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The Hot Tub in the Fast Lane

When my daughter began driving, we had multiple conversations about driving defensively, being aware of what is happening around you, and looking ahead to see not only what the cars in front of you but the cars in front of them are up to. She brushed me off with, “Mom, I know!” in that infuriating teenage whine that means, “I’m not listening so shut up.”

One day we were in a fast lane on a highway with my cruise control set at (unspecified) speed. There was a car in front of me and a truck in front of it. The car in front of me switched lanes to the right and the truck hit his brakes. I cut off the cruise control and said a few impolite things. Then the truck moved over to the right and I saw a hot tub blocking the fast lane.

I tapped my brakes, threw the car into Low 2, and coasted into the grass to my left. When I was certain my heart had actually not stopped, I slowly climbed back onto the highway. “This,” I said as I shook, “is why I keep lecturing you. You never know what life is going to throw at you.” Girl child was suitably subdued.

The inciting incident in your story is the hot tub in the fast lane. It is an obstacle that your character isn't expecting to encounter. It requires that he make quick decisions or take instinctive action. There is no time to think or plan or consider and no way to back out. 

The inciting incident doesn’t have to be a murder or aliens descending. It can be a quieter dilemma in a Literary story. He could find out his spouse cheated or his boss is corrupt.

You have to build a protagonist capable of reacting to this obstacle in a way that ensures his survival when others would have smashed against the hot tub or spun off into oncoming traffic.

The special talent is the strength of character, special skill, or weapon that you give him so he can solve the overall story problem when lesser characters would have been killed on impact.

He could be the only one looking two cars ahead. He could be the only one with reflexes quick enough to avert disaster. He may have a special button that turns his car into an airplane. He may have the only magic wand that can make the hot tub disappear.

You don't want to structure a story around a situation that your character could easily walk away from or allow someone else to deal with it. Presenting him with a compelling hot tub moment makes that impossible. Make sure you explain why your protagonist and only your protagonist can solve the problem you create for him and, when the climactic moment comes, the resolution will be believable.

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