The Inciting Incident (And Everything Else)
Question: I'm currently outlining my story and I have a somewhat loaded question. My story is a psychosexual religious horror novel (which is a weirdly specific niche, but I digress) about a cult survivor turned freelance journalist forced to return the compound he once escaped from and face the supernatural terror lurking within. But I lack connective tissue - why is my protagonist there? Does he receive a desperate message from message from a fellow member who wants out? Does a sudden death of someone close with apparent ties to the cult's methods prompt him to investigate? Is he simply hired to investigate by a high-paying client? I know this is a subjective and really detailed question, but given the general plot idea and and genre conventions, what do you personally think would work best as a solid narrative frame? Thanks for considering my rambly wonderings and thirst for validation, as always.
I can't tell you what story to write. Also, you're the only one who understands (or can come to understand) your characters.
However, I suggest you consider the main character's inner journey.
He begins the story as a journalist and a cult survivor. Presumably he has found a way to cope with his experiences. He has developed a particular attitude toward life -- a particular approach to situations. Maybe it's not the best way, but it has let him survive and hold down a job.
Now something forces him to return to the cult and face great danger. The greater the threat (and you want the threat to be great), the stronger the motivation required to get him to face it.
During the course of the story, you want the journalist to be pressured to take a different approach the threat. Maybe his established approach is to run away but he is pressured to face the threat head on. His personal crisis occurs when he must choose which approach to take. Maybe his approach is the best or maybe he's just living on borrowed time. Maybe another approach would defeat the threat, or maybe it's a false solution. At
any rate, his personal resolution occurs when he reaps the results of his choice.
Getting back to motivation, let's consider the three options you suggest...
1. A high-paying client. Money, in itself, is rather shallow motivation. To make this work, I think you would need to give him a reason why he desperately needs this money, which might add an unnecessary layer to the story.
2. The sudden death of a cult member. This option might work if it showed the cult was killing ex-members and the journalist might be next in line. The inner conflict would arise because the journalist would see that perhaps his approach only bought him some time but didn't actually solve the threat. Hence, he is pressured to find a better solution.
3. A desperate message from a cult member. If this message comes from someone the journalist cares about and feels a deep instinctive need to protect -- someone who perhaps subconsciously symbolizes the journalist's younger self -- then this choice could offer a strong motivation. In saving the cult member, the journalist would be symbolically saving himself.
Of course, in either case, you should have an impact character who can influence the journalist to change -- to take the opposite approach when facing the threat a second time.
This could be the threat itself, perhaps the cult leader. If the antagonist's approach is to confront and intimidate others into submission, maybe the journalist needs reverse roles and intimidate them). Or you could create a Guardian figure who shows the journalist a better approach to dealing with the threat. The journalist must then struggle to adopt this approach at the climax, contrary to his emotional instincts.
Of course, I'm assuming a happy ending. A tragedy would result if the journalist fails to make the right choice and because of this is destroyed by the evil power.
The above is just my initial reaction to your question. You may find a much better solution if you ponder these issues a little more. Again, I can't tell you what the best solution will be. You have to discover that yourself.