In your novel, the inciting incident is the first sign of trouble for your protagonist: it's the catalyst, the chemical reaction, that sets the plot into motion. But the inciting incident isn't only important for your main character. Understanding how to harness it is also crucial to hooking your reader from the very first page and immediately investing them in the experiences, emotions, and personal struggles of the character.
In this excerpt from Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go by Les Edgerton, you'll discover that the inciting incident can be used as a trigger to focus the reader on the character's journey and retain his or her interest throughout the rest of the novel.
The Inciting Incident as a Trigger
The inciting incident is the crucial event—the trouble—that sets the whole story in motion. It triggers the initial surface problem and starts to slowly expose the protagonist’s story-worthy problem. Now, the protagonist won’t fully realize the extent of his story-worthy problem in the opening scene, so the initial surface problem has to be so compelling that it forces him to take immediate action. The protagonist’s understanding of his story-worthy problem, then, will grow clearer to him as a direct result of what he goes through in his journey to resolve it.
Also keep in mind that each of the protagonist’s attempts to resolve the initial and subsequent surface problems must end in failure. There can be partial victories, but once an action ends in success, the story is effectively over. Success, in this case, means that all the problems are resolved. That cannot happen until the final scene of the story.
So, if we were to broadly outline the shape of a publishable story—the inciting incident and all its intertwined surface and story-worthy problems—it would look something like this:
- The inciting incident creates the character’s initial surface problem and introduces the first inklings of the story-worthy problem.
- The protagonist takes steps to resolve the initial surface problem.
- The outcome of the major action the protagonist takes to resolve the initial surface problem is revealed, triggering a new surface problem. The scope of the protagonist’s story-worthy problem continues to unfold.
- The outcome of the major action the protagonist takes to resolve the additional surface problem is revealed, and yet another surface problem is created. The story-worthy problem continues to become more apparent to the protagonist, as well as to the reader.
- Another outcome is revealed, and more surface problems are created. The story-worthy problem continues to become clearer.
- All lingering surface problems are resolved, and the story-worthy problem is fully realized. The resolution of the story-worthy problem is represented by both a win and a loss for the protagonist.
Notice that this isn’t a point-by-point outline of a plot. Also, it isn’t like an essay outline, in which you provide the nature of the actions to be taken (that “topic sentence” thing), but rather, the outcome of those actions. Further, take note of the fact that this kind of outline provides only for the major actions (of which there are usually three) the protagonist will take to resolve the problem. That leaves room for dozens (hundreds?) of other, smaller actions he can take to achieve his goal. This outline also leaves plenty of leeway for you, as the author, to choose what actions your protagonist will take, thus allowing you the artistic freedom to get the protagonist to the outcome any way the author wants to. In short, it provides a roadmap of highways for the narrative car, but it doesn’t include the scenic routes.
An example of an inciting incident that kick-starts a novel is the one Scott Smith provided in his best-selling novel A Simple Plan, which was made into a film of the same name.
The story begins with a bit of necessary setup, giving a scrap of family history. The backstory is that the two chief characters in the story—Hank, the first-person narrator/protagonist, and his brother/antagonist, Jacob—never have anything to do with each other except once a year, when they visit their parents’ graves together. The backstory also describes their parents’ death in a car accident that was really a joint suicide. In this case, the backstory is crucial because it gives a plausible reason for Hank and Jacob to be together when the inciting incident occurs. It also works because it shows the reader the brothers’ relationship to each other, and that relationship is Hank’s story-worthy problem. This is a Cain-and-Abel story, and therefore the brothers’ history is important to the reader’s understanding of what’s about to transpire. The entire history takes a little less than three pages to detail before the narrative enters the inciting incident scene. Jacob, accompanied by his dog, Mary Beth, and by their friend Lou, picks up Hank for their annual pilgrimage. During the trip to the gravesite, a fox runs across the icy road. Jacob has a slight accident, and Mary Beth takes off after the fox. The three men go after the dog and discover a plane downed in a field. In the plane, they discover a dead pilot and a bag filled with three million dollars, and they figure out it’s probably drug money.
The initial surface problem begins with this discovery. Hank, the straight-arrow brother with the pregnant wife, college degree, and professional job, wants to do the right thing and turn in the money, but Jacob, who’s a ne’er-do-well, high school dropout alcoholic, and Lou talk him out of it. Against his better judgment, Hank accedes, and the brothers plunge into a spiral of darkness until they get to the place where Hank kills his brother.
Finding the money and the decision that the discovery forces Hank to make is the inciting incident, and it is delivered via a scene so that the reader experiences what Hank does, at the same time he does it; the reader experiences the same dilemma he does, emotionally. Hank’s surface problem is how to please his brother by keeping the money, while assuaging his conscience at the same time. Plus, he needs to avoid discovery of their crime and keep from going to jail and ruining his life. His story-worthy problem—his lifelong guilt over his good fortune in life and his brother’s wasted existence—(which is tied directly to the surface problem) has been forced to the surface by their parents’ deaths, which is why the brief backstory at the start of this story works.
The protagonist’s action in agreeing to split up the money instead of turning it in—an action he takes in order to gain his brother’s love—is a flawed action, just as was Thelma’s in agreeing with Louise to not turn themselves in after Louise kills Harlan. In each of these two stories, both instances of well-meant-but-flawed actions by the protagonist are responsible for the surface problem and are similar in nature. And, in both instances, the surface problem exists to serve as the vehicle that drives the story-worthy problem along the journey.
For more techniques on hooking your reader from the very first page, check out Hooked by Les Edgerton. You'll find tips for avoiding the overuse of backstory, a rundown on basics like opening scene length and transitions, and a comprehensive analysis of more than twenty great opening lines from novels and short stories.
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