Cathy and I went to the zoo yesterday. On the way, we went to Menards to exchange some landscape lights that had stopped working. Then we stopped at McDonald’s so Cathy could get a sweet tea. We parked in the lot at the zoo and then walked to the entrance and scanned our tickets. Easy peasy.
So far, we don’t have a story. We just have a sequence of events, none of them remarkable in any way. In fact, we won’t have a story for quite some time, and then we’ll only barely have one. At the end of the day, as Cathy and I were walking toward the exit, a zoo volunteer driving a golf cart stopped and asked if we wanted a ride. My first thought was, yes, please. Then I thought, wow, when did Cathy and I get to an age that such assistance was warranted?
Here we have what could be considered an inciting episode for a short story. By inciting episode I mean something that happens that sets a significant sequence of events in motion. Notice, I said “significant.” In other words, the sequence of events that follows must have a profound effect on the characters involved. Anything less is merely anecdote. Stuart Dybek’s story “Sunday at the Zoo,” for instance, begins like this:
We decided to stop drinking and spend Sunday at the zoo. It was going nicely until she worked herself up over the observation that it was a horrible thing to cage the animals.
“That’s not very profound,” I said, “everybody who goes to the zoo feels that sometime.
“Oh, you cruel bastard,” she screamed. “I’m not everybody.”
She bellied over the guardrail and flung herself against the bars of the wolves’ cage.
The story of the zoo volunteer and her offer of a ride to Cathy and me could be an inciting episode because it caused a shift in the way I looked at myself. I’m sixty-five years old, and I think I’m in pretty good shape. I run four miles every other day, and, in fact, had done so prior to leaving for the zoo. I certainly didn’t think of myself as someone in the need of rescue.
So we almost have a story. We have a character for whom something has become unstable. But do we have a significant sequence of events? No. Cathy and I accepted the ride, and outside of a brief conversation about how weary we must have looked, nothing between us changed. We got in our car, and on the way home, we stopped for Indian takeout and had a lovely evening.
But let’s say the kernel of discontent caused by the volunteer’s offer of assistance rubbed against us more than it did in real life. Let’s say, I declined the volunteer’s offer out of pride, and Cathy said to me, “I really think we should,” and I told the volunteer to go on, adding, “Spend your time with someone who really needs your help.” So now we’ve got Cathy and me trudging on to our car in silence, and let’s say that earlier that morning when I ran my four miles, I half-joked with Cathy that she should have been exercising as well. Now, she’s carrying a resentment she didn’t even know she had until the memory of that morning met the fact that I refused the ride, leaving Cathy to make that walk, and she’s mulling all this over as we look for an Indian restaurant, and I go in to order, and when I come out, Cathy and the car are gone, and I end up having to walk home, knowing that something has risen up in our relationship, something ugly and profound—something significant.
This is how to think of stories. Open with something that sets the narrative into motion—something that requires your main character’s action, something out of the ordinary. Let the action be significant. Let it burrow down into the lives of your characters to the places they’ve kept submerged. Let what rises because of the pressures of the narrative events bring your main character to a different way of thinking or feeling about another character, themselves, or the world around them. Beginning with an inciting episode will invite significant action and lead to something profound rising at the end.