Friday, March 16, 2018

Finding the Best "Triggering Event" for Your Book--How to Launch Your Story

In two weeks, on Friday, March 30, I'll be teaching an all-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  We'll examine book structure:  what makes a book successful, in terms of its structure, and how can you choose the pivotal moments in your story wisely?  Many books are beautifully written but poorly structured, and many writers haven't a clue as to how to fix that. 


In the workshop, we build storyboards.  These might be very developed or very rough--idea stage--depending on where you are with your book.  Some writers have an entire manuscript drafted but can't tell if it's hanging together well.  Others want to get started, they have a good idea and some writing or no writing, and a storyboard can be the perfect activity to help them "brainstorm" their book's flow.  It's very exciting, by the end of the day-long workshop, to see how many "books" are in place now.  Storyboards make a writer realize how real the book is--sometimes for the first time.

One of our most important conversations in the workshop is about triggering events.  I thought I'd share a post from my current online book-structuring class, to give you a preview of the workshop and an exercise to try, if you'd like to make sure you have the best possible launching moment for your story.

Robert Frost famously said, "Poems begin with a lump in the throat."  He went on to describe the beginnings of the best poems as always about something lost, homesickness or lovesickness, a longing.  This is, of course, the inner-story motivation for whatever happens in your book.  It triggers movement by the
main character (novel), the narrator (memoir), or your reader (nonfiction). 

The outer aspect of this "lump in the throat" is called a triggering event.  Because literature must show us, not just tell us about, story, the inner motivation must be demonstrated in outer event.

So the triggering event, which launches your book, will be born of inner movement, but it will always be demonstrated through an outer event.

Outer events can be dramatic, or they can be everyday, but they must be delivered to the reader via outward action, dialogue, and a specific moment in time and space.

Check out the opening of favorite books to see how other authors do this, especially ones published within the past few years.  Check out what you might be thinking for your opening and see if it follows these criteria.

Of course--there are exceptions!  Some well-loved authors begin slowly, and the triggering event comes within the first few chapters.  But you'd be surprised how many manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers because "nothing happens" right off.  Readers nowadays are geared to events, action, and seeing stuff happen--before they know the background or meaning. 

And--it's a balancing act.  We have to care about your story, your characters, and their dilemmas, so there has to be some meaning embedded.  Triggering events are both outer story and inner story for that reason.  You have to choose well.

So what kind of outer event makes the best triggering event?

Something happening now, in the present-time story, onstage before us readers. 

We need to witness it ourselves, not be told about it secondhand.  It's not summarized, usually--"ten years passed" or "it was a week before we . . . ."  They are immediate, now, right in front of us, onstage.  That's the ideal to shoot for.
Some writers wonder if their best triggering events can be in the past.  This is less ideal, but possible.  Most really great books launch with an  event happening now, not a memory or backstory (events in the past) or an internal decision. 

Sometimes, if a backstory event precedes the story and is vital to the story, the author creates a prologue. 

But, bottom line:  a triggering event must be demonstrated outwardly, so readers can see and feel its effect on the character.  Best option is to choose an event in the current time of your story, where the story begins. 

I like to think of the triggering event as the launch-pad for a book.  Without it, none of the book can happen.

Some examples of triggering events:
Novel or memoir--A fire, an accident, a discovery of letters, a phone call that changes everything, a birth or death, something lost that will need to be found, a mundane everyday happening that changes everything, a wedding that has a hint of something not right, an impulsive action that is embedded with regret, a move, a starting over.

Nonfiction (how to, or informational) book--An anecdote about someone who needs the material in your book, such as a disaster or problem that occurs in a business, a person’s “lowest moment,” a loss of something valuable, a dilemma that is puzzling.

Your weekly writing exercise
Brainstorm three possible triggering events for your book.  You may already have one in mind, even written.  Make sure it follows the criteria above, tweak if it doesn't, consult your brainstorming list if your chosen triggering event is way off base or too internal. 

Think over the guidelines above:  is it outer story, is it happening now, is it dramatic enough to launch the rest of your story?


  1. Choose one of your triggering event possibilities.  Set your phone alarm or kitchen timer for 20 minutes. 
  2. Freewrite about the cause and effect of this opening--what might come of it.  List ten things that happen as a result. 
  3. Then check to see how many of these are embedded in subsequent chapters
If you'd like to join me at the storyboarding workshop on Friday, March 30, and get feedback on your triggering event ideas, here's a link to the Loft Literary Center's website to find out more.  I'm also teaching this workshop in Boston at Grub Street on April 21 (link is here).