Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fiona Harper on writing: triggers, catalysts and calls

Last time we looked at our main characters' 'ordinary worlds'. This month we're going to take a deeper look at just what propels them out of those comfy little ruts and into the unknown world of the story.

There are lots of ways to define the moment in a story when the action really  kicks off - trigger, catlyst, inciting incident, call to adventure, opportunity... Different writing gurus use different terms, but there's a common thread running through the various ideas on the subject. We're talking about the moment when something 'out of the ordinary' happens to our hero or heroine, offering them a chance to take a path they've never travelled before, offering them the chance of an adventure.

This can be a dramatic moment, full of trauma for the character, or it can be a seemingly innocent event that has much wider ramifications once the story starts to unfold. It can happen on the first page, or some time after. For example, I recently read Room by Emma Donoghue. There was quite a long 'ordinary world' section to this book, but that made sense to me. Her protagonist had a unique story world and way of understanding himself and his life, and it was important to set that up before the rest of the story started to play out.You just don't want to leave it too long, because watching your protagonist doing their everyday stuff can get a bit dull. You just have to work out what works for your book.

Blake Snyder, author of Save The Cat, calls this moment the catalyst. The OED defines a catalyst as "a person or thing that precipitates a change". Whatever it is that's going to happen to your protagonist, it's going to upset the balance of their life. I've also seen this moment referred to as a trigger. The OED says one of the meanings of trigger is "an event or occurrance that sets off a chain reaction." I like that definition. Plots, by their nature, are a structure of cause and effect events, so basically this moment is the first domino that falls that will push the rest over, one by one.

And what is the force that drives a good story? That's right - conflict. So this catalyst moment should also kickstart the conflict for your characters, because its not until the last domino of that conflict falls and comes to rest that your story will reach its climax. Robert McKee, author of Story, also says this trigger asks the 'story question'. Will Indiana Jones find the treasure? Will Chief Brody catch the shark? Will Mr Darcy get over his snooty appraisal of Elizabeth Bennett? Will Romeo and Juliet's love survive against the odds? These are all different story questions asked by various different story triggers. If your trigger doesn't start something that's central to your plot, there's something missing! So don't forget to ask.

I often ask myself what event really started my story rolling, because it's good to know where it all begins so that when you pull that story trigger, the bullet leaves the gun with enough force to propell the story forward. What event, I ask myself, if I removed it, would cause my protagonist to trundle on his ordinary world unchanged. Once you know the answer to that, you know where your trigger is.

However, I've sometimes found there's a confusing disconnection between the event and when what Christopher Vogler calls the Call to Adventure happens to my character. In my current book, the 'inciting incident' would be the letter that my heroine's grandmother sends her, asking her to help out an old friend. This happens before my story even starts. However, it's when my heroine receives the letter, that the plot is set into action. To take an example of a story where the trigger and the call are even farther removed, let's think of French Kiss again: the trigger event is when Kate's fiance Charlie falls in love with a 'goddess' on his trip to Paris, but we don't see this on screen, even though there are hints that something is changing, and Kate doesn't find out for quite a few days.

Basically, the start  of the chain reaction can happen off the page, before the story starts, even. What's important is that readers see the moment this chain reaction interects with your protagonist's life. That's right. The important bit is when it gets personal for your hero and heroine, and it's vital that we don't rob readers by letting that happen backstage. If that chain reaction passes your character by, hardly impacting them, then either you need to choose a differnt protagonist, or you need to change your plot!

In French Kiss, Kate has already refused one call to adventure by the time the film starts. Her finace is going to France and wants her to go with him. Kate tries to get over her fear of flying but admits defeat. If you remember from last time, we said that Kate's world was all about being safe, keeping everything held closely to her. So just that offer of adventure is not enough for her. It's not until Charlie phones and says he's fallen in love with someone else, that Kate's neatly planned future is now in tatters, that she's ready to answer the call and go to France. Without that event, Charlie would have come home and they would live their safe little lives, and Charlie would have always had itchy feet.

Kate, in effect, gets a 'double call' - she's offered the chance once, refuses it, but when the stakes are raised she reluctantly accepts. This may not work in every story, but it works in this film. Kate refuses everything new, so it was going to take some significant shoving to get her out of her rut!

Look out for next month, where we'll be talking about how your protagonist is going to react to this event that is threatening to turn their lives upside down!


Fiona Harper's latest release The Ballerina Bride (US title)/Dancing With Danger (UK title) is available now at Harlequin, Mills&Boon and Amazon.

Ballerina on the run!
Prima ballerina Allegra's spent her life on stage. But now there are whispers that the superstar's lost her sparkle… So when she's offered a week on a tropical island, for survival expert Finn McLeod's TV show, she leaps at it!

Finn's frankly unimpressed—how will this fragile-looking girl survive life in the wild? But for Allegra, it's not the island that's the problem, but her all-consuming crush on the unavailable Finn! Gorgeous on TV, close up he's devastating—and Allegra's hours of disciplined dance practice are useless when it comes to resisting temptation….

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