What is the story catalyst?
The catalyst is one of the most important moments in a traditional story.
Also called the inciting incident, character opportunity, call to adventure, story event, or trigger, it’s the event in the main character’s life that pushes them into action. Importantly, it’s never happened to the main character before, and it marks a big — usually life-altering — change.
Often, a stranger arrives and upsets the main character’s status quo. Or it’s the main character arriving in a new place.
Either way, the main character forms a motivation or want — a logical goal that drives them forward. Usually, this want is clear and conscious, though it most often contrasts with a hidden need that the character isn’t aware of yet must understand to achieve full transformation by the end of the story.
Another important thing: The catalyst depends on action by the main character. Yes, it’s a reaction to an event, but unless the character takes action (or answers the “call to adventure”), then the catalyst has not done its job.
The character takes action based on their want, and this will lead the character to the midpoint, when that goal is usually proven inadequate. In fact, characters often react to the catalyst, and then only later in the story learn how to take matters into their own hands, moving from reactive to controlling.
There’s not just one catalyst
The catalyst is the first of several major turning points. In fact, the midpoint is also a catalyst. So is the “dark night” or “dark moment,” which happens when all is lost before another turning point, the climax. Each turning point should be something that has never happened to the character before, each one creates a chemical reaction that destabilizes things even more.
In other words, if your midpoint repeats the catalyst — it’s the same disaster that forced the main character into the story — then you’ve got a problem. When you’re brainstorming your story, try this:
- Write what the catalyst will be, how it disrupts the status quo, and what goal the main character then forms.
- Write what the midpoint will be, how it destroys the main character’s chances of achieving the post-catalyst goal, and what new goal the main character must form.
- Write what the dark moment will be (when all is lost, right before the climax), how it destroys the main character’s chances of achieving the post-midpoint goal (and any other variations of that goal), and what final goal the main character must form now.
Jotting down these three turning points can help highlight problems with your character progression before you sit down to write. (If you already have a draft, no problem — try this as a revision exercise to see how your catalyst differs from your midpoint and dark moment.) Often, when I do this exercise, at least one of my turning points turns out to be weak. For example, my catalyst packs a real punch, but my dark moment feels too light or reminiscent of the midpoint.
In these examples, a major incident sets the main character on a path to irrevocable change:
- In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, our hero, Pip, visits family graves in the cemetery, and meets Magwitch, an escaped convict. He helps Magwitch by bringing him food and a file for his fetters, but the convict is caught. This encounter establishes a mystery in the story and sets off a chain of events that will transform Pip’s life.
- In Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer has a secret: When her husband fell ill, she secretly paid for his treatment by falsifying his signature to borrow money. But Krogstad, an employee at the bank her husband runs, knows — and when he’s fired, he blackmails Nora, setting off a reaction that results in Nora’s transformation.
- In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet meets Mr. Darcy, and immediately dislikes his haughty manner, setting up the romantic obstacles that follow — and ultimately (spoiler alert!) lead to their happy union.
- In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne faces punishment by her fellow Puritans for carrying a child out of wedlock. Her husband, presumed lost, has returned, and from where he stands in the crowd, he vows to discover the identity of Hester’s lover, yet she refuses to divulge her secret.
- In Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to discover he’s been turned into a giant bug.
When should we introduce the catalyst?
The catalyst most often happens in the first act (the first quarter or third of your story, depending on its length and structure) after we have established the main character in the setup.
Why not later? Because the catalyst kicks off the story, and if it appears later, the setup is way too long. The premise of the story — the reason the reader has chosen the story in the first place — happens after the catalyst. A setup that drags on for too long will feel pointless, no matter how much surprise and suspense you cram in to keep it interesting.
Sometimes, the catalyst happens on page 1, maybe even in the first sentence, serving as both the event that starts change and the hook that makes us want to read the story. A body turns up. Girl meets boy. An enemy army appears on the horizon.
Hooking the reader sound great. So why wait until, say, page 15?
Here’s why: If the catalyst serves as the hook in your first sentence, you don’t have time to establish your character or a sense of status quo. The catalyst disrupts. If we don’t know what it disrupts, we may not feel invested enough in the main character to care.
There are exceptions, of course. In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” the catalyst occurs right away:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant cockroach.
Short stories and novellas need to introduce the catalyst quickly because of their compressed form — the shorter the form, the sooner you’ll need to reveal the catalyst.
Another exception: In a traditional murder mystery, the genre itself communicates what the status quo is. We don’t need a setup. The status quo is “justice,” the disruption is “injustice,” and by the end, when the detective has solved the crime, we return to “justice.”
This could be the opening of a crime novel:
The freezing temperatures had preserved the man in the lake, and he gazed up, empty eyed, like a wax figure behind glass.
“Guess forensics will give us a clue about what happened,” Roger said.
“Oh, it’s murder all right.” I crouched down and pointed at the body. A red line ran along the neck. “Twenty bucks says that’s a slit throat.”
“From one ear to the other?” I shook my head. “Looks like an assassination.”
Having said that, most mysteries still spend time establishing character — even if it’s only briefly — before giving us the murder. In most stories, you’ll want to get the reader invested in the character and their “ordinary world” before disrupting it. It’s what can make the catalyst fun or shocking. You should still use a hook on that first page, though — grab the readers immediately and convince them to keep reading to see what will happen.
Where to place the catalyst may depend on your genre.
- Mysteries or thrillers will front-end it.
- Romances will often introduce the characters first then bring the two romantic leads together for the “meet cute” moment.
- Epic fantasy may hook the reader with an exciting event, maybe foreshadowing the catalyst, then take a more leisurely pace toward the big moment.
Take a look at 3-4 of your favorite books in the genre you want to write in, and consider when the catalyst happens.
The ordinary is rarely ordinary
Don’t mistake “ordinary world” or “status quo” for stability. Most often, the main character feels unhappy, restless, or incomplete. Either consciously or unconsciously. Maybe the character doesn’t see the lack — but we readers do.
The Ordinary World of most heroes is a static but unstable condition. The seeds of change and growth are planted, and it takes only a little new energy to germinate them.— Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne’s “ordinary world” setup is brief: She’s being punished for her transgressions, according to the narrow-minded morals of the Boston Puritans. Hardly stability. Yet she’s strong, and we get the sense she could weather this storm. Then her husband turns up and takes it upon himself to seek the truth, and the story jolts forward.
Likewise, Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House is suffering anxiety because of the loan she took. Her life isn’t entirely calm and happy. But she’s gradually paying off the loan; her secret appears safe. The story doesn’t kick into gear until Krogstad arrives and blackmails her, pushing her into action.
In both examples, the catalyst is bad news for the protagonist.
Consider these three types of catalysts when you’re planning a story:
- Coincidence: the main character (MC) bumps into another person or witnesses something, and this throws the MC into action.
- Desire or need: literal or metaphorical treasure temps the MC, or they are compelled to pursue an object of desire out of great need — for example, food because of hunger or a cure because of disease.
- Drivers of change: a mentor figure or villain compels the MC into action; often, you can think of the mentor pulling the character into action, while the villain pushes.
What’s so bad about a life-changing event?
Often the catalyst is bad, because in life, there’s nothing like bad stuff to bring about drastic action leading to profound change.
But what seems bad at first may in hindsight turn out to be good. In fact, many stories follow a character through an arc of transformation that is necessary for their personal growth — without the bad thing pushing them to change, the character would stagnate, maybe even perish. For example, in A Doll’s House, Nora’s ordeal leads to her independence. In the end, she has been radically transformed for the better.
When you’re considering your catalyst, consider what it will lead to. What negative event could, through a series of challenges, lead the character to a positive outcome?
And remember this: Don’t be nice to your protagonist. Make things difficult, then more difficult, then impossible. That’s what makes a story memorable.
When you’re thinking of a story you’d like to write or revise, the amount of details you need to consider can be overwhelming. Here’s something that’s worked for me. Focus on these three elements first:
- Beginning scene: How will you establish your protagonist and their ordinary world?
- End scene: What does your protagonist look like after the story’s ordeals have transformed them?
- The catalyst: What is the big event that will catapult your protagonist from the beginning to the end?
Elizabeth Bennet meets Mr. Darcy — her equal in flaws as well as a positive traits. Poor Pip meets an even poorer convict, whose gratitude will transform the boy’s life from rags to riches. Naïve Nora Helmer faces cynical, crooked Krogstad, who blackmails her.
The catalyst should feel like an inevitable disaster that fits your character’s flaws perfectly and launches them toward genuine change.