Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: The Inciting Incident

Why is today different?

A book starts on a particular day. Why? What changes about our characters’ lives on that day? Whatever it is, the story should start in the middle of what’s happening.

There is a myth that it’s essential, or even a good idea, for the reader to see the heroine going about her daily business before the change — having a fight with her boss, lunch with a friend, picking up her dry cleaning, then bam, she steps out of the dry cleaners and her life changes. The argument goes that if we don’t show ordinary activities the reader won’t 1) relate to the protagonist and 2) appreciate how much her life changes. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Here’s why.

Readers come to a new book with huge amounts of energy to invest, which may sound like an oxymoron because one major reason for reading is it’s an activity we can do when we’re dead tired. “I was so exhausted yesterday that all I did after supper was read.” Doesn’t sound like a lot of available energy there, does it?

What we readers aren’t energetic about is our own lives — having a fight with our bosses, lunch with friends, picking up our dry cleaning. The last thing we want is to invest in a fictional character doing the same things that made us tired in the first place. We want spaceships, cute guys and cute meets, unsolved crime, or any number of places and events that take us out of our everyday lives.

Maybe a paragraph of ordinary life helps set the context; maybe even half a page might be okay, but that’s it. By the time we’re on page two, new things should be happening. The protagonist’s life should be changing.

Beginnings are hard

Writers spend more time

  • on the first chapter than any other chapter in the book;
  • on the first page than any other page in the first chapter;
  • on the first paragraph than any other paragraph on the first page;
  • on the first sentence than any other sentence in the first paragraph.

The pressure to have the perfect opening chapter, page, paragraph, and sentence is a frightening thing. One way around the feasr is to write a filler first sentence, maybe even a filler first paragraph. Journalists are taught to write who, what, where, when, and why at the beginning of an article. Those same elements can be used to set fiction in motion.

On Labor Day Monday in 1977 (when), Meg Porter, a thirty-year old nurse (who), hoping to find adventure (why), gets off a plane (what) in remote Whiskeyjack, Alberta (where).

With that one sentence, I’m good to go. I can get on with the rest of the story, and then come back to tinker with that all-important opener after I have my writing legs under me.

Inciting incidents are about change

While the incident itself may be small (or appear small), initial consequences should be immediate. A woman runs into your office, grabs you, and says, “Help me! I found a dead body in my car.” Bam, your day just changed.

You answer the phone. The voice says, “I’m Sadie, your mother’s neighbor. I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, but . . .” You have no idea how she’s going to finish that sentence. It may be “… your mother ran off to Tahiti this morning with a man she barely knows,” but even before she says the final words, bam, you know your life just changed.

Long-term consequences will play out through the rest of the book.

Whatever has changed must be irrevocably changed. There’s no going back to before. The protagonist’s role becomes to live with and through the consequences. The more ambiguous the consequences, especially at first, the better because mixing good and bad consequences gives the writer a more fertile field in which to play.

We don’t have to know our entire plot before beginning to write. All we have to know is our inciting incident and how to introduce our protagonists. The characters take it from there.

This is the start of another series of four related blogs on starting a novel. The inciting incident is this week. For the next three weeks, I’m writing about how to introduce different kinds of protagonists.

In two days, on Thursday, April 3, I hope you’ll join me for Level Thinking: Writer’s Rituals.

Next Tuesday, April 8th, I’m writing about how to introduce an ordinary Joe or Jane. There’s nothing special about his or her life now, but there will be by the end of the book.