A Cosmic Kick-Off
Question: The major backdrop of my story is a war of ideals going on between a variety of cults and new religious movements (all of which will be fictional, naturally). The thing is, the story is not dystopic - it's about some very paranoid people who fear that dystopia could be right around the corner. My question is, should there be some huge incident that incites this paranoia, plunging the world into an end-of-days panic? Or should I just look out my window and realize we've sort of reached that point in real life without any incitement at all?Answer:
Well, some people would look out the window and conclude there is a struggle going on between extremists of different factions in various places in the world today. And others would say there have always been such conflicts going on (e.g. the Crusades).
Tensions between factions can exist and fester for a very long time in the real world without breaking into open conflict. Usually there is one particular incident which becomes, if not the trigger (e.g. 9/11), an excuse to pull the trigger (e.g. the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand that became an excuse for WW1).
Whether this event is merely the final straw that that ignites the hostility that has been building, or something that causes a rapid increase in tensions, it
will be the inciting incident of your story, without which the rest would not happen.
Incidentally, you might check out the book "The Emotional Life of Nations" by Lloyd DeMause. DeMause argues that conflicts often break out during periods of growth and prosperity, because growth triggers our subconscious anxieties.
When times are good, nations/people start complaining that young people (who are enjoying the security and plenty growth is creating) are out of control and threatening the established order. Paranoia grows, especially among conservatives. Their anxiety causes them to make bad economic choices (taking on too much risk), ignore actual threats, launch irrational wars, create enemies, or other suicidal acts.
The resulting pain and bloodshed punishes the world (usually young people and women the most) for growing too quickly, and thus assuages the anxiety.
Of course, none of this behaviour is conscious or rational.
So, what I'm suggesting is that a period of growth, liberalism, freedom might raise the anxiety among your various factions, particularly the most authoritarian or traditionalist, until they will find an excuse to break into conflict and tear things down until they resemble the bad old days -- creating exactly the kind of dystopia they feared was coming or claimed their actions would prevent.
At any rate, the trigger event is your inciting incident.
Hope that's not too much of a digression.