A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.
Where to Start.
(Also: Exploring your Inciting Incident.)
I’ve previously mentioned that finishing one’s novel is pretty damn important. So important, it’s my very own (previously stated and completely subjective) Rule #1. However, I’m quite aware that Rule #1 presumes a writer already having a potential, novel-length idea in mind—and with both the technical knowledge and the self-confidence to begin crafted the tale exactly as envisioned.
And yet, for many novice and/or hesitant fiction writers, that’s not always the case. Rule #1 loses a significant amount of value if you lack the experience, insight and/or courage to begin jotting down that first line.
And, oh yeah, starting a novel takes a lot of courage.
The Inciting Incident.
Before I continue….a quick preamble.
A misconception that some newbie writers have is assuming that “writing a novel” begins with tentatively scribbling out that first line on the first page of the first chapter. But writing a story typically begins with a vague idea—and one that may pester you for hours, days, weeks or even years, buzzing around your brain like an angry mosquito. Often (not always but often) this incomplete but essential What if? premise will become either the beginning, or the crux, of your story—a simple idea that puts into motion all circumstances and events that will eventually produce a completed novel. This fragmented concept is known as an inciting incident.
Or think of it this way: Your inciting incident is the necessary spark that will ignite the remainder of the story. If you were to visualize your novel’s plot (story line) as a string of exploding firecrackers, the inciting incident is you, the writer, lighting the fuse. You’re telling readers that something different—wonderful or romantic or terrifying or mysterious or silly or mind-blowing—is about to happen.
For instance: What if a skinny third-grader named Johnny is beaten up by several sumo-sized fifth graders? That’s an inciting incident. Johnny begins to formulate a cunningly sophisticated, yet bloodless, idea for revenge and eventually sets the plan in motion. Either he succeeds or fails miserably. Maybe Johnny fails but learns other important lessons about friendship or love or the downside of revenge. That’s the plot.
Or: What if a nuclear power plant is struck by a massive lightning bolt in the dead of night? An inciting incident, right? Those few late-shift engineers on duty wake from a stunned stupor and suddenly realize they’re telepathic. How do they adapt to their lives in the new normal? Do they become social outcasts? Do they save the world from some secret government conspiracy? Or just always win at poker? The moment those engineers awaken and realize what’s happened to them, your story will begin to produce an endless series of What if? questions, until you decide upon a viable story-line and an ultimately satisfying conclusion.
One’s inciting incident can either be prominently or discreetly plot-relevant. Your first line or opening paragraph need not directly relate to your story or its outcome (See Where To Start: Part 2). Maybe you want to introduce a character or two. Or establish a definitive time and place to better ground readers in your fictional realm. Both character development and scene-setting are no less important to your story than your plot.
Because while many novice writers believe — or in their exuberance to immediately dive into the heart of their story, insist — that their first lines abjectly define a plot, a writer does have sufficient wiggle room. And while: The giant meteor raced toward the distant blue-green speck known as planet Earth. might indeed be an appropriate opener, one has the unlimited potential to muse numerous alternatives, providing those alternatives convey a mood or thematic hint of the excitement to come.
However, I do recommend that you, the writer, provide a connection (even an unlikely one) between your first line and your last. For example, consider: Mathias awoke to the stabbing pain of a hangover and, for the third time this week, vowed to give up drinking forever. In which case, Mathias might be a protagonist or antagonist; possibly a character whom we’ll follow through the entire novel—or else a minor cast member (possibly expendable) whose solitary function might be to open your story in some memorable way. And if Mathias waking up with a hangover is your novel’s first line, what if his drinking plays a crucial role in your plot? What if Mathias’s next bender leads to some fatal, plot-essential mishap 25 or 50 pages hence? And what if that mishap leads to a series of unfortunate events that keep readers spellbound until your final page. Thus you’ve introduced a character and, even if indirectly, referenced your inciting incident as well.
A seemingly innocuous opening line can foreshadow events to come, becoming inexorably linked to your inciting incident, which in turn is directly connected to your entire story. Keep in mind that an inciting incident’s sole purpose is to lead readers toward (and eventually into) the heart of a story.
I realize that many writers are unsure or only vaguely aware of where the plot’s heading when they begin writing. Meaning they won’t solidify or finalize a first line (or first page or even a first chapter) until they’ve finished a draft or two.* Me? I usually have no idea how or where my book might end for another 100 pages or so. I may have a vague concept, but rarely a solid comprehension. Some writers cobble together a plot as they write, relying on intuition and outlining. And more about outlining later. Others don’t really care at this point (those adventurous pantsers among us). Note that in character-driven stories (as opposed to plot-driven narratives) a plot is sometimes little more than an afterthought. It’s the drama of human emotion that drives the book, not any particular event (aliens or zombies, a murder or true love) that befall them.
For instance, the uber-classic The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age, character-driven novel, a young Holden Caulfield searching for the meaning of life in a superficial reality.
Conversely, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is largely plot-driven, the story’s protagonists often little more than convenient plot-drivers, as DNA-recreated dinosaurs run amok.
However, whether considering a character- or plot-driven story, remember that readers don’t read fiction to find out what happens, they read to find out what happens to whom. So even if you’re writing an intense, plot-driven novel, don’t skimp on appropriate character development.
Still not entirely sure that you’re ready to begin plotting or
writing a first draft? See Outlining in Where To Start (Part 2).
Okay, so what if those buzzing 2AM thoughts aren’t best suited as a story opener, but more viable as an isolated scene somewhere in the midst of your potential novel? Or maybe your original idea is more of a grand finalé concept? Can you begin writing your story’s last few scenes first, and then work your way forward? (Yes, it’s okay.) Can you begin drafting an idea somewhere in the middle and work both forward and backward? (Yes, it’s okay too. One can begin a novel at any point and fill in the blanks later.)
However, sooner or later, you’ll have to work your way toward your first chapter or two, and ultimately formulate that initial spark, the inciting incident, one that logically and rationally begins to define the tale you wish to tell.
For instance, what if one lazy Sunday afternoon, your chilled-out brain brushes against the fantasy of some brash young Medieval knight, confronting a castle’s drawbridge. Maybe that’s your entire concept… just a random knight upon his trusty steed, looking for adventure. Even better, perhaps you decide that this young knight has uncertain, untested magical powers. You name him Sir Edmond, and name the horse Pepper. But then what? Ah, but the possibilities (you believe) are endless!
Might this fragmented scene provide your book’s inciting incident? Possibly. However, you (and readers) may question Sir Edmond’s motivation. Why is this young knight even here? What does Edmond want? If you, the potential writer, don’t know, then your young knight isn’t going to know either. Lacking proper scene-setting, a clear story set-up or sufficient character motivation, Sir Edmond might bumble around without coherence or direction. Readers may be confused or, even worse, bored by a distinct lack of audience prep—meaning they lack a proper introduction to both the impending story and your protagonist (and/or antagonist).
The best way to provide a sufficient introduction is to draft your way back (in your mind, on paper, making notes on a PC—whatever works!) toward some logical beginning before Edmond finds himself sitting outside those foreboding castle walls. So you sit and think and daydream a little more, and perhaps eventually come with a possible solution, one of a thousand potential scenarios. Kinda like this:
What if a young princess is captured by an evil sorcerer. She’s forced into a life of anguish and misery until she agrees to marry the sorcerer’s son, a ruthless sociopath who covets her father’s magical kingdom. Okay, so there’s a viable intro, the princess’s abduction is a potentially great inciting incident. So you write a dozen or two pages, or maybe even several chapters, delving into the sorcerer’s nefarious plans and the poor princess’s plight. All hope is lost… until one day a lone knight with untested, magical powers appears at the castle gates. Maybe Sir Edmond is searching the countryside for his lost father, or sister, or cat. Any viable reason for his presence will suffice. But once inside the castle, our young knight catches sight of the tragic princess and is smitten by her beauty and angered by her precarious situation. Sir Edmond decides to do battle with the sorcerer to earn the sad princess’s love and respect...
So now you’ve returned to that original, nagging daydream. But now you’ve concocted a viable plot already and a reason for the young knights presence. Readers have already been introduced to your antagonist(s) that we already hate, and we’ve met the tragic, empathetic princess—and with this unexpected knight’s arrival, now we can anticipate a battle of wits and whatever ultimate, epic conflict that will eventually arise.
Intentionally or not, once your inciting incident is in place—directly or indirectly, discreetly or indiscreetly—you will eventually lead your characters toward your story’s conclusion.
Just remember that there’s no right or wrong way to begin perceiving or drafting or writing a novel; no best way, no by-the-numbers process, no single methodology that guarantees completion or success. My only advice: Write what feels worth writing. Write what best gets you back to accomplishing Rule #1. And that is: Finish your book. Because if you find yourself blissfully engaged and energized by your prose 10 or 20 pages from now—that’s a good sign. And, if not, perhaps consider trying a different approach. Or a new concept.
Still concerned about where or how to begin? Thumb through a few how-to books. Some are good, some are awful, so choose carefully. I also suggest perusing 3 or 4 of your own favorite novels with the intent of dissecting those scenes that astound you. You’re not reading for fun, but rather to determine why those books work. How do their authors create riveting drama, or effective pacing, or lifelike characters; how do they create sizzling dialogue or tackle action scenes, romantic scenes or else terrorize you into leaving the lights on all night. You’re not stealing ideas or plagiarizing — you’re simply trying to decipher how those authors create effective and memorable prose.
And one final thought about your inciting incident.….
I mentioned that one’s inciting incident need not be directly plot-related. Neither it nor your opening line absolutely must be grandiose or imposing. Lightning need not crash. Thunder need not rumble. Your inciting incident should be memorable, sure, but not unnecessarily verbose or overtly dramatic. Subtlety can also suffice. In terms of a less frenetic, curiously unobtrusive inciting incidence, for example:
What if Roberto notices Anita across a crowded room and, when their eyes meet, he suddenly feels a dizzying sense of breathlessness, of weightlessness, convinced that he’s met his soul mate? Or, What if three elderly sisters find an orphaned baby boy on the doorstep of their old, isolated mansion in the Louisiana Bayou? Both scenarios can offer unlimited potential for a writer.
But how might one fuse either of the above premises with one’s opening line?
Perhaps: Roberto found his cousin Niko’s party insufferable and had already turned to leave when he caught sight of a woman across the room who made the breath catch in his throat.
Or the bit more cliché-ish (but still an acceptable opener, imho): When Roberto’s gaze met Anita’s, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven.
Or what about: The old woman everyone in Bayou County knew as Granny Ray found the infant sleeping peacefully on her front stoop one morning, wrapped in newspapers and cradled in a cardboard Amazon Prime box.
Or the less specific: Granny Ray opened her front door early one morning, expecting to find nothing more than a bright blue Louisiana day.
Again, one need not announce the inciting incident in a book’s first line, but a writer should be aware of the inevitable connection between the two. Roberto and Anita’s will probably become lovers. But then what? Or Granny Ray discovers the child has magical abilities. Or, more traditionally, she falls in love with the child and wishes to keep it, despite her advanced age and eccentric behavior that has the neighbors worried. Writers can (and many do) spend a dozen or so pages introducing various characters or crafting colorful, spectacular visuals—a.k.a. scene setting—but those pages wouldn’t necessarily be considered plot specific. Necessary info, absolutely! But not necessary germane to your plot.
By the way, many works of fiction introduce a character or two, and explore their personalities, before delving into any sort of coherent plot momentum. (Best-selling authors James Michener and Tom Clancy are notorious for starting their plots very late in their stories.) Some writers take a chapter or two (or three) to properly ground readers in their new reality and then begin to reveal various characters living their pre-plot-specific lives. Again, ain’t no strict rules about how and where to begin a novel. Begin your story where it feels right. Because you can always change your mind later.
However, by jump-starting your plot, you’re also getting your protagonist (the good guy) off his ass. Crazy, but a story’s protagonist is almost always unknowingly or unwittingly forced into responsive action by a situation beyond his or her control. For instance, somebody cruel and nasty (your antagonist) robs a bank. Or kidnaps your sister. Or an attractive stranger whispers in your ear. Or your next door neighbor is bitten by a rabid aardvark and wakes up the next morning undead, craving human brains for breakfast. Maybe a budding astronomer notices a new dot in the night sky, but the speck of light is moving quickly—meaning either aliens coming or a rogue asteroid is about to decimate Mankind. (Yes, a natural or cosmic disaster can be considered a viable antagonist.) And discovering a glowing rock hurtling toward Earth is a tried and true inciting incident.
So is a bump in the night!
* It’s absolutely okay to leave your story’s opening pending. Meaning give yourself the freedom to adjust your first line (or paragraph or page) after you’ve finished a draft or two.
I’m aware that some writers, so intent on perfecting their opening pages, will mire themselves in an endless loop of rewriting and re-rewriting their opening, and exhaust themselves before they even finish their first scene. Some writers will simply give up. But once you’ve determined your end game, you’ll be far more knowledgeable about your characters, their motivations, personalities and abilities, so a more suitable starting point will be much easier to establish.
CONTINUE to Part 2: Writing that first line.