Saturday, April 07, 2012

Something has to happen

I've been participating in a huge thriller e book giveaway this week. And because I've been checking the Top Ten pages and watching my rankings (both The Harrowing and The Price made #1 in Kindle Horror, thank you!) I've also been tempted by and have downloaded a bunch of books myself that looked interesting.

Well, I read through a bunch of first chapters last night, a couple dozen books at least, and it was pretty shocking how few of them grabbed me enough for me to want to keep reading.

Now, I'm not saying these books are badly written. The prose is fine, really. I'm just like everyone - there are very few books out there (proportionately) that I'm actually going to take the time to read. I like certain things in a book and if they're not there, I'll move on. Nothing wrong with that AT ALL - the wonderful thing about books is that there ARE books that deliver the exact or almost exact experience we're looking for. So of course we look for those over less satisfying ones. I'm perfectly aware that just as many people discard MY books after the first few pages because I'M not delivering the experience they're looking for. I'm certainly not for everyone's tastes.

But there was something I was noticing in book after book that I started and then discarded last night that was just a structural error that could so easily have been fixed to - I think - increase the number of people who would want to keep reading. It's pretty simple, really.

I couldn't figure out what the book was about.

Or why I should care, either.

What was missing in the first ten, or twenty, pages I was reading was the INCITING INCIDENT (or the term I prefer - CALL TO ADVENTURE).

The Inciting Incident is basically the action that starts the story. The corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation, the hero gets his first glimpse of the love interest in a love story, a boy receives an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy. (More discussion on this key story element here).


You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem, but there is something about that first action that lets us know, at least subconsciously: "Oh, I get it. That teenage girl was murdered and that cop is going to find the killer." "Oh, I get it. There's a shark out there off the coast eating tourists and that police chief is going to have to get rid of it somehow."

And once we know that, we can relax. It is a very disorienting and irritating thing not to know where a story is going.

Which means in general you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. And I would argue it's critical to get it out there if your book is or has any chance of being an e book, too, because it's just so easy to go on to the next e book on your reader.

Genre fiction is popular because we go in knowing pretty much what the story is going to be about. The kid is kidnapped and the detective has to get him back. The house is haunted and the new residents are going to have to fight to survive. But setting your book in a certain genre does not always guarantee that the reader is going to know what the story is going to be about (as evidenced by what I was reading last night.)

So I'm suggesting - find a way to get that critical inciting incident into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it right up front.

Reading a bunch of first chapters in a row points out a lot of common errors, actually. So here’s a brief list.

1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.

Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here. As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”. It doesn’t have to be polished. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas refers to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”. Exactly. Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later. (for more on this: Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck)

BUT - when you’ve gotten to the end, you will probably want to start your story 20, 30, 50 pages later than you do. And this is partly why:

For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole back story in the first ten pages. Back story is not story. So -


With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with) is caught up in action. You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie – or more specifically, CAUGHT UP in a movie. The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown.

We don’t need to know who this person is, yet. Let them keep secrets. Make the reader wonder – curiosity is a big hook. What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.

Here are two tips:


I cannot possibly stress this enough. We read novels to have an EXPERIENCE. Make yourself a list of your favorite books and identify what EXPERIENCE those books gives you. Sex, terror, absolute power, the crazy wonderfulness of falling in love? What is the particular rollercoaster that that book (or movie) is? Identify that in your favorite stories and BE SPECIFIC. Then do the same for your own story.

Now that you know what the experience is that you want to create, start to look at great examples of books and films that successfully create that experience FOR YOU. In other words - Make A List.


A great exercise is to make sure that every three pages you’ve covered specific details of what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense. All six categories, every three pages.


This is one of those notes that always annoys me until I have to read 15 pages of “telling”. Then I realize it’s the essence of storytelling. If your character has a conflict with her brother, then let’s see the two of them fighting – don’t give me a family history and Freudian analysis.


You don’t need to detail the family tree or when they moved to whatever house they’re living in or their great love for their first stuffed animal.

What we need to know their DESIRE and WHAT IS BLOCKING THEM. We need to feel HOPE AND FEAR for them. We need to get a sense of the GENRE, a strong sense of MOOD and TONE, and a hint of THEME.

So tell me - have you noticed this lack of inciting incident problem in some of the free books you've been downloading? Or in general? Do you know where your inciting incident is? Do we KNOW where your story is going by page ten of your book?

And for more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE.

- Alex



Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

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Jean Reidy said...

This post arrived in my Google Reader with perfect timing. I need to be reminded of this often. I do, however, get a bit confused with how much "ordinary world" I need to include before that inciting incident. It's a difficult balancing act for me.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

Knowing where to start is one of those things that seems so mysterious and unattainable in those newbie days, but I think it's one of those skills we can pick up as we become well read in a genre. Seeing those that don't work is possibly more helpful than seeing those that do, because the good ones look so effortless.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

This is a great question, Jean. Of course it depends on what genre you're writing, but there's no rule that says the main character has to be PRESENT for the inciting incident. In JAWS, Sheriff Brody isn't there when the shark eats the girl - but WE are, so we know what the story's going to be about before he does.

We know that Mitch McDeere is being targeted by some ominous men in THE FIRM before they ever call him, and we know that Hsrry Potter is a magical and important child before we ever meet him in his Muggle world.

So if you're taking too long to set up your ordinary world, maybe you should consider letting your reader in on something that your hero/ine might not know, yet.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Angelica, I think you're absolutely right. I'm actually thinking I might go back over some of the books I read and discarded last night to see if I can pinpoint the derailments.

Brianna Soloski said...

If a story doesn't grab me in the first 10 or so pages, I move on to something else. I hope I've made something happen at the beginning of my story - nobody has ever said I hadn't, but they have suggested changes later in the story.

C. S. Lakin said...

I am such a stickler for getting all those important elements in those first pages. My blog for writers is covering all that's needed in the first scene over a course of five months! But I am going to add a link to this post on "The three things you must have in the first paragraph" to YOUR post here. Readers have been trained to expect a lot on the first page because of the short attention spans created by modern movies.

runebug said...

I'm just an amateur writer, but I have a trick that I think is working for me. I like to pretend that 50% of my readers will never get to read any further than the first chapter.

So even though I want to set things up to delight the 50% who will read to the end, I also want to make something awesome for the 50% who only get to read the first chapter. That reminds me to stop focusing on putting the pieces into place and actually make something interesting happen.

That "Show, don't tell" thing gets me every time. Telling is an awful habit and I'm having a very hard time shaking it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Brianna, sounds like you're doing fine! It's a good thing to know what your inciting incident is, and look at where it comes in your story, just to make sure.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Runebug, that's the best trick I've heard in a long, long time. Thanks for posting!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey CS - sorry for the delayed response - your comment went to spam and I just saw it.

I agree, movies have conditioned us to expect the action to start right away. But the good news is, we can learn from movies how to make that action happen immediately in our own books - and be both relevant and exciting.

Paula Millhouse said...

It's an interesting debate, Alex. I recently had a reader tell me that she wanted more backstory up front.

I started my first novel out like JAWS - something bad happens to someone else, and I showed how the murder, created by the creep, was cleaned up by his henchmen, then the FBI agents found the body, then I cut to a discussion with the creeps.

My heroine shows up in Chapter three (five pages in), and she gets her call. I then wove her backstory all throughout the book so the reader learns about her as we go along.

What's you opinion there?


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Paula, are you saying that the reader you mention wanted more backstory up front in the book that you're describing, or a different one?

I would generally say that in the beginning of the book it's risky to go more than a page or two on someone who is NOT the main character. Now, some writers could pull that off brilliantly, but it's been my observation that my own favorite writers might start with a prologue (ike seeing a murder) but it never goes more than a page or two, and then they cut to the main character. That FEELS right to me.

But all of this is subjective, of course! Whatever works!

Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Alex,

Well reasoned, as always. Or if you prefer, well felt. :)

Yes, not all books connect with all readers. We hope for such general readership that it's easy to forget that.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey there, Stephen! I'll take "well-felt!"

I have to constantly remind myself that not everyone is going to like my books, otherwise I get blindsided. And it's constantly surprising to me who likes which of my books over another. Completely unpredictable. I'm learning never to assume anything. Reading is SO subjective!!

Bill Davis said...

This posting is so true. I'm guilty of it myself sometimes. My best novel has a plodding beginning, which needs to be changed to have a beginning with more pop. Will involve the main character, but more things ABOUT her then her per se.

What's really annoying is when you try to explain this to beginning writers on the numerous sites out there and they argue it with you. I can't agree with you more about the importance of the first three paragraphs.