Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Nanowrimo: Something has to happen (Inciting Incident)

So, Nano, Day 6! Those of you who are doing it should be deep into your Act I by now. And I was going to do a general reminder of the Elements of Act I, but there are a few elements of Act I that are so very key that I'm going to do a few focused posts first.

Of all the many things I love about e books, I may love this feature the most: sampling. I'm a voracious browser and when I want something to read, unless I know exactly the book I want, I'll often go through a few dozen first chapters of a few dozen books in a row to find something that grabs me. 

This is a fantastic exercise when you're struggling with a first chapter of your own.

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”. And that's what Nano is about.  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 while you're writing your brains out today, take a few minutes to ask yourself these key questions:

Do you know where your inciting incident is? Is it soon enough? Honestly?

Do we KNOW where your story is going by page ten of your book?

Can you maybe do a little rearranging to make sure this happens, before you move on?

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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Anonymous said...

Great stuff, but what about introducing the main character in his/her natural environment? It seems this step is vanishing from the hero's journey.

I like to care about the MC before I'm expected to cheer for him/her. I don't think a paragraph or two is long enough. I'd like to know your spin on this.


Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Craig - that's a great question. I think if you're going to do a slower start and long build up to introduce the hero/ine, the key to hooking people right away is to make sure you are clearly communicating what your hero/ine WANTS (and have them be wrong about it in some way, too.) Next to the lack of inciting incident, the other huge thing I find about beginning writers' stories is that they never let the reader in on what the hero/ine wants. As a reader I need to know, so I can want it for them. It's key to a reader's (or viewer's) emotional involvement in a story.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! That's exactly what I'm doing in my new outline. The MC is wrong about what she wants too. I'm on a roll.

By the way, I gave you a nod on my blog the other day. I hope that's okay.

Maureen Harrington said...

Can I agree with both of you? I do. If a book has all the emotional elements necessary, I still want to know about the natural environment.

Much like your settings, Alex, where I knew for example, the environment that moved the story through knowing the elevator and hallway. Maybe it helped that I recognized the elevator and its setting from being there and knowing first hand, but you did tell it. You knew. You transmitted it. With a very few words about it, I knew where you were. The exact spot.

That's why I think the main character's natural environment can catapult reader involvement if it grabs the feeling of the story—if the emotions can move from environment with character and feed each other if not upon one another.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sounds like you're golden, Craig. And thanks for the shout out!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Reine, I agree - a character's environment and how s/he reacts to it tells us SO much about that character, and about what is lacking or problematic in the character's life. I tend to ask myself how my protagonist's environments are reflecting her or his state of mind, and see what interesting settings and descriptions come out of that.