No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. …But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way. (Northanger Abbey, chapter 1)
Between the first and second portions of the quote above, Jane Austen tell us that Catherine is neither clever nor accomplished. Although she is allowed to look “almost pretty” on her best days, by no stretch of the imagination can she be considered beautiful. Toward the cause of heroism, the neighborhood is as disobliging as Catherine’s personal traits, refusing to offer her even “one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility” or inspire “one real passion.” No noblemen about (not even a baronet), no squire’s son, no foundling boy, no ward of her father, no intriguing young man of unknown origin.
Austen must have had great fun writing this passage; it’s filled with her wittiest humor. But so far there’s no story, only setup. This is the “before” snapshot. Then, as the author tells us up front, “something must and will happen” to change the picture: an inciting incident, a catalyst, a call to adventure. This is a basic element of story structure, whether you’re writing romance or techno-thrillers, light-hearted comedy or literary tragedy. Catherine’s catalyst comes in the form of an invitation to accompany the Allens to Bath.
In my novel For Myself Alone, I used the same setup (an unlikely heroine). Josephine Walker tell us: When I came out into society – my debut upon the larger world – the world was generally unimpressed. Oh, my height does give my figure a certain degree of elegance and my hazel eyes are often complimented, but I believe the consensus at the time was that my looks did not much exceed the average. The young men of my acquaintance were apparently of the same opinion, since I noticed they withstood my modest beauty with remarkable ease.
Jo’s adventure also includes a trip to Bath. In her case, though, receiving an inheritance of twenty thousand pounds is actually the inciting incident, the event that changes everything, the moment her life turns upside-down. In her words: As my new-found virtue – my large personal fortune – became know, my status among my peers and betters underwent a dramatic alteration. …my faults and deficiencies quickly diminished into insignificance, and my society was soon industriously sought by some of the same young men who were so recently too squeamish to bear it.
Events propel both Josephine and Catherine into unfamiliar new worlds, and we get to go along for the rough ride ahead. In theory, their stories could be told without these defining moments of change (if Catherine had lived in Bath all her life; if Josephine had been born rich). But a catalyst, by definition, increases the rate of a chemical reaction. Isn’t that what we want in our novels?