Time for our monthly chat about writing, with fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson, and mentor extraordinaire Sydney Smith. This month we discuss plot triggers and try to define them.
What is a plot trigger?
Kath: A plot trigger (or inciting incident) launches the story. It’s the protagonist’s call to action – the thing that sets the story in motion and gives our protagonist a problem to solve. Anything before the plot trigger is scene setting, characterisation, back story, etc. A plot trigger can come in many forms. The discovery of a body, a letter in the mail, a desperate plea on the telephone, perhaps even a conversation or epiphany. For example, a husband suggests to his wife that they start a family. She realises in that moment that the last thing she wants is to be married with children! She packs her bags and leaves, and starts her search for the meaning of life.
Jennifer: A plot trigger is something beyond the control of the main character, which sparks off the story. A hurricane carries Dorothy’s house to the Land of Oz. Lucy discovers the wardrobe that leads to Narnia. A mysterious letter arrives at Harry Potter’s house. It changes the course of the hero’s everyday life and, as Kathryn says, usually results in some sort of a quest. It’s the reason why the author chose to begin the story on that particular day in the hero’s life.
Sydney: Sorry, Jenny, but we have to be really careful to distinguish between a plot trigger (an event that hands the protagonist a problem they have to solve during the course of the story, and which also activates an antagonist) and the event or situation that opens the story. The two can be the same thing – but aren’t always. The event that opens Pride and Prejudice is the news that a rich young bachelor has entered the neighbourhood. ‘What a fine thing for our girls!’ cries Mrs Bennet, starting her goal. Now she sets out to snare him for one of her penniless, unmarried daughters. But what is Elizabeth’s? It’s best to think of it coming in two parts. The first part is the realisation that her sister Jane is sincerely attached to Mr Bingley and vice versa, that their attraction is real and deep, and that she wants more than anything to see the pair married. This happens in Chapter 18, at the Netherfield ball. What is Mr Darcy’s plot trigger? It’s the appalling realisation, courtesy of Mrs Bennet’s boasting, that his friend Bingley has fallen for Jane, a nice girl in herself but a member of a shockingly vulgar family. He wants more than anything to prevent the match, thus keeping him free of lowly connections. That happens in Chapter 18, too, and constitutes the second part of the plot trigger. A plot trigger activates the antagonist as well as the protagonist who now has a goal to pursue. Mrs Bennet’s antagonist is circumstance – she has to plot and scheme to bring Jane and Bingley together. Hence the infamous episode where she sends her daughter on horseback to spend the day with the Bingley sisters. Jane is drenched to the skin, falls sick and must spend five days there. Elizabeth’s antagonist is Mr Darcy and she is his. Their opposition has been activated at the same time. He does everything he can to prevent the match while she does everything she can to promote it. Each creates an obstacle for the other; each stands in the way of the other as they seek to get what they want. This is a plot trigger. Or rather, it’s two plot triggers, those of Elizabeth and Darcy. They are vitally connected.
Why is it necessary?
Kath: Most novels are about a protagonist’s quest to get somewhere, find or achieve something. If it weren’t for the plot trigger, the quest would never come about. There would be no story. The recent animated film Frozen is about a girl’s mission to save her sister from herself. If the sister had stayed in her room and never exposed to the world her special yet dangerous magic talent, she wouldn’t have run away and the sister wouldn’t have had to go after her. In other words, we wouldn’t have a story.
Jennifer: Stories are about solving problems. A trigger is necessary to jump-start the plot and change the status quo. Without the arrival of a fairy godmother, Cinderella would still be sweeping the fireplace. If Jack wasn’t paid in beans instead of coins, he’d still be poor and living with his mother. Without that letter, Harry would never get to Hogwarts school for wizards.
Sydney: A plot trigger gives a narrative its aim and “point”. This is what the story is about. When a plot trigger doesn’t happen, or comes in too late, as is often the case in unpublished manuscripts, the reader feels confused and disconnected from the story. They don’t know what it’s about. They’re also bored because there’s no tension of a directed nature. This idea of directed tension is essential. A story can have loads of tension, but if it isn’t directed, the tension is wasted on the reader. A plot trigger focuses the protagonist and therefore the story and gives them purpose.
Do all novels have plot triggers?
Kath: I’m still thinking about it. Meantime …
Jennifer: They have to, don’t they? Something has to happen to set off a chain of events. Simply put, the protagonist then tries to solve a problem, and the antagonist tries to prevent him/her from succeeding. Every story I can think of works this way. Except maybe for stream of consciousness novels like Ulysses by James Joyce. It may have a plot trigger, but I was too confused while reading it to tell
Sydney: Yes, a novel must have a plot trigger to kick off the action. Even stream of consciousness narratives will have an external event that kicks off the internal journey – Mrs Dalloway plans to hold a party, for example. But since the journey here is of the consciousness, the plot trigger might not be dramatic – that is, bring two characters together on opposing sides of a problem. In stream of consciousness, the antagonist is part of the internal life of the character.
Kath, while we were discussing plot triggers before we started writing the blog, you wondered whether literary fiction uses plot triggers. I said they do. Jenny is on the button when she says why. But while genre fiction often has to stick to a convention in this regard, literary fiction can play fast and loose with its plot triggers. In crime fiction, the body has to appear in the first chapter, for example. In a romance, the hero and heroine have to meet in the first or second chapter. Science fiction has to do something sci-fi in its opening chapter, or feature sci-fi things like transponders or teleporters. Fantasy fiction must have fantastical features in its first chapter, like dragons or magical orbs or characters coping with a winter that is already ten years old. I call this stuff décor. Décor tells the reader what kind of story they are reading. Even though they have started reading it because the blurb has assured them it’s their kind of story, they want the reinforcement that décor provides.
Literary fiction has décor, too, but is harder to pin down because it’s doing other things. Likewise, literary fiction can play fast and loose with plot triggers, what they look like and where they happen. I talked about Elizabeth’s plot trigger in Pride and Prejudice, which happens a long way into the action, relatively speaking. There is a very good reason for that. If Jane Austen had set Elizabeth’s plot trigger in Chapter 1, she would have had a problem: how can she convince the reader that Jane is sincerely attached to Mr Bingley and vice versa? She’s got another problem: how can she convince the reader that Elizabeth’s hostility to Mr Darcy is real and believable, not merely a plot convention or device? Elizabeth’s hostility to Darcy is essential to the tension between them, and the tension surrounding their views on a match between her sister and his friend. If Jane Austen had put their plot triggers in Chapter 1, she would have lost the reader, who wouldn’t believe it. So she set up Mrs Bennet’s plot trigger to kick off the story and give it energy and focus until it was time for Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s to kick in. Notice that Mrs Bennet’s Machiavellian schemes re Jane and Bingley tail off after that. They are no longer necessary to keep the narrative ship on course. Jane Austen has to do a number of other things, too, before Elizabeth and Darcy can have their plot triggers, like bringing in Mr Wickham, whose plot trigger happens when he sees Darcy in Meryton and sets out to ruin his life socially in that neighbourhood. Everything Jane Austen puts in place before Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s plot triggers is essential to the machinery, if you like, of the novel, to make sure it all runs smoothly.
In Lolita, Humbert’s plot trigger happens when he sees the child he calls Lolita. This happens at the end of chapter 10, forty pages into the novel. Why didn’t Nabokov place it in the first chapter? Because without Humbert’s history of paedophilia and his justification for it, the plot trigger would have been meaningless. And yet the story needs to keep the reader interested before the plot trigger is pulled. And it has to be done in such a way that the plot trigger makes sense. So, Humbert describes his pursuit of sex with little girls, and his ignominious defeats, until he walks into a house in Middle America and sees Dolly Haze, the girl he plans to trample over like the Nazis trampling over Poland.
Kath: How clever of me to handball that to Sydney!
Sydney: Where would I be without your cleverness, Kath? Groping for something to say, that’s where!
Where are the plot triggers in your novels?
Kath: In my first novel, Rough Diamond, the plot trigger happens on the first page – the protagonist Erica Jewell arrives home to find a man bleeding to death in her front garden. There was a potential problem in starting this way because we didn’t yet know Erica well enough to understand her actions in this situation. Most readers were ok with it – my publisher certainly was – but if I were to do it again, I’d probably show Erica in her ordinary world first. That said, a high-octane scene to open is certainly a great hook for the reader.
In Monkey Business, we’re about 13,000 words into the story before the plot trigger (a telephone call) sends Erica on her mission to find Jack, who is missing in action. Because this is part of a series, and yet the novel must still be able to stand on its own, scene-setting and back story were important.
Likewise in Grand Slam (working title for no. 3 in the series). Again we’re over 10,000 words into the story before the trigger (an explosion on an oil rig). There are several sub-plots and it’s important to set those up before the action starts.
Jennifer: I believe in inserting plot triggers right up front, to capture the reader’s interest quickly. In my first novel, Wasp Season, the plot trigger occurs in the first paragraph with Zenandra, the European wasp queen, choosing a nesting site in Beth’s fallen tree. That’s when all the trouble begins.
In Brumby’s Run it’s in the prologue, when we learn that Mary had to give up one of her newborn twins for adoption.
In Currawong Creek it’s in the first chapter, when a four year old boy is left behind in Clare’s office.
In Billabong Bend it’s in the second chapter (late for me) when Nina meets a mysterious stranger at a masquerade ball. No, maybe it’s earlier. In the first chapter, when we learn that the rare wetlands along the Bunyip River are in danger, and that Nina is determined to protect them.
And in my current novel, Turtle Reef, it’s at the end of the first chapter, when Zoe gets a phone call offering her a job as a marine researcher.
Sydney: A plot trigger, if it’s to qualify as such, has to offer the protagonist a problem that gets in the way of their goal. After all, a plot is created by the protagonist working to solve a problem. That problem is embodied in the antagonist, or a group of antagonists. Elizabeth wants to see Jane married to Mr Bingley, but she must work on the problem created by Caroline Bingley and Darcy, who oppose the match. Humbert wants to get his hands on Dolly Haze, but must work against the problem caused by Charlotte, Dolly’s mother, who keeps edging herself between Humbert and the child. He also must work against the law: sex between adult and child is illegal.
If a plot trigger is to work, it must not only begin with an event, it must involve an antagonist. If those two things are not there, the event is not a plot trigger. It’s something else, which can also be important but is not the plot trigger. A standard example is a crime novel, which opens with a dead body. The corpse brings together the detective AND the killer, each of whom is working on opposing sides of a problem. The detective wants to find the killer, the killer wants to avoid detection. Thus, discovery of the body is a plot trigger. It isn’t a plot trigger if it doesn’t involve an antagonist.
Jennifer: I thought a plot trigger (an event) was different to an inciting incident ( the call to action that engages the hero). Although as you point out, Sydney, they are sometimes one and the same. Maybe I’ve got my definitions wrong.
Sydney: The term “inciting incident” comes from writing screenplays. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing terms from another form, as long as you keep in mind that it IS another form. In movies, the plot trigger comes in between eighteen and twenty-five minutes into the film. You can time it. Viewers come to expect this. It’s a convention of movies across the board, from genre to arthouse, from Hollywood to independent to European to Asian. Plot triggers in fiction are not so convention-bound, outside certain kinds of genre novels.
Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.