Writing Exercise: Inciting Incident Part 2

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My book club this month read “The Poppy War”, a grimdark fantasy novel based on Chinese history.

Its inciting incident leaped out to me and made me think about the 5/24/2022 Writing Exercise on inciting incidents. deconstructing it in my mind.

WRITING EXERCISE: Using a novel you are reading or recently read, take apart its inciting incident. (The manuscript used needs to be at least novella length and the first of the series, to give the inciting incident a reason for being.) Comment below what book you chose and why. Review the previous writing exercise for details about inciting incidents.

My attempt

As I said, The Poppy War inciting incident stood out to me … because it had so little to do with the rest of the story. It could have been removed from the book and virtually nothing would have changed … except it is the pebble that starts the avalanche. 

Quick review on what an inciting incident needs:

(One) Early in the book – check. Aside from the opening flash forward, the marriage proposal starts the book.

(Two) Disrupts the status quo – This is where the marriage proposal becomes important. While life truly is horrible for our protagonist, she is well used to it at this point. She works the shop, protects her little brother as best she can, and knows how to manipulate her adoptive mother enough to avoid the worst of the abuse. Being married even to someone in the same village, will change everything in her life, and not for the better as far as she can see. Especially at 14, to a twice divorced older male. Big disruption.

(Three) Not under the protagonist’s control – And this is where the inciting incident of the marriage proposal is different from her waiting for answers on the test she took. Rin chose to start studying for the Keju test, she arranged for her professor, she took control of her life to take the test. Even while waiting for the answer to the test, everything related to it was under her control. But the marriage proposal, nothing was under her control. Her adoptive mother wants it, the marriage maker didn’t even consult her, her possible intended never talked to her. 

Similar to the inciting incident in Harry Potter is receiving the letter. Nothing in his life ever prepared him for this. But the Sorting Hat, while seemingly not under the children’s control does listen to them and is influenced by Harry’s wish not to be Slytherin. In the Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident is the tornado. 

(Four) Forces a difficult choice – Rin chooses to take the Keju, and then further, chooses to leave home. While the leaving everything she knows behind is as disruptive to the status quo as the marriage, the difference is the protagonist chooses this “Call to Adventure”.

Oh, wow. I figured why the inciting incident bothers me so much. Usually the Inciting Incident for fantasy is a “call to adventure” – something that leads the person into the magical world. But in Rin’s case, she isn’t so much responding to a call as avoiding something unpleasant. The inciting incident so mundane, it doesn’t match the normal expected Call to Adventure or other Fantasy magic. In fact, the inciting incident is so hateful to her she twice uses it to whip herself down a path when things get rough. Anything was better than going back.

In conclusion, the inciting incident of The Poppy War stuck out like a sore thumb, different from normal fantasy and not really fitting in to the rest of the book, and yet it meets all the classic needs of the Inciting Incident – including and especially the fact the marriage proposal wasn’t under her control,