Revisiting the Novel, Plot, & the Inciting Incident


Two years ago I wrote about the plot of the American novel and the importance of the inciting incident(s) in The Millions. This post is a rewriting of that essay, charting a certain understanding of the novel’s plot from where I left it then to how I conceive of it now. The link to the original essay is here if you want it. –Matthew Salesses, Web Editor

When I was 23, I returned to Korea for the first time since my adoption. For a month, I lived in a love motel, in a room paid for by the school at which I taught, because the housing I’d been promised was occupied. I ate nothing but Frosted Flakes. I tried to gather the courage to give up and fly back to America. The only thing holding me there was the Korean woman who would become my wife, whom I met and began dating almost immediately.

Now, I’ve been told by many other writers that this story should be a book: the 20 pounds I lost over two weeks with Tony the Tiger, the red lights ringing the ceiling over my round bed, the way my wife saved me, my denial over why I was really there. But to me the story seems to lack something that would give it the shape of a plot.

This story is where I began writing about plot at first, for a craft talk on the inciting incident. I began with the thought that what was missing might be a part of my story I didn’t want to tell–the two years I spent in Korea as a baby, before I was adopted as a sickly toddler who couldn’t toddle or talk.


In trying to define plot, I turned at the time to E. M. Forster, which was how I learned it in my MFA. “The king died, and then the queen died from grief” is what Forster says is a plot. He wants to emphasize causality, and a particular kind of causality–a causality that comes from character. And in thinking about causality as plot, and in looking through my bookshelf for the inciting incident of my favorite novels, I found a curious thing back then.

The inciting incident–whatever incident int he novel began Forster’s type of causality–didn’t often begin the novel, wasn’t the why of a novel’s existence in place and time: think Nick moving to New York in Gatsby. Robert McKeen, the famous instructor of screenwriting, says the inciting incident disrupts the characters’ balance–that starts with Gatsby asking Nick to set him up with Days. Or rather, Gatsby asking Jordan to ask Nick to set him up with Daisy, which mirrors the convoluted arrangement of cars and drivers that [spoiler alert] results in Gatsby taking the blame for killing Myrtle and subsequently being killed by Wilson in what is probably the novel’s climax. The plot that begins here is the plot that brings Gatsby and Daisy back together and parts them after the accident.


About three months into my time in Korea, after I had changed jobs, my future wife asked if I wanted her to help me find my birth mother. The only problem was: I had been telling myself that I was not in Korea to find out anything about my birth family or my adoption, and this would change that. But eventually my wife got a lead, and we went to Seoul.

The offices of the adoption agency were in a basement. My wife and I sat in a meeting room with a cheap couch, one chair that an agent would soon fill, and a coffee table on which my adoption file would appear. My memory goes in and out here, so I must leave it behind and move toward plot. Likely I have some sort of mental block on this trip, which makes me want to recreate it as better or worse than it actually was. One way of defining plot is to say it’s the actions caused by a desire. But what if what we desire is plot?

I opened a manila folder to find the application my parents had sent to adopt me. In it were shocking secrets about my adoptive parents. But, as my wife translated, there was nothing about my birth mother. The agent said my birth mother had left me under a nearby bridge. I was found with a note that said, Give him to someone rich. A policeman gave me a name and took me to an orphanage, but the orphanage had burned down, so it, like my birth mother, was unrecoverable. My wife questioned none of this. I didn’t question it, either.

Later I would find out from other adoptees that they were told similar stories: of orphanages that no longer exist, of utter abandonment, and yet through a detective or lawyer or policeman, they were able to find much more. I knew nothing about that then.

As the agent was gathering everything back up, absentmindedly, ready to put us behind her, I spotted a post-it note stuck to the folder. It had gone unseen, hidden against the table. As the folder lifted away, I snatched the note and dropped it in my lap as if I was brushing away a fly, or as if I just wanted to touch my file one last time. The agent smiled at me as if she could understand this urge and had seen it before.

In thinking about the architecture of inciting incidents, it may be useful to work my way backward from the climax.

Again, in Gatsby, there is a kind of mirroring, the game of telephone to get Gatsby and Daisy together and the game of who was driving whom that gets Gatsby killed. Will Gatsby and Daisy recover their old love is the question asked in the inciting incident and answered in the climax. One can make the case that the inciting incident is a kind of collision between the past and the present. That was the case I was trying to make in 2015, when I was publishing a novel that turned out to be haunted by adoption.

I may have met my birth mother on a cold January day in Seoul, with a wind full of coming snow, my wife pressing my arm to keep me calm. My birth mother may have been a short woman with a scar along her cheek-line, bright hurt eyes, a jutting chin, a wide, flat forehead. I wondered what the scar was from. I have mysterious scars on my legs and I wanted to ask her about them, whether they were from before she left me or whether, as I have always suspected, something happened to me in the orphanage, perhaps connected with my inability, at age two, to walk and talk. I didn’t ask. Instead, I did what seemed natural: shifted my feet awkwardly, tried to stay out of arms’ length, and cried.

My birth mother wanted to hug me, seemed sure about her feelings, whatever they were. But I wasn’t sure. I was still so damaged. I had hidden away any dream of this moment so far inside of me that it was a long, drawn-out process to pull my expectations, my fears and desires, back out into the open air. What I had for my birth mother was tears. What I wanted from her was meaning. I was glad my wife was there, and yet I wanted badly to be both alone with my birth mother and alone myself, so I could work out what I was feeling and let the feeling be more a reality than the person.

It doesn’t matter what we talked about, because we talked about nothing and everything, because we never talked, because what are words, really, what is real and what is made up?

That is where I left plot two years earlier. I have used Gatsby as an example of a kind of Western novel. I pulled ten random British and American novels from my shelves and the same collision of past and present appeared–and I have found this over and over again, even in a book like Harry Potter, where the past is an entire magical world/lineage to which Harry didn’t know he belonged. Older books in this model were what I read as a kid, where a child stepped through a door into a world in which they’d always belonged–they just didn’t yet know it existed.

A writer friend said once that this recreation of the past in the present seemed a very Western approach to storytelling. I wonder if what makes it seem so is a kind of individualism–Forster’s focus on causality that comes out of character.

Forster is drawing on an Aristotelian idea of plot, something like actions that come out of the individual quality of a character, that plot should not be things that befall a character but things that happen because of who the character is. The queen is someone who loves so strongly she could die from grief. But this is all pat of the project of the individual–Aristotle was displeased with the tragedians of his time, for whom plot was the things that befall a character, and for whom character was how one reacted to the things that befell him, as the gods made play in the lives of humans.

It was only after my birth mother had taken my wife and me back to her apartment that we understood what was written on that post-it note. I am making this up. Mother does not want reunion. Why had my birth mother told the agency that, or why had someone written it there and left it for me to find? Why was my birth mother acting the opposite now, as if she had always wanted to see me? I looked around the apartment as these two Korean women spoke the language of my birth, which I couldn’t understand. Their lives seemed so far away from me. My wife pushed my birth mother for more, as she had pushed the agency for more. It is a small room, and the clean, thin walls press close, but what those walls really are, borders between me and my past, are unbreachable still. I look up at the white florescent lights along the four edges of the ceiling, terrible lighting that recalls the red lights in the love motel.

In the end, my birth mother told my wife that she had always been ashamed, and there were reasons, plenty of understandable reasons. She admitted that she was pretending and she would rather not do this, that she wasn’t ready for me yet. I let her, and will always let her, go.

What happens when causality is an outside force? The king dies, and then the queen dies, because the world is cruel. Or because an army invades. The prince, because he sees power as a thing held by the invading nation, grows up and moves to that nation, but is hated there by the place he has come to desire.

Milan Kundera, in The Art of the Novel, suggests that Kafka’s idea of plot is action caused by being trapped in a system. And he writes that Kafka did not predict the future of the Czech Republic, only explored one possible way of seeing the world we live in.

The novels that I read, about children who step out of our world into a world ordered around them? What if that world never exists for someone? What if you step into a world ordered around someone else–even as a kind of fantasy in an act of the imagination? what if you step into a world ordered by an idea of plot that does believe that certain characters’ qualities can exert control on the action of their lives?


When my wife and I were told at the adoption agency that my birth mother was unavailable, we went to the bridge where they said she had left me. It was an overpass. Cars went by overhead. We got out of our taxi and then walked down below. The road going under followed along a river or a stream, and seemed largely untraveled. I thought it would bring something back to me, or at least bring something up–but I felt nothing. There were two large water stains on the wall, and I thought, That was where she left me, though I had no proof or memory. Later I would question whether she left me there at all or whether that was only a convenient story. It might be said that I was lucky someone passed by and found me, and brought me to the police.

A lot of coincidence goes into bringing me to the place where I am now. A lot of outside force. What if what we want is a plot that says the individual can order his own life? But what if what we have is the evidence that this is not representative?

Eventually my wife and I returned home and assessed our trip to Seoul. The evidence pointed to nothing for certain. I had come from a Korean woman, that was true. I could see in my own face always a little of her. In the mirror was still everything, all the nothing, that I knew about me. Yet at least I was really seeing myself, at last–as a person in a certain environment, a being in the world. I had fooled myself into thinking that I was in Korea to teach English to Korean kids, that I was only staying for my relationship, that I couldn’t eat anything but Frosted Flakes because I feared for my stomach and not for my identity. I had fooled myself into thinking that I could control what I did and why.

I had an apartment now and not a room in a love motel. I looked up at the ceiling and there were no red lights. I had a girlfriend who had done everything to help me see myself. I still had my life to live, I mean. A change might have happened on that trip, past might have met present, but what I had to do next was keep living in Korea in the wake of something that had both ended and not ended.

I am working on my third novel now, which is titled The Murder of the Doppelgänger and is about, well, the murder of a doppelgänger, and the narrator’s attempts to solve that murder and figure out why this other version of him seemed to live a much better, more model life, and yet ended up dead. The book is engaged with inhabiting a world and an identity that are out of one’s control. It is about, in part, the Model Minority Myth, and what happens when a person creates a simulacrum of the individual, where the death of the other self goes. It is about what happens when the world is a powerful force and we still have to be in that world, and have to become.

As research I have been reading a number of Japanese novels in which a trauma in the protagonist’s past orders the way she sees the world. In these books, places and characters are projections of the protagonist’s interiority. The world reflects them. I want to ask the question, what happens when the trauma is collective? What happens to plot when a character’s psychological projection is not reflected by the world?

Where I have found something closest to the plot I am telling is in kdramas, where a closed circle of time controls the fate of the present. Where a cultural understanding of fate is a powerful enemy and a reason for desire.

More specifically: shows in which lovers who had a bad fate in the past get reincarnated and have to escape the force of time and destiny (and who they are and what that means about whom they love and what decisions doom them and so forth)–in which they and their enemies share a past–and to make individuality from this collective trauma is extremely difficult and means resisting the larger force of a set history and identity. How do you fight what your fate says you are?

I made up a lot of the personal story that unfolds in this essay. A lot of it didn’t happen. My narrator is another doppelgänger.

I was adopted when I was two. That is me. I went back to Korea when I was 23. Whatever those first two years of my life were like does indeed always seem to be the missing link. But I had to invent to plot. And I had to face the greater forces that have ordered my life in order to understand causality in it.

What is imagined in my story–though–was and is real to me. The shame that I gave my imaginary birth mother is real. That shame is mine. And letting her go: I did that, I do that. Assessing lack, the things outside of my understanding of the events of my life, is a daily look in the mirror. Of course I have had to replot my story before and will do so again. A rethinking of causality is so important to the story of who I am and to any plot of conviction, creative resistance, and becoming–so important that these things constantly draw us in: how a story develops and what part we have to play in it, how we react in the face of actions we do or do not control.

–photo: Flickr/Thomas sauzedde

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