A taxi driver sits waiting for a fare. A 12 year old girl gets in and begs him to drive away. Before he can, the girl’s pimp pulls her out of the taxi and throws a crumpled up bill at the driver…
A romance novelist crashes his car in the snow and is rescued by his biggest fan…
A lovesick young Montague crashes a masked ball thrown by the Capulets, and falls in love at first sight with one of them…
Every story starts with an inciting incident – something that throws the lead character’s life out of whack. It can be causal or coincidental. It can be positive or negative. But whatever it is, its defining quality is that the character cannot just ignore what has happened and get on with their lives. They must respond.
And since story is nothing if not a metaphor for life, it shouldn’t take you long to find a few of these in your own personal history. You might not discover anything worthy of an Oscar-winner, but unless you’ve lived under a rock all these years, things have happened to you that forced a response from you.
You met somebody and found yourself unable to stop thinking about them. You were hired. Fired. Required to drop everything at a moment’s notice to put out some fire that was nothing to do with you in the first place.
Nobody – in a story or in real life expects an inciting incident. They are, by definition, unwanted and unplanned. And yet when they come – no matter how much they threaten to destroy everything you hold dear, how sick they make you feel, how much you wish you could go back in time and prevent them happening – they always turn out to be the greatest gift you could ever recieve.
Why? Because they force us to move. And we don’t like to move.
Human beings are incredibly conservative. We rarely do anything unless we absolutely have to. And so during “ordinary times” – so long as nothing too big happens to us – we can tell ourselves things like “Well, things are okay, really. I might not be living life exactly the way I know I should, but… it’s fine. Honestly, it is. Don’t look at me like that – I’m happy!”
You’re not. Not really. But until things get bad enough – or weird enough – to force you out of your rut, you’ll stay in it. This is not a failing. This is human nature. We can either act or avoid, and it always always feels safer to avoid. So we bumble along.
And then BAM! Something gets right up in our face and throws us off course. We can’t ignore it. We can’t pretend it’s not happening. We have to act. And so, like magic, we do, no matter how reluctantly.
And guess what? It’s always better on the other side. I don’t mean that we always “win” or “succeed” – we’ve both seen enough films to know that that’s not true. What I mean is that in having to respond to an inciting incident, we unearth the existence of this whole incredible person we’ve been keeping a secret. We glimpse the true potential, and realise what we’ve been burying. We win, even if we lose.
I suppose my point today is that we don’t choose the inciting incidents of our lives. We don’t choose what they are, how big they are, when they hit us, or why. They choose us, in every sense. But we do choose how we will respond to them.
Will you ignore them until you absolutely can’t, and then do the bare minimum through gritted teeth, resenting all the whilst what life has handed you, and whining about “This isn’t how things were meant to be…”?
Or will you realise how you thought things were “meant to be” was a lie? Will you say “I didn’t choose this and now that it’s here I wish it wasn’t, but it is, and I’ll be damned if I’m going down without a fight…”?
Most importantly, will you allow your inciting incident to sculpt you into the person you were always meant to be?