Excerpted from The Secrets of Writing
This is one of the most critical things a story needs. It’s an event that sets the story in motion. Until this event happens, your characters are just muddling through life as they normally do. The Trigger Event kicks the plot into first gear. Now you’re moving in a direction.
Think of a story as a section of your character’s life, which has been edited down to the most interesting parts. We live from day to day, trying to achieve certain objectives. Things happen to us that sometimes changes our plans. And sometimes these events set us on a different path than the one we were on.
That’s what the trigger does. It sets your character on a path with destiny. The destiny you’ve chosen for him at the end of the story. Until the trigger he was headed in the “normal” direction his life was taking, whatever that may be. He had a goal in sight or he was doing a daily routine and everything was hunky dory. More or less.
But then the trigger event came along and totally screwed up everything. It has radically upset the life of the hero whether he realizes it or not. The trigger can either have a positive or negative effect on the hero’s life at first, but it must be dynamic. It must radically alter the status quo in a way that will take a lot of doing to change.
A story needs to have movement. It needs to propel the Audience forward at a pace where they won’t be distracted or have their mind wander. A story also needs direction, and the trigger gives the story the initial direction it needs.
In a story you have two opposing forces, the Hero and the Villain. Both will be at odds over some issue central to the story. That issue will usually be the Grail. The trigger event signals when these two forces first begin to be in opposition to each other. It may not be apparent immediately to some of the characters that this is happening, but the trigger serves as the catalyst to make the story come about.
Let’s look at a few famous movies to see some examples of a trigger event.
E.T.: The UFO that brought E.T. to earth has left without him. He’s stranded on an alien world. The UFO was seen by some government men, including a man with keys on his belt (the story’s Villain). The man with the keys senses E.T.’s presence and gives chase. E.T. runs until he reaches the safety of the garden shed where he’ll eventually meet Henry, the central Hero of the story.
STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE: A spaceship carrying Princess Leia and her two droids is captured by the Empire. Darth Vader, the main Villain, shows up to oversee the operation. The two droids escape to the planet below, where they inevitably meet Luke Skywalker, the main Hero. Luke’s Aunt and Uncle is killed when he tries to return the droids. That sets him on the path of the jedi.
SPECTRE: James Bond (the main Hero) is assigned to kill a terrorist in Mexico City. He finds a ring on the body and discovers it has traces of DNA from previous criminals he’s killed. This leads him to Mr. White, a former person of interest to tells him of this criminal organization and its mysterious leader. Bond’s pursuit of this organization takes him to the author of all his pain.
DIE HARD: John McClane, a New York Cop (the main Hero) shows up at his wife’s office party and goes into her office to make a phone call. Shortly thereafter, a band of criminals (lead by the Villain) show up and take people hostage at the party.
ALIEN: The spaceship Nostromo gets orders to land on an alien planet, where the crew (the Heroes) will come into contact with an alien species (the Villain) which will try to kill them all.
Did you notice something about all these trigger events? Either the Villain, the Hero, or both were introduced in them. This is important, because every story will be about these two forces coming into opposition. You want to make it clear who these characters are and what place do they take in the scheme of things.
So the Trigger Event not only starts the ball rolling in a certain direction, but it serves to give the audience a sense of who’s who and what’s about to go down.
In the case of E.T., we know right away that the alien is in trouble and that he’s hunted. That his only hope is to be taken in by someone who will protect him. This is a great trigger incident because it immediately gives you a clear sense of where the story is going and raises a strong question.
Star Wars: A New Hope also does a good job of establishing the nature of the Villain and his relationship to the Heroes of the story, even though we don’t see Luke Skywalker till a little while later.
In Spectre, James Bond’s discovery of a ring is a crucial lead that opens the door to solving a host of mysteries that have been plaguing him.
Placement of the Trigger Event
The Trigger Event should be placed close to the beginning of the story. You might even want to make it the first scene. The only real reason to hold off using it right away is when you need to set up some backstory so that everything makes sense. For example, in The Godfather, the trigger doesn’t happen until after the large wedding sequence. In fact, it doesn’t happen until after the infamous horse head scene. The wedding scene establishes all the main characters of the story and sets up a backstory, showing the Godfather’s relationship with his community, his power over others, and the nature of what he is. The wedding sequence also establishes his son, Michael, who is the Hero of the story. We even wait until after the Hollywood sequence before we get to the Trigger. The Hollywood sequence demonstrates Godfather Vito Corleone’s influence and power via the infamous “horse head” scene. Before then, we only heard second hand stories about the Godfather’s power. Now we’ve seen it in action. We see the fear he creates in others. We are led to believe that someone would have to be crazy to ever think of messing with this dude. This is all a set up for the Turning Point of the first act.
The Trigger Event is the scene where Vito rejects Virgil Pollazo’s offer to join him in the drug trade. By refusing Pollazo, the Godfather has created a powerful enemy who will attempt to have him assassinated at the Turning Point of the first act. Since Michael is the hero of the movie, the attempted murder of his father sets him on the path to become the new Godfather.
So, sometimes it’s necessary to wait before you use the trigger. Sometimes you need to get to know the victims first. But in any event, it must be somewhere in the first quarter of your story.
The Trigger Event can sometimes be in the backstory, rather than a scene in the first act. In Watchmen it was in the murder of the Comedian, which we only see the aftermath of in the beginning. This is because Watchmen is a mystery and it would give away the story’s big twist if we knew who killed the Comedian. This technique of placing the Trigger in the backstory is common in the mystery and crime genres. The hero of the story is arguably Rorschach who is the person who tries to solve the mystery of who killed the Comedian to the end.
REMEMBER: The trigger event gets your story rolling by providing motivation for your hero.