is revealed that forces the character to make a decision.
- Crisis: the dilemma that the character faces that can be distilled this way: the best bad choice (like the lesser of two evils) or irreconcilable goods (two positive but mutually exclusive options).
- Climax: the moment when the character acts based on his decision.
- Resolution: shows the world after the character has made his choice.
If we look use this framework in the scene before us, we could break it down this way:
- Inciting incident: Mikey decides at long last that he will jump.
- Progressive complications: Depends on who the main character in the scene is. Anthony wants Mikey to jump. It’s not altogether clear what Mikey wants because he says he will jump, but then seems to have second thoughts. Our discussion on this point is pretty speculative.
- Turning point: This is another point where we’re not clear. Again, it depends on who the main character is in the scene. We get a closer view of Anthony, so let’s assume it’s him first. He wants Mikey to jump, and Mikey is stalling. If Mikey decides he’s not going to go, then we might have a turning point that requires some action on Anthony’s part to get what he wants, but Mikey never says he won’t. If we look at Mikey as the main character in the scene, there is no turning point for him unless, for example, he learns that there is a dead body in the water below.
- Crisis: This is a little confusing because we’re still left with the question of will Mikey jump or won’t he. Anthony doesn’t make the decision, and Mikey doesn't face a clear best-of-bad or irreconcilable-goods question (as far as we know because we’re not aware of what he’s thinking and feeling). Is he worried that Anthony would never speak to him again, for example? We don’t know what the consequences might be if he decides not to jump.
- Climax: Mikey decides to jump.
- Resolution: Mikey jumps. Jon has discovered a body in the water, which causes Mikey to vomit. This is where we would argue that the scene turns, but the conflict about Mikey jumping in the water has already been resolved, so this turn didn’t impact his decision.
Although I feel confident of this analysis of the scene, it doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. It’s your story, no one knows it like you do, and I’m well aware that I could have missed something. I also think that all the elements are here for a scene that works under this construct, that you could shift the discovery of the body, but you should do what feels right to you.
The analysis that I feel less confident about is whether this works as a prologue for your story because I don’t know what happens later to see how it fits in. My biggest concern, which we shared in the episode, is that the reader might wonder what happened to those kids from the prologue. Does that matter? It depends on what comes later. The only thing I would add after the fact is a consideration of Chekov’s gun, but again that could only be assessed in light of the whole story. If we had an omniscient POV showing the boys from a distance and revealing how sometimes things go wrong who saw the boys from a distance without our getting attached to them and noted how it could be dangerous (for the reasons cited), but that mostly this is a great place to swim, then that would appear to be more relevant to the overall story, but again, it’s hard to say without knowing where the story goes from here.
Thanks again for your submission, Maxwell! It presented a fun challenge for us!
All the best,
This Week's Submission
Image courtesy of [CREDIT GOES HERE]/bigstockphoto.com.
In this episode, Clark and I discuss point of view in our critique of “The Second Prayer: A Confession for the Dead,” a thriller short story by David L. Storm. Point of view seems like a straightforward choice. It's the filter through which the reader experiences your story: Each option has advantages and disadvantages and can produce vastly different results. If you have to change it in the revision stage, it's a big job, but worth it if you find the right POV for the story you want to tell.
In our editorial mission this week, we share a list of questions to ask when you choose the story's POV for your first draft and later during revision. Our author has graciously allowed us to include the entire text of his story, and you'll find that below, after the inline critique.
Listen to the Writership Podcast
Wise Words on Point of View
Grab an official copy of David L. Storm's The Second Prayer: A Confession for the Dead!
Editorial Mission—How to choose your story's point of view
When deciding and reviewing point of view, consider the questions listed below. No single factor should necessarily determine your choice. As Clark mentioned, when you’re deciding on a POV, it’s a great to experiment with different options. Try different characters as well as first, third limited, and omniscient to get a feel for how the story feels most natural.
- How many perspectives do you need? (The shorter the work, the more likely you’ll want to stick with one person.)
- Do you need an objective or subjective narrator?
- Do you need to contrast character’s actions? (As Nick Mamatas noted: “If a character’s thoughts match his or her actions exactly, the thoughts aren’t interesting and are probably not necessary to share.”)
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of each choice? This Writer’s Digest post lists the advantages and disadvantages of each point of view.
- Whose story is this? Who has the most at stake? Who changes the most as a result of the events of the story?
- Who has the best vantage point? Whose perspective can best convey the story to convey your controlling idea or theme?
- Who has the best and most interesting voice?
- Do you need more distance or intimacy? (You can adjust narrative distance within the POV, but this is accomplished far more easily in third omniscient than third limited and first.)
- Which character has a secret you want to avoid revealing early in the story?
- Consider the MICE quotient and who can best reveal the events of the story given the main factor in yours. (Not mentioned in the episode, but check out the advice for our author for a brief discussion.)
Editing Advice for Our Author
Thanks so much for sharing your story with us! “The Second Prayer: A Confession for the Dead” has a fascinating premise for a psychological thriller with so many great elements. The twist you have set up is spectacular and ambitious for a short story. I love that you’ve taken on this challenge!
Our biggest suggestion is to reconsider the point of view, including the character and possibly the type. Point of view is important in every story, but particularly critical when you want to reveal some facts and hide other facts. It’s hard to hear because this would mean a substantial rewrite, but you have stellar ingredients for a huge twist, and we suspect that a different point of view would make this powerful.
As Clark mentioned, we couldn’t think of any elements that we would cut or add (except that we think you could expand this into a novella or a novel)—our main advice is about how and when you reveal the events of your story.
The key to this can be found in your logline: Two people know why Jimmy stepped off the curb in front of a truck, and one is dead. Since Jimmy knows, he could simply tell us, and from his point of view, there is no mystery about why he did it. (Unless the story were about him waking up in the hospital and having no recollection of the facts of his recent past. But that’s quite a different story.)
The detective, Ben Sanders, doesn’t know why Jimmy acted the way he did, but wants to know so he can build a case against Jimmy in the death of Linda Belle. He’s a great character to guide us through the story and ask the questions we would want to ask.
Another way to look at it is through the lens of Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient story factors: milieu, idea, character, or event. I hadn’t thought about this before we recorded, so we don’t talk about it in the episode. I share a brief explanation here, but if you want to find out more, listen to episodes 6.10 and 8.20 of the Writing Excuses podcast and Karen Woodward’s excellent posts on the topic.
Within that system, you could frame this as an event or character story, but the logline and genre point to an idea story: Jimmy Grant had it all, so why did he step off a curb in front of a truck? And the reason this is important is that this single fact changes how we see everything in the story.
As written this is an idea story, so it begins with a problem to be solved (building the case) or a question to be answered (Ben must know why this happened). If the question were, how am I going to get away with this, then Jimmy might be the best POV character, but again the powerful twist comes from the question of motive, and Ben is the person in this story who wants to know that and with whom the reader is most closely aligned.
You have such a fantastic and inventive twist! Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this and for trusting us with your words.
All the best,
Leslie & Clark
Line Edits for Our Thriller Short Story
The Full Story
Image courtesy of luciezr/bigstockphoto.com.