What If?

Module Three in Donald’s storyline conference is called, “Inciting Incidents.” The writer in me loves the alliteration in those two words and I also like that the first word is often a misnomer used by little kids for “exciting.” It’s a cute play on words.

In stories, characters don’t take action unless they have to. Bilbo Baggins had no desire to go on an adventure — “Nasty disturbing things! Make you late for dinner!” But Gandalf marks his door, nonetheless, and deftly selects him as the lucky 14th member of the dwarves’ quest. All of sudden, Bilbo finds himself being shoved out the door without any pocket handkerchiefs and off he goes.

Harry Potter would have continued to just be the kid bullied at school if Hagridhadn’t shown up to whisk him away to Hogwarts.

Rubeus Hagrid
Rubeus Hagrid

In the Bible story of Joseph, the inciting incident is Joseph sold as a slave and taken into Egypt. In the Godfather, it is when Michael’s father gets shot — until then, he didn’t want to get messed up in the “family business”. In Gone With the Wind, I would say the inciting incident is when Ashley marries Melanie — all the rest of the novel is Scarlett’s scheming to get him back.

People tend to seek comfort, security and stability, and unless some action or person throws their lives into upheaval, they stay the same.

People look at other people’s lives and say, “I wish my life was exciting like theirs.” But, they may not know that an exciting life is just an inciting incident away.

Sometimes, inciting incidents happen to us. We lose our job. We have a car wreck. We meet someone. Someone invites us to somewhere amazing.

But especially in America, we insulate ourselves from this possibility. In many ways, we are like hobbits — we like our first and second breakfasts and hate to be late for dinner and when faced with an adventure … we tend to discount them as nasty, disturbing things!

The secret of a life that is also a good story is this: we must open ourselves up  to inciting incidents. We prep ourselves to say ‘yes’ when the moment comes.

And, if opportunity fails to knock, we own the power to create our own inciting incidents.

I met a darling older lady at one of Paul’s art shows. She said, “I always said I wanted to travel. One day, I realized that I was saying the same old thing all the time and I hadn’t even bought a passport. I went and got one. A week later, someone invited me to Brazil in a week and since I had my passport, I had little excuse to say ‘no’. I had just gotten hired at a new job, but I decided that this was too good an opportunity to pass up. I told my employers that I was going and made the necessary adjustments. I ended up meeting important political officials, staying in palaces, and doing things I could never have imagined before I bought that passport.”

An inciting incident is buying that passport.

It might be writing, “Chapter One” at the top of a paper. Or, it might be putting money down at a recording studio to record that song. It could be buying the ring and proposing. Or saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question. It might be ending a relationship and walking out the door.

In Module Three, you’ll list inciting incidents that force you toward the ambition you defined within each role.

For example,

Writer: I’m going to write the novel. I’m going to finish it. I’m going to set a deadline and follow it. Then, I’m going to a writer’s conference and pitch it to someone.

Wife: Paul and I have built our lives on dreams of adventure. We bought our passports last summer. Next, we need to get out of the states. Inciting incident might be buying the plane tickets.

Mother: I started to plan dates with each of my girls, one-on-one. Then I got distracted. I should start it again. For some reason, relationship building with them as a group doesn’t offer the relationships I want with each of them. I must set aside alone time. I must not allow my time with them to fill up with tasks. The daughter in front of me is the focus. If they are important to me, they should see it by the time I lavish upon them. I don’t want them to be boxes I check off. I don’t want to them to be “my duty”.

Friend: Fun usually comes last for me. To me, having fun is getting things done. Task-oriented, I tend to view that coffee date or that trip out-of-town as an “interruption”. C.S. Lewis says, “Life is the interruptions.” I must open myself up to the many “interruptions” that come my way and participate fully in them, without guilt or impatience. I want to relax and feel the joy and peace with friends or family. Taking a break from being inside my head helps my thought processes to flow smoother. I never walk away from “friend-time” empty-handed. I’ve always gained something important to my life.

Inciting incidents are all about taking action. A list of inciting incidents should contain action verbs:

leave, go, take, jump, run, dive, speak, pray, buy, sell, talk to, dance with, enroll in, sign up for, write a song for, tear down a wall, plant a tree, rent a jet ski, bring flowers to

A great way to stimulate inciting incident ideas is to play the What if? game.

The What if? game is a tool writers use to get their stories moving. What if my character quit his job? What if my character popped the question?

By doing this, a writer can choose a potential new direction for his story.

The key is to brainstorm without judgment. Ask yourself What if? and let loose. Allow the ideas to be as crazy as you like. Want to connect with your daughter? Buy her a pony, take her to NASA, sail around the world. No ideas are off-limits.

From there, you’ll actually narrow down some inciting incidents that are exciting yet actually doable.

What if I took the summer off from running the kids around to finish the book?

A good quality example of a Dartmoor Pony. The...

What if I took Elsa on a trip to visit her dog we had to give away?

What if I bought a pony for Dagne?

What if I played basketball with Ingrid?

What if I signed Greta up for an open-mike night and watched her sing and play?

What if I signed up for a writer’s conference? What if signed up for a webinar? What if I went to New York to visit a publishing company or an agent’s office just to learn about the business? What if I wrote to another writer I admire to ask for advice?

What if we took a trip around the states?

What if we left without ever intending to come back?

What if I bought tickets to Italy for Paul and me? Positano? Mmmm. Or maybe Mexico — kayaking in the Sea of Cortez?

Vue de Positano depuis la Plage

What if we said goodbye to teaching?

After brainstorming, I should narrow the inciting incidents to things  I can actually do.

1) Plan that trip with Elsa

2) Sign Dagne up for horse-riding lessons

3) Play basketball with Ingrid

4) Take Greta “busking” — just learned that word — it’s when musicians play on the street for money.

5) Sign her up for an open-mike session.

6) Buy a passport for Greta. Over the course of the next year, buy a passport for Ingrid and Dagne.

7) Go on a trip with Paul, just the two of us. We can’t afford to get out of the states, yet, but we can still go kayaking somewhere cool. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Enjoy it!

8) Sign up for a writing webinar. It’s less money and less risky. I should just try it.

9) Take a trip through the Redwoods and visit Scott and Dawn in Santa Cruz for a birding/surfing expedition.

I have a list of inciting incidents. Next, I should take action and do them! Donald says,

To make a story happen, the character has to do something. It’s time to jump into a better story!



  1. Danielle – I can feel your excitement radiating from this blog post! These lines are so powerful: The secret of a life that is also a good story is this: we must open ourselves up to inciting incidents. We prep ourselves to say ‘yes’ when the moment comes. Well said. I am excited to share in the next couple of weeks how I am saying yes myself!


    1. Thanks for letting me know what speaks to you. You probably know that writing can sometimes be a shot in the dark. You can’t read the expressions on people’s faces like when you speak. There are no cues to let you know if what you say has any effect. Giving me this feedback is helpful. I’m excited to hear what you say ‘yes’ to.


  2. Danielle!
    I was just having the “inciting incident” conversation with my husband last night and working on my own post about this bee in my bonnet. I’ve been enraptured by Donald’s phrase for months now…looking for an “I. I.” under every rock and around every corner. I love your list…they are completely DO-ABLE and like I said when I was at your home, if there is a family I see flying a “faith flag” and headin’ out on the open road of the US,, it’s you all. What incredible memories for your family!

    Our I.I is a mission trip to Nicaragua next summer with our church. We will be working with rescued girls from the dump. I plan on photograhping every single one of them and printing a portrait for them right there on the spot. Mygirls want to make art with the girls. This experience is almost too far away…I feel something more drastic vibrating in my bones, but I’m not sure the timing with my family is right…all I can do is pray, I guess.

    Love reading about your goals….love seeing your precious list. You are fan-tab-u-lous. ox


    1. Have you seen Waste Land? Artist Vik Muniz collaborates with Brazilian garbage pickers who mine treasure from the trash heaps of Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho landfill for an art show. I love how he uses art to spark social change. I visited the Guatemalan community that lives in the dump. Two women started a school there for the children — they feed them two meals and teach them. Wonderful time. How exciting that you are going to go! I think that printing a portrait for them is a wonderful idea — letting them see themselves from another perspective helps them to see beyond their world and opens them up to possibilities. It makes them aware of their story. Thanks for reading and commenting.


  3. This might be my favorite in your recent series. An inciting incident, taking a risk; it is difficult but the rewards are significant. I guess without knowing it I created my own by going to Italy and it has made me write. It helped me discover what I truly love in life and what I really want in life.
    I want to write and therefore need to take the seminar you took. I want to travel and so I must be willing to put my money towards that. I want adventure which means I need to stop staying at home. I want to own a farm and now I know that farm needs to be in Italy not here where I no longer feel at home. I want to love and be loved and that means all kinds of risk which is never easy for my personality. I want to be a great mother; someone my kids admire, someone others look up to and someone who was dedicated to her children.
    All of these are attainable. Thanks for the motivation to do something about them.


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