What is the inciting incident that sparks a memoir? This question might apply to fiction writers too. It is any turning point in a life. For memoirists, Kaylie Jones says it’s the moment ‘the rock came through the window’; the day one’s life went ‘careening out of control’.
The inciting incident is a great place to start. Once we’ve identified our salient moment, the stage is set for unfolding of the narrative.
I might joke that I have an inciting incident every day (J). But for the purposes of memoir, it is the event that pertains to that one particular story you are writing.
Pat Conroy, author of The Death of Santina, begins with the day his violent, fighter pilot father moved the whole family interstate on the eve of Pat’s graduation from his much beloved school. Cheryl Strayed pulled up stumps on her waitressing job after the death of her mother and the disintegration of her marriage, deciding to trek The Pacific Crest Trail alone.. Wild – according to the memoir’s blurb – is a ‘A Journey from Lost to Found.’
My ‘brick came through the window’ in a less visible moment when my dying, ex-servicemen father turned away from me on his hospital bed. In that instant I realised that my writing about the plight of returned soldiers and their families, was really about my relationship with him.
The inciting incident might be a little harder to spot in a work of fiction. Yet there must be an observation or event buried away somewhere that lies at the heart of the author’s idea, Together fiction and non-fiction writers will, each in their own way, nudge life’s narrative forward – as do our poets. More on them another time.