In the Eight Point Structure, the character starts in Stasis (“this is how things are”), and the plot goes into motion with a Trigger. Just like pulling the trigger on a gun, something big and dramatic happens. It may not be a large physical action, but it disrupts the stasis and starts something previously outside the protagonist’s experience.
A story’s Trigger is often the thing we say when we first describe a plot to someone else.
A farmboy is fixing a robot when it projects a hologram message of a woman asking for help.
A flower girl overhears a man bragging that he can teach anyone—even her—to speak like a lady.
A young man sees his father's ghost. The ghost says “I was murdered—prove it and bring the killer to justice.”
In a story, the Trigger is typically in the first two paragraphs. In a novel, it’s in the first two pages. Unless you are deliberately employing a different structure, pull the trigger right away. Browsing my shelves for trigger examples, I noticed something powerful. Book after book, the trigger was in the FIRST LINE. Right there—Wham! Keep reading! Something amazing just happened!
“They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that's not how it happened for me.” (Before I Fall)
“A sealed envelope is an enigma containing further enigmas. This particular one was of the large, bulky manila variety with the name of the laboratory stamped in the lower left-hand corner.” (The Flanders Panel)
(I haven’t even read The Flanders Panel yet, but I bet that envelope sets it all in motion.)
Many novels start with the trigger and then flash back to the stasis:
“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.” (The Secret History)
We find out the college student narrator, Richard, and his friends killed Bunny in the next paragraph. The author flashes back and whips through Richard’s childhood, then gets the narrator off to college on Page 5 (it's a 524 page book).
What makes a good Trigger?
A trigger is Simple.
It is Unexpected.
Concrete - something very specific is happening.
And it Kicks off the story.
Start Simple. ONE incident that is a case study for what's wrong in the character's life. Les Miserables is enormous and dense, there are four or five major plot lines; even the abridged versions are huge. But each plot line starts with simple triggers: a woman is knocked up and abandoned. A man steals a loaf of bread. A dying woman asks that her daughter be found and taken care of. Two young people fall in love at first sight.
Triggers are Unexpected because they’re different from what always happens. Start the story with the moment of change—in playwriting, this is also called the Passover Question: “Why is this night different than all other nights?”
Most hide and seek games are normal; today I went into a closet and found a snowy forest where I had tea with a mythical creature. (The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe)
Most days I don’t get any mail; today I got my acceptance letter to wizard school. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
This is often true even in non-fiction:
Most business books are about success; this one is about failure. (Redefining Success: Still Making Mistakes)
A good Trigger is Concrete. Something specific happens. Richard and his friends kill Bunny before he can rat them out. Elle Woods gets dumped when she’s expecting a proposal. Little Red starts walking through the woods alone. Eliza Doolittle hears that someone can teach her to speak differently.
Finally, a Trigger is a Kick-off. It’s the same level of physical or emotional action as putting the ball down on the fifty-yard line and taking a run at it. The Trigger must result in the protagonist taking action. Your hero must say “yes” to the Trigger and begin her journey to personal change.
For example, “We moved to a new town” is not enough. Lucy Pevensie didn't just move to a new town—she went to the back of the wardrobe, walked through the snowy woods and had tea with Mr. Tumnus. Then she takes her brothers and sister back to the place she found. Twilight’s Bella Swan moves to a new town and spends her time resolutely refusing to be triggered.
I won't go on a date with you.
I don't know why you think I'm pretty.
I don’t want to hang out.
If Bella was in an improv show, we'd boo her off the stage for negativity, if her fellow actors hadn’t already booted her for saying "no" to every suggestion and endowment. Have your hero say yes and begin the journey.
Finally, don’t feel that your Trigger has to be at the “beginning” of something. Nothing really starts at the beginning—remember the mini-plot arcs in Legally Blonde? Start in motion. We don’t need five chapters of Harry being abused by the Dursleys—he lives in a closet and no-one plays with him, that’s enough. We get it.
Take a moment and think about your favorite book or movie—what’s the trigger? Now go look it up or watch it, and notice how early it shows up. If it shows up after five pages or after the five-minute mark, why did the writer do that?
Heard any good Triggers lately?