As I'd mentioned in last Wednesday's post, I've recently begun work on a new novel, and a large part of that beginning process for me involves creating a beat sheet (like the one found in Blake Snyder's Save the Cat!).
While discussing this new project with one of my CPs the other day, and also discussing one of her works in-progress, I was trying to explain why it's vital to understand the difference between the inciting incident and the catalyst.
Because they are easily confused. They both push major plot events into motion, and they both occur in Act I.
Also, you can't create an effective catalyst until you have a solid premise. All of these things fit together seamlessly -- the inciting incident, the catalyst, the premise -- in a well-structured story, and therefore, are of major importance when crafting a pitch.
Act I of your beat sheet looks something like this:
Inciting Incident (opening event that marks a change)
Set-Up (everything from the opening to the catalyst, which includes the inciting incident)
Catalyst (introduction of a new person, place, thing, or a specific event)
Debate (forced to make a choice now -- should I do this or shouldn't I?)
Break Into Two (decision to move forward into Act II, the meat of the premise)
Let's start with basic definitions of the terms "inciting incident" and "catalyst."
to incite means "to stimulate or prompt into action; to provoke"
So an inciting incident has to happen at the very beginning of a story -- it is the initial change in the main character's world that stimulates his/her story into action. In my humble opinion, the inciting incident should be clear by the end of chapter one.
Have you ever read the first chapter of a novel and thought, "Nothing has happened yet. Why should I keep reading?"
That's because a lot of *things* can happen in an opening, but if those things don't stir anything up, don't change something in the character's world or viewpoint (either external or internal), don't incite anything... then you really did read a bunch of nothing happening, as far as the story is concerned.
The inciting incident gets the story moving. It's the initial push.
The catalyst occurs a bit further into the story (not too far in, though; usually by page 25-50, generally speaking), and you should understand why that's the case just by reading a basic definition of the term.
a catalyst is "a substance that accelerates a reaction"
In story terms, "substance" in the above definition can equal a person, place, or thing... or, usually, a specific event.
So, let's say you're in your car and you need to get somewhere. Your inciting incident would be putting the key in the ignition and starting the car. After that you might adjust your mirrors and your seat, set the temperature, find your favorite radio station -- all of that is your set-up. But you won't go anywhere until you put the car in gear and press your foot down on the accelerator.
That's your catalyst. It gets the story going where it needs to go, at an accelerated pace. It's the second push.
You can also think of it like swinging on a swing. The first push from the person standing behind you gets you started, but you don't really take off until a later push, after the momentum has had a chance to build.
Then you're soaring. There's no way out of it. You can't slow down and get off without riding out a few big swings first. And that's what the catalyst of a story does, too.
When the catalyst hits your character/s, they are forced into the debate part of the story. The debate gives them one last chance to back out before the meat of the premise takes over in Act II. But they can't decide to back out without first going through this debate that the catalyst has thrust upon them.
Once the catalyst is introduced, there's no way out but through. It can rightly be called the point of no return. That can't be said about the inciting incident, because it's so close to the beginning that there are still many avenues the character/s can take to avoid whatever lies ahead in the story. But the catalyst corners them and forces them to make a hard choice.
And this is why it's so important to know what your exact premise is. Because the inciting incident can force a character into a certain situation, yes, but it doesn't necessarily force the character into your premise.
For example, in the move Due Date, Peter's story gets an initial push from the fact that his wife is only days away from a scheduled delivery of their first child, in Los Angeles, while he is on the other side of the country for a business trip. He has to get back home quickly or he'll miss the birth. At this point in the story, he has a lot of options to choose from in order to accomplish that goal. Nothing has really been forced upon him yet.
This has nothing to do with story structure but it's vital enough to storytelling to mention here -- your lead character has to have a goal from the very beginning, and that goal has to be relevant to your premise in some way. Because if he/she doesn't have that, then they won't be proactive enough, have the necessary drive, to lead their own story.
The introduction of Ethan's character is an appropriate catalyst because it comes about by chance but is still crucial to the plot. (When you start to really analyze story structure you'll notice that the best catalysts are not a direct result of the protagonist's actions/choices, but are more a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the result of someone else's actions/choices.) It also brings the two main characters together into a situation they can't evade without making a hard choice, one that will thrust them into the main premise of the story.
While on the plane, a horrible mix-up (inadvertently caused by Ethan) forces them both off the plane, and also removes Peter's access to pretty much any other way to get back home. (If I remember correctly, his wallet is confiscated for some reason.)
The inciting incident (Peter on the wrong side of the country at the worst possible time) is accelerated by the catalyst (Ethan getting them kicked off the plane), making the conflict even more intense than it was before the catalyst was introduced.
Peter is faced with a choice now -- either accept Ethan's offer to drive him back to Los Angeles (even though he wants to get as far away as possible from this person who caused this major problem for him)... OR, don't get back home in time for his child's birth.
It's a tough choice, but it's still a choice. And once Peter makes the decision to go with Ethan, they are thrust into the meat of the premise -- this wild cross-country road trip with a time limit -- and Act II begins.
All three of those elements (inciting incident, catalyst, premise) work together to hook the audience into the main draw of this story.
If you're having trouble defining your catalyst, it is likley because you don't have a solid premise yet. (personally, this has been the case for every story that I've struggled with)
In Due Date, the movie is about the journey to get to Peter's wife in time. The inciting incident places him in the worst possible location to realize that goal. The catalyst paves the way for an insane roadtrip.
In order to define your premise, you first have to know what type of story you're telling.
In just about any buddy story (like Due Date) or any basic romance, the catalyst can be the introduction of the "other buddy" or the "love interest." OR a specific event that forces them into a situation together.
For example, in Dumb and Dumber, a classic buddy movie (*sigh* why am I using all of these hokey comedies as my examples today?), the two buddies already know each other very well at the start of the story. But there is still room for growth in their relationship. The catalyst, then, thrusts them both into a situation in which they must work through their differences and solve the problem together.
But what if you're telling a story like Jaws? Simple. Everything stems from your premise.
The basic premise for Jaws is "a group of people stranded in open water must survive the repeated attacks of a rogue shark." The inciting incident puts the protagonist/s in the worst possible place -- on their boats out in the middle of the ocean. And then the catalyst thrusts them into the premise by stranding them with a blood-thirsty great white shark.
edit: (silly, Lydia, that's Jaws 2. get your movies straight)
Once you have a solid premise in mind, Act I of your story practically writes itself. Because the sole purpose of Act I is getting the protagonists to the heart of that premise. It's much easier to create an appropriate inciting incident and catalyst if you have a specific situation in mind that you're pushing the character/s toward.
And if you ever forget what the catalyst is, or confuse it with the inciting incident, just think of this guy.