When a Story Really Begins

It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.
—J.R.R. Tolkien

A story doesn’t begin with exposition. It doesn’t start when you see the title on the screen or when the main character arrives on the scene. A story begins with conflict.

Inciting Incidents

Without conflict, you don’t have a story. You have a reality show. Go ahead and tweet that, I dare you.

Until Darth Vader storms the ship or Dorothy gets swept up by the tornado, you don’t have a tale worth telling. It might entertaining or interesting, but it’s not a story.

It all comes down to a moment. When Harry Potter finds out he’s a wizard. When Katniss steps in to die for her sister. That’s when a story really begins: when things start to get uncomfortable. Everything else is just setup.

Screenwriters call this catalytic moment an “inciting incident.” It’s when things start to get interesting, when your tiny tale gets messed up by a larger story. And the same is true for life.

What causes a character to grow

We all need change. To be molded and shaped into the people we’re supposed to be.

We know this is necessary in movies and novels and even sitcoms. It’s a good thing for a person to learn something by the end of the episode, to be a better version of themselves. But when it comes to our lives, we forget this, don’t we? We think somehow it would be good to just stay the same.

So we run: away from costly commitments and hard things. And the tragedy is these are the very things that would change us and cause us to grow.

Then something happens. This is the nature of story. Something unexpected has to occur. Someone has to be jolted in order for a tale to be set into motion. I call this getting wrecked. You might call it something else. Regardless, there has to be a revelation of something more than a character’s little plans. That’s how heroes are made.

We are both uncomfortable and excited by this idea, that we could be save the day. But isn’t this what life is teaching us, what God wants us to learn? That we have a part to play in a great epic? That there is brokenness to be healed and wrongs to be rights and we hold the keys to fix it?

Perhaps the world is waiting for us to do just that.

What this means for the real world

This can come across sounding WAY intense, when in reality it can mean something very simple. G.K. Chesterton said an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered. In other words, we find our roles in the story by stepping into discomfort.

This could mean a trip around the world or a walk around the block; it depends on your context. What it doesn’t mean is you stay sitting on the couch.

Your story begins when you take the initiative to be inconvenienced, to be changed. And of course, there’s always the option that if you don’t make that choice, it just might be made for your. So wouldn’t it be better to be a little proactive?

Where we go from here

I don’t know where you are in finding your role in the story, but if you need a little nudge, here are three choices you could make today:

  1. Go somewhere uncomfortable. I don’t care if it’s inner-city Philly or the nice lady’s house next door.
  2. Pay attention. We find our callings when we watch and listen to the world around us, especially when we find ourselves in a new place.
  3. Do something different. Don’t respond to the situation how you normally would. A character changes when he does something he normally wouldn’t do.

Of course, this isn’t the official three-step process to finding your calling — there is no such process — but it’s a start. And for many of us, that’s enough.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, check out the book, Inciting Incidents. It’s a collection of real-life stories, and I had the privilege of contributing one of mine as the first chapter. You can also hear a special radio program in which I do an exclusive interview, along with some other cool people, here.

Have you found your role in life’s story? What great conflicts have you had to face? Share in the comments.

69 thoughts on “When a Story Really Begins

  1. There may not be a “three-step process”, but I didn’t find my calling until I took that third step, and did something different in response…I started writing, instead of thinking about writing. I got Wrecked, somehow, without reading the book yet, but just hearing the idea…after stewing in the juices squeezed out by Jon Acuff’s “Quitter” – he set me up, Jeff Goins knocked me over, and I’m better for all of it. Great post!

  2. We had a speaker at work once who encouraged us all to be in charge of the scripts we are writing for our lives.  I think, in essence, that is what you are saying.  Choose our story.

    1. I like that, Larry. More than that, I’m advocating for the fact that there is a story and you have a part to play. It doesn’t mean you write the story, but it does mean you can choose to participate in it (or not).

  3. Jeff,
    Just ordered it on Kindle…I appreciate how you encourage writers just as much as you teach. Thanks for leading the way!
    Leigh Anne Hudson

  4. We live in a world that reinforces convenience…
    making it almost appear that the goal is to simply live comfortable. That
    pursuit of comfort is what ruins most of our dreams. Comfort causes us to
    settle and when we settle, the pain (or at least the perceived pain) of
    stepping back into the game (of life in pursuit of something more) can be
    overwhelming and it robs many of who / what they were truly created to be.


    I love this post and the way you approached it.
    It’s often what we don’t want to do that we need, scratch that, MUST do if we
    are to grow. Going from the couch to running a 5K doesn’t start by running a
    5K, it starts by simply making a decision to get off the couch. : ) Same goes
    for life and how we approach the things that scare us or the things we know we
    need to overcome.


    I struggle with this too in different areas of
    my life but every time I take a step, even if I THINK it’s going to be painful,
    I’m quickly reminded that it was the best step to take and then I laugh at
    myself for taking so long to do it.

  5. Thanks, brother. I love this post. I have always been a runner, things get tough, I get going. Well, God finally cornered me, and I have had to quit kicking the goads. There is a great story there. Anyway, thank you for this, very inspiring!! Going to be bookmarked.

  6. Healing from abuse, during childhood and my first marriage, is my ongoing conflict. That’s the kind of conflict where you don’t get any choice about it. It changes you forever. Part of my healing has been discovering my talents. So now I’m using all of that horribleness, with the miracle of God’s grace, to create my own stories, which I hope will inspire those without experience of brokenness, and help those who have suffered. 

    1. I know some of the same pain you mentioned, Zoe.  I am really finding more and more ways to erase those memories and overpower them with new, more beautiful ones through my experiences and writing. 

    2.  Zoe, I like what you said about, part of your healing has been discovering your talents.  I have been doing that too, haltingly, getting better at something is so hard for me.  That you are able to write out the ‘horribleness’ out in stories is amazing, and can only be done with God’s guidance.   

  7. Awesome post. I’ve been working on my own story role through the stories I’ve been encountering in my work (documentary photography and oral history). But, how do I participate in this process. Am I just an observer or something more? Very thought-provoking reading, Jeff.

  8. Sometimes you barely have to leave your front door to find your calling; it just finds you.
    I’ve seen three tiny, beating hearts on those ultra-sound screens; then, came our fourth child: “I’m sorry,” the technician said. BOOM! Now, that’s an “inciting moment.” And, in the blink of an eye, you’ve got to live out everything you believe about God’s goodness and sovereignty in your new normal. Sometimes, your calling finds you…Great article, Jeff. Real life, the story…

  9. “A tale isn’t worth telling unless there’s a dragon to slay.” A good friend told me while I was in the midst of a conflict that changed my life (ie. divorce). This trite sentiment helped me get over myself and get on with my life. In fits and starts. Because that’s how life is.  

    It reminded me that I’m lazy in complacence and conflict helps me overcome my laziness and grow.

    It’s been over a decade and I still feel wrecked. Thus, I love your book. Especially that I have it on Kindle and can take it anywhere. Like life, I’ve read it in fits and starts. Some parts dredge up painful memories and I have to stop. Then I get over myself, yet again, and continue. Thanks for writing. 

  10. Scary post, its the epitome of every reason I can’t write, its all about trying to find a calm, quiet story with few lumps, bumps, cracks and just making it a lovable little tale.  I know that even children’s stories have crisis to overcome, but I was never read to as a child and when I tried reading to my son, he wasn’t interested, he did like Clifford, the Big Red Dog, and read those books over and over. 

    I’m thinking that I’ve had way too much crisis in my real life and look for peaceful escape in books/TV.  I’ve re-read your blog (even that was uncomfortable for me) a couple of times as I need to understand that it isn’t just me having real life lumps, it happens to everyone.  

  11. Yes Jeff. I have been “wrecked” and I have a story. While crossing the street on my way to school at sixteen years old, I was hit by a car. My life changed forever. I became paralyzed with a lot of injuries. Today I’m thirty-four, and practicing walking with one cane. My life is a miracle, and the ability to walk is too. The last several months I have been sharing my story in my blog, trying to encourage others with the same issue. God does take our broken parts and heal them. I feel blessed to be used. I appreciate your helpful posts.

  12. My big conflict right now is the me-versus-God struggle I can’t seem to get out of. I want to do what I want to do, and I don’t want God to interfere! I need to “go out my front door” and let God lead my life, but it’s so hard! I’m trying though, and I know every time I’ve done something uncomfortable in the past, it’s worked out for the better.

    By the way, I’m not on Twitter, but if I was I would definitely Tweet that quote! “Without conflict, you don’t have a story. You have a reality show.” Love it!

  13. Everyday our plans fall apart. Everyday we encounter a new individual who may be our new best friend, lover, or worst enemy. Everyday we’re handed a surprise and forced to deal with it. Everyday our friends betray or come through for us. Everyday we can choose how to live. Everyday we have the option of going on a rampage. Everyday we have the option of joining the Peace Corp.

    Every single day we have a million, billion choices, and it’s really goddamn scary. But if you can throw yourself into these experiences, I think your writing will get better. Your life may get harder. In fact, it may become miserable. But sometimes misery can lead to excellent writing, as can joy, love, hate, etc.

  14. Oh man, I love this. Today a woman sat in my living room discussing how she saw a
    man pushing a bike along the road and picking up cans.  She stopped to give him a sandwich in a baggie and a cold soda.  Her daughter warned her, “Are you crazy mom?”  You could get killed.”  And the mom said, “It’s worth the risk to show love. That’s all that really matters.”  

    Here’s mine Jeff, call “A Good Samaritan Thinks Twice.” 


  15. I have lived the last few years in resentment and bitterness and depression. I had been wrecked and from that experience I gave too much of myself away. But that inward focus I’ve lived in is over and I’m learning to look out on the world with compassion yet learning to take care of myself at the same time. It’s not easy. But I’m so much happier stepping out of my comfort zone by finding a new church (by myself), opening a new business, writing a blog, and practicing yoga. All on my own 2 feet with the strength and love of God holding me up. These are scary things to me but I’m finding joy in them as I try to connect to those around me.

  16. I really liked my story up until 6 months ago.  “Husband and Wife Heal Marriage after Affairs and both find their calling in the healing.”  It was really good.  I thought I could live off this story for the rest of my life.  But now we have added a few more chapters…..still being written. 
    “Daughter gets bullied and then assaulted by her perpetrator. ”
    “Adult son wrecks new car and faces DUI charges and jail time”
    “Non -Profit Dream falls apart, how to keep believing.” 
    Sometimes I WISH my life were just a reality show or I could go back to living a normal life.  What is normal?  It seems as though, as I ponder everything, this is just where God wants me.  So that I can watch him once again, do the miraculous in my life.  So that I may share more stories of Victory. 

    1. Thanks for honestly sharing your struggles, Lesley. I’m listening to an Andy Andrews audio program this morning, and this quote may resonate with your experience, “Problems are a sign of life.” You don’t have any problems, you’re dead. So even in the struggle, there is reason to hope (and I mean that without minimizing your hardship; sounds like you’ve been thru some tough stuff).

  17. This is one of my favorite posts from you thus far. It goes right along with my #1 mantra, “Happy is a Choice, so pick it & get there!”… meaning, regardless of what life throws your direction (and God knows life is gonna throw some mean junk your way!), how you live with it in the aftermath is all up to you. Someone else mentioned slaying your dragons (defeating conflict), which marches in tune with this song as well. A good life isn’t one which was easy. A good life is one in which you overcome obstacles and keep trucking along, doing the best you can, & helping others along the way. And the BEST life is all that, plus a smile plastered all over your frustrated face. 

  18. This is a lovely post, Jeff and so true. I have led a “storied” life. One of conflict, doubt and running away, until now. The penultimate act was my stint in the homeless shelter. When I received my Disability Judgment in a record 5 months, I moved all of 2 1/2 houses away and still live in the ‘hood. I wondered at this in the beginning. I don’t any longer. The conflict has moved from inside to outside. As I’ve dealt with my own wounds, I find that there are wounded souls around here I can help. I will be able to work 40 hours a week again, but can help in this neighborhood; this is the summation. This is where I watch people, help if I can and write about them and tell some of my stories, too. Thanks, Jeff!

  19. I really liked this post! 🙂 You are right.
    If you get a chance, please watch the bollywood movie, Barfi (there are not many hindi dialogues so might understand it), the post resonates with the essence of the movie — different! 😀

  20. My life is so full of story. People would think we (my husband and I) were crazy if they read it.  Reading “Wrecked” on weekend dates. Finding the opportunity to talk to people who may not be chapter 4 , poor, but poor in spirit. It’s amazing when you ask people about themselves. The chef in a restaurant came outside and shared a brief life history with us (we weren’t eating just reading the menu). The very elderly couple eating ice cream and their 50 ish son who had brought them out. Priceless treasures. 
    Listening to other peoples stories and entering in is my story.
    Going home to our new 12 year old foster child adds drama…
    So glad I am not in charge of all the endings! But I get to have a part.

  21. Thank you for posting such a nice article. It is always good to find your newsletter in my inbox. 🙂 I better look for your book.

  22. Great words, Jeff. I’m currently going through Donald Miller’s Storyline, and it’s really intense. The basics of a storyline is “A character wants something, and has to overcome something to get it.” 

    There’s the conflict right there.

      1. I have a tendency to float, one moment leading to the next. As a result the character of my story doesn’t know what he wants and the story has gotten muddled. This process has been intense for me. And through this and reading wrecked it’s helping me identify my character turns, or inciting incidences. Thanks, Jeff! Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

  23. I have a friend who is having to sit on a couch, day after day because of her inciting event. Her son’s illness has forced them into isolation for medical reasons. Yesterday we were talking about how hard it is for her to stay home. Thought it was interesting that for her, sitting alone, with her thoughts, forcing her to face what is really going on in her mind, was what wrecked her. 

  24. My sister was just sitting in the park taking care of my newphew- one shoot rang out. She grabbed my newphew and ran -the second shoot rang out. My sister made it to the building with my newphew in tow.  J.r.was safe The second  bullet was found in her back  and she died a HERO. She was on the fronte page of the Daily News and my life was Wrecked!  Still Wrecked since(2009).

  25. Absolutely. No question about this. Conflict is crucial to any great story – and therefore any great life. Ironically we would never desire or seek out conflict, as it tends to be painful. It makes those who go through great suffering seem fortunate – I know the pain in my life has been a major catalyst for change. But we have to choose to bring conflict into our lives much of the time, and this is a much bigger challenge. Don Miller covers this well in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and takes this theme on – and of course its also covered brilliantly in Wrecked. 

    Thanks for reminding us again how important conflict is, and why we should embrace it, not avoid it.

  26. I love this post and I love WRECKED!  This is an important message, and I hope more people buy the book because it will tangibly illustrate how we can engage comflict rather than run away from it!  

    Thanks for another awesome post, Jeff! 

  27. great post.

    I work as a supplemental food service worker for patients at a large hospital.  Some new positions opened up recently and with my seniority I knew I could pretty much have whichever one I wanted.

    Should I opt for the cushy position on the quieter unit where shifts are smooth as butter and you get off with your pulse slower than when you started?

    Or should I go for Unit 55 where the patient load is high and the workload is impossible and often there are conflicts and dilemmas and issues of every kind for a Patient Food Server ?  (many in my dept won’t go near unit 55)

    I decided to take the more “dangerous” position.  And it is CRAZY.  I had to train a new person last week and she said to me,  ‘I’m scared.”  It’s that intimidating.

    And I love it. I started a Unit 55 journal.  You can’t make up the stuff that I’m encountering on a daily basis on my job.  Great Inciting Incidents that I am logging in my journal.  My coworkers hope that I’ll produce a book for them in the future.  Maybe I will!

  28. Great Stuff…and so relevant for me right now.  I have been wrecked.  I was leading a life/career, that I thought I wanted – now I’m trying to re-figure things out.  Sometimes I wish that there was a magic pill to take, and then i could know instantly what I should be doing for a living.

    I’ve started to write, and have been published a few times – but still learning…

    Getting out of my comfort zone, and examining things from a different perspective might help. 

    I enjoy your blog.



  29. I agree with the story actually beginning with conflict because that’s what the reader is waiting for. Readers wait for the big build up to confirm they’d made a right choice by buying that book.

    Conflict makes the story because it gives the problem. What would the protagonist have to solve if everything was how it should be?

    Thanks for posting, Jeff.

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