To write a great story, the first thing you need is a framework. You need a structure. These are the bones of your tale. This is called the narrative arc. And while it can have variations, it mostly follows the same basic form. Imagine you have a sheet of paper in front of you, or you can actually get one and a pencil if it suits you. Now, draw a straight horizontal line that’s roughly an inch long. Above it, write “scene and setting.”
This is where you meet your protagonist and the world in which they live. You find a hobbit named Bilbo living under a hill and making tea. You find a young orphaned Harry Potter living under the stairs of his aunt and uncle’s house. When you establish the scene and setting you establish who your protagonist is and what normal life looks like for these characters. Now this part is important because it will make what comes next more powerful. So what I want you to do now is write “establish normal” underneath the line you drew.
I also want you to really consider your protagonist. What kind of character are they? What are their motivators? Bilbo Baggins seemed perfectly content, though a bit neurotic, living in the Shire where nobody ever went on any adventures. Harry Potter wasn’t content at all, but felt trapped and alone in a bad situation. Or, you could have an Ebenezer Scrooge character who is introduced alone and bitter during Christmastime and is someone who seems to get the most joy being a villain by spreading his bitterness to others. In fact, it’s gaining joy out of hurting others which is the primary characteristic of any villain. Causing pain is their single biggest motivator.
Now, pick up your pencil and starting from the right end of your last line, draw a line three or four inches going up and to the right at an angle, like you’re going to draw a pyramid. Now draw an arrow pointing to the spot where your first horizontal line intersects with your new line. Call this spot the “inciting incident.”
The inciting incident is crucial to a good story and very often the hook. The inciting incident knocks normal off its feet. This is where your protagonist encounters something that forces them to make a choice. The inciting incident is a wizard and a bunch of dwarves showing up at Bilbo’s door asking him to go on a quest. The inciting incident is a giant named Hagrid kicking down a door and telling Harry he’s been accepted to Hogwarts. It’s Marely’s ghost visiting Scrooge in his bedchamber in the middle of the night and warning him of the fate that awaits him if he doesn’t seek redemption.
Whatever the scenario, the inciting incident forces a decision for the protagonist to make the choice of walking out of the door of the known to pursue the unknown or sticking with the status quo.
But, whatever that choice is has to be significant. It must be something that requires total commitment which will ultimately reshape the protagonist. Joseph Campbell called this the hero’s journey. In most stories, things happen in the extremes because in order to reshape the protagonist, whatever they pursue must be difficult to obtain. Nobody wants to read a story about a guy sitting in his living room playing a video game when his TV dies and he’s required to drive to the store and pick up a new one if he wants to continue to play his games. While a choice may be involved, there’s absolutely nothing transformative about it.
As McKee writes, “For those protagonists we tend to admire the most, the Inciting Incident arouses not only a conscious desire, but an unconscious one as well. These complex characters suffer intense inner battles because these two desire are in direct conflict with each other. No matter what the character consciously thinks he wants, the audience senses or realizes that deep inside he unconsciously wants the very opposite.”
This is Bilbo Baggins, publicly stating that he absolutely did not want to go on any adventures, but internally the idea called out to him in a place within his soul that he didn’t fully understand, but understood in time that he desperately wanted. He wanted it bad enough that he was willing to leave the comfort and security of Bag End for a long and dangerous quest with a group of strangers.
It’s that desire for the thing that the protagonist comes to understand that they want which pulls them forward. Maybe it’s treasure, maybe love, maybe glory. Maybe they don’t fully understand what it is that’s calling to them. But, for Bilbo, it meant there was a dragon to face. Where Captain Hook fled from the proverbial dragon that pursued him, Bilbo ran to meet his head on.