Julie Artz | author, editor, book coach, dragon

[Wyrd Words Weekly] What writers get wrong about the inciting incident...

Published 3 months ago • 5 min read

Hello Reader,

I've been teaching a lot the past six months as part of a conscious effort to reach more writers than I can with 1:1 coaching. And it's been a lot of fun, not only because I love teaching, but a larger sample size allows me to see patterns and themes that most writers seem to struggle with. And that lets me make my content even more useful to you, my wonderful subscribers.

Something that came up again and again in my last class was a rush to get the Inciting Incident into the first chapter, or even onto the first page. This is a common misconception about how story works, so let's unpack it. First, a definition:

Inciting Incident: The moment in a story when everything changes for the main character. "The Inciting Incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life." Robert McKee, Story, pg 189

And there are some stories where the inciting incident does happen on the first page:

  • In romance, the meet cute, where the protagonist meets his or her love interest, often happens in chapter one.
  • In mystery and crime novels, the crime/mystery often happens in the opening chapter.
  • Likewise, in thriller, the dead body, or the threat to the main character, often happens as early as the first page, or even the first paragraph.
  • In some middle grade stories, the inciting incident will happen sooner than in stories for older readers, sometimes even in the first chapter.

It's not that the inciting incident can't be on page one. Just that it doesn't have to happen on page one.

Rushing the inciting incident often deprives you of the opportunity to establish the protagonist's ordinary world. And particularly in character driven stories, or ones where detailed world-building is required to establish a fantasy, sci-fi, or historical setting, rushing straight into the action will leave readers asking themselves "so what?"

Don't Replace it with Info-Dump!

OK, so maybe after reading the above, you're looking at your story and wondering if you need more time to establish your protagonist's ordinary world. Whatever you do, don't push the Inciting Incident back to 10%, 20%, or event 25% of the way into the story and fill up the opening with info-dump, the history of your world, or onerous amounts of backstory.

The same rules apply here as before. No flashbacks in the opening chapter. No more than a sentence or two at a time of references to past events, descriptions of the world-building, or even character descriptions, and even then, make sure they're sprinkled into a scene with action.

What to Do Instead

Everyone's heard the term "hook your readers," but what, exactly, is a hook? Sure, a hook can be a catchy title, a stunning cover, or a logline that will grab a reader's eye from the bookstore shelves. But once the reader picks up the book, the opening of your story itself operates as a hook. Or at least it should if you want readers to keep reading.

"The mission is not to fully introduce the antagonistic force, but rather to foreshadow it." Larry Brooks, Story Engineering, p 146

So that's what you need to weave into your opening--an action-oriented scene that introduces us to your character, what they want, and what's standing in their way at the internal level that will hook your readers. If you're writing historical, horror, fantasy, or sci-fi, you'll likely weave some world-building and atmosphere in because nothing hooks a fantasy-lover more than a dragon or a wizard or a mystical spooky setting on the opening page, right? You want them to pick up your book, read the first page, and say "ah, I'm in the right place" before they snuggle down for an all-night reading session.

I'll use Kristin Hannah's The Four Winds as an example since I am currently reading it [First Act Spoilers in the remainder of this paragraph]. The story opens not with the Dust Bowl, not with the main character's shot-gun marriage (the true inciting incident), but with Elsa asking her parents, on the eve of her 25th birthday, if she can go to college. We get a real sense of her low status in her own family, of the way she's been "shelved" because, as she says, she's not pretty enough to marry. And that sets her up to fall straight into the arms of the first man who pays attention to her. If we didn't have a picture of how bleak Elsa's ordinary world was, we wouldn't understand, or care, why she falls so fast for Raffaello, why she risks everything for a few stolen nights with him. The hook grabs us, foreshadows what's to come, and lets us get to know the character's ordinary world just enough to prepare readers for what's coming in the inciting incident.

Are you worried your inciting incident is in the wrong place? Maybe thinking about adding a hook before the inciting incident will help. Try it out and see what your critique partners think!

Redefining Canon

My youngest is taking AP Lit this year and, just like when my son took it last year, I've been shocked and appalled that the kids are reading the same stuff I read in AP Lit back in [redacted]. So I'm always on the lookout for something newer, something that provides a more balanced (less white male gaze) view of things covered by the classics, books that we could use to redefine the literary canon.

Kristin Hannah's The Four Winds, which is about a Texas farm family who flees the Dust Bowl, fits that bill. I'm sure I'm going to get some "but I loved Grapes of Wrath" folks chiming in here, and if you loved that book, that's 100% OK. But my goal in pointing this out is that we need books that are accessible to today's kids, to keep them engaged in reading not just when it's an assignment, but for pleasure. And that involves choosing books that provide more diversity of thought and perspective than what most of us probably read when we were in school. If you loved Grapes of Wrath, you'll love The Four Winds. And at the same time, if GoW or any of Steinbeck's other books left you feeling a big meh (or traumatized...I see you, Of Mice and Men!), you might just fall for Elsa and her struggle to keep her family together in The Four Winds.

Do you have a book you'd like to see stricken from the canon (ahem, Catcher in the Rye, boy, I just can't seem to stop myself)? Have you found a modern replacement? I'd love to hear about it!

Happy reading!



PS - If you missed out on Story Scaffolding, don't fret. You'll get a key piece of that in next month's Craft Magic Webinar. Revision Revolution: the Reverse Outline, is March 18. It's all about Reverse Outlining, which is an outline you create after you've written a first draft (or a partial draft, as the case may be). Register for this affordable $25 webinar, which will be recorded for those who can't attend live on March 18 at 4pm Pacific:

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Julie Artz | author, editor, book coach, dragon

Julie Artz helps writers who dream of a life spent telling stories that matter slay their doubt demons so they can send their work out into the world with confidence. An active member of the writing community, she has volunteered for SCBWI, TeenPit, and Pitch Wars and is a member of EFA, the Authors Guild, and AWP. A social and environmental justice minded story geek, Julie lives in an enchanted forest outside of Seattle, Washington, with her husband, two strong-willed teenagers, and a couple of naughty furry familiars. Check out her weekly newsletter, Wyrd Words Weekly, and subscribe today.

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