The impact of the instigating event can be crucial when telling a story.

I finished reading Brown Girl in the Ring earlier this week. It’s a dystopian urban fantasy set in Toronto. The story revolves around the world of Caribbean mysticism/magic and how some of the residents of the – now largely abandoned – city, use it to survive.

When it comes to the main characters, the dialogue is rich and evocative. I did find it a little hard to get into at first, but this was mostly due to being unfamiliar with the dialect.

I really started to get into the story by the halfway point – because that’s when the instigating event actually impacted the characters I’d come to care about.

The incident that kicked off the story – the fact that officials were hunting for a donor organ for the Governor – didn’t interest me. The characters involved in that part of the story seemed to exist simply to create the plot point. I didn’t care what happened to the Governor (although I did like seeing the character again at the end of the story).

It didn’t seem to fit with the story being told in the following chapters.

Do books need a strong instigating event?

 

So, I didn’t really like the way the book kicked off. Still, I stuck with it and ended up loving the story and the characters. Does this mean that the instigating event isn’t really that important after all?

It kind of is.

  1. It’s the initial shot of adrenaline that kicks the story into action. It can form the basis for the entire plot.
  2. A good instigating event helps us form a connection with the characters. At the start of Brown Girl in the Ring we know that: (i) an obnoxious person needs a new heart (ii) other obnoxious people go to some sort of scummy crime lord to procure said heart. We don’t care about any of these people.
  3. The rest of the story needs to flow from it. Halfway through Brown Girl in the Ring, the fact that the nasty politician needs a new heart suddenly has emotional impact. But not everyone will hang around for that long to discover why they should care about something. It feels like the different story elements didn’t come together until a couple of chapters too late.
  4. It needs to be powerful. It needs to give you a compelling reason to keep reading (or watching, or playing). It needs to at least make you want to know more. In The Walking Dead, a man wakes up alone in an abandoned hospital. We don’t know Rick that well, but we want to find out what’s happened just as much as he does. The world’s as alien to him as it is to us, and that’s a powerful opening to a story.

I’m glad I kept reading Brown Girl in the Ring, and I’ll admit, I did have to force myself to keep reading during the early chapters.

Strong instigating events can give stories the momentum they need to keep going until the first plot twist, a weak opening, however, can leave readers wanting something more.