How does your inciting incident hold up?

I is for Inciting Incident

Something happens.

Something to start the story. It start the protagonist on his/her journey.

It’s an event, which forces the protagonist to make a decision or take action.  A decision that if he doesn’t make it, his world will not continue as it used to be.

A game changer.

In a lot of Middle grade and Young Adult it happens toward the front in the first chapter or two. In some books, after the inciting incident and before the protagonist makes the final decision or takes action, he/she experiences the debate.

What really used to mess me up was the idea that the inciting incident had to happen on page one. It can if done right. But a skilled writer can still hook their reader in the first few pages without it. And if we stick it on page one or two, will it really have the biggest emotional impact when we barely know the character? Depends on the writing.

Let’s look at some inciting incidents in both MG and YA:

SAVVY by Ingrid Law – On her 13th birthday, before Migs receives her Savvy, her father is in a car accident and goes into a coma. (first chapter)

REAL MERMAIDS DON’T WEAR TOE RINGS by Helene Boudreau – Jade is in the bathtub and her legs turn into a shimmering mermaid’s tail. (first chapter)

THE MAGICAL MISADVENTURES OF PRUNELLA BOGTHISTLE by Deva Fagan – Prunella is kicked out of the bog for not being a proper witch. (first chapter)

ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins – Anna’s parents force her to attend an American private school in Paris, France. (first chapter)

THE BODY FINDER by Kimberly Derting – Violet has a habit for knowing where dead things are buried. For the first time, she finds a human. (second chapter, I believe. But in the first it showed her “skill” in action.)

THE LIAR SOCIETY by Lisa and Laura Roecker – Kate receives on email from her dead best friend. (first chapter, first page)

And here is some timely wisdom from Gail Carson Levine and a post about starting the action that popped up on Tweetdeck while was writing this post!  #socool

And another post on creating your hook on The Editor’s Blog – also popped up while writing.  #nowit’sgettingweird

Just look at these inciting incidents – what can we learn from them? How does your hold up?

33 Responses to How does your inciting incident hold up?

  1. Andrea April 11, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    I like the idea that the inciting incident forces the main character to make a choice. That’s so much better than having just a life changing event that is beyond their control.

  2. Kris April 11, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    Great choice for “I” — I agree with Andrea. Making a choice, taking action (choosing NOT to take action, I suppose) tells us a lot about the character. And gives us a reason to read the rest of the story.

    • Laura April 11, 2011 at 11:05 am #

      Of course there are always exceptions. Sometimes the character isn’t making a specific choice as much as dealing with the big change, but it’s still a choice as in how they react. It depends on the story. But we always want our characters to be proactive and this is one way to make sure it starts off right!

  3. Carole Anne Carr April 11, 2011 at 11:33 am #

    As I write for the young, it is easy isn’t it to find that life changing incident, so much is a challenge. :0)

  4. christine danek April 11, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    I like to read stuff that’s fast paced so the quicker I get to this the better. I’m not sure how mine hold up. I’ve been told they are fine, but that’s left up for debate.
    Thanks. I will check out the links.

  5. Angela Felsted April 11, 2011 at 12:11 pm #

    I think the key is in creating empathy for your character from the beginning. When I figure out how to do that, I’ll be set. 🙂

    • Laura April 11, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

      I agree. Finding a way for the reader to connect with our character is so important in those first pages – first page. I think it happening in the first chapter works good! Mine are usually in the first chapter.

  6. Susan Kaye Quinn April 11, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    I love Gail Carson Levine. #heardhertalk #sowise

    It took me soooo looong to figure out the Inciting Incident. Seriously. I think I have a good handle on it now, but I put it right up there with Voice as one of the elusive mysteries that writers figure out with sheer craft muscle and sweat. (And looking at how others do it!)

  7. Lisa Green April 11, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    Great, clear examples!! Identifying the Inciting Incident is important. In some books it even occurs before the book starts (this is true in one of my manuscripts actually). It all depends on the story and the writer. ;D

  8. Jennifer Hoffine April 11, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    There are initiating incidents that hit the reader over the side of the head and there are ones that don’t seem like much but have decision-making consequences for later.

    A writer might want to warm up a little for the head hitting kind, maybe with just a hint that something big is coming. That way, the reader has time to care about the character some before the explosion happens.

    Whereas, the “warm up” incident should probably happen right away so it doesn’t take too long for the momentum of the story to build.

    Also, I think how instantly relateable/sympathetic the incident is could have some bearing on how early you can put it in.

  9. Lydia K April 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    Great post and great examples! I hope the concept of a parent dying in the first chapter isn’t too over done (*bites nails*)

  10. Stina Lindenblatt April 11, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    Thanks for the great links (psst Gail’s doesn’t go to a specific post).

    There are a lot of things that hook the reader from the first page and keeps them going till the inciting incident. Voice is one.

  11. Carolyn Abiad April 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    Great examples! Writing goes so much faster after I figure out the correct inciting incident. (There are incorrect ones too :()

    • Laura April 11, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

      Thanks Stina – okay everyone, Gail’s link goes to the post with the comments now. The title of the post is When to Press the Trigger. Worth the read.

  12. Jenny Lundquist April 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

    I’m not sure how my inciting incident holds up. But for me, the inciting incident is less important to me than the Voice. If the voice hooks me, I’ll stay, even if it’s a quieter book. But if I don’t like the voice, I may not finish it, even if the inciting incident/plot is really interesting.

  13. Patti April 11, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    I agree with warming up a little bit before being hit over the head with an inciting incident. I think you need to care about the characters before you throw them into the fire, or else you won’t care if they get burned.

  14. Laura Marcella April 11, 2011 at 3:47 pm #

    My inciting incident happens on page one. But it seems like a lot of books just have it somewhere in chapter one. That’s something to think about!

  15. Laura Josephsen April 11, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    This is something I’ve worried about more in my current novel than any other book I’ve written. Because I start out with “this is normal life” and then, in the second chapter, snatch the normal life away from the character. I worry that the first chapter isn’t interesting, but for my story and characters, it feels necessary to me. I talked it over with one of my critique partners and she said she thinks it works perfectly for the contrast of what’s to come, so… *bites nails* Guess I’ll just have to see how it works out.

    I think, many times, the hook and when it should happen really is, as you said, dependent on the particular book. Some books (like fantasy/sci-fi/anything requiring extensive world-building) you might need to give the reader a little time to adjust to the world before you start throwing crises at them.

  16. Jenn Johansson April 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

    I always find inciting incidents interesting. What happens to change that characters life forever? Love them. 🙂

  17. Karen Lange April 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

    Yay, great food for thought! I am actually going to delve into my WIP this afternoon and need to give this some thought. Thanks a bunch! 🙂

  18. Creepy Query Girl April 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    I think mine usually happen around chapter two. These are really great examples!

  19. Alex J Cavanaugh April 11, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    I don’t think mine happen until around chapter two either.

  20. Carolina Valdez Miller April 11, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

    Love that you show real book examples. I used to really worry that the inciting incident had to happen right away. I don’t think it’s necessary, but in YA, it should come fairly quick. At least by the end of chapter 2 I’d say. But there are no hard and fast rules. Like you said, a skilled writer can still hook you without the inciting incident being immediate. Great explanation of it, by the way.

  21. Margo April 11, 2011 at 6:40 pm #

    From your examples, the inciting incidents all packed a big emotional punch – dead body, dead friend, getting kicked out, getting sent away to school, having your body turn on you.

    My WIP’s inciting incident is my character’s mother gets wrongfully arrested (3rd page, 1st chapter). The MC debates whether she should play it safe and wait for help, or if she should try to rescue her mom herself. I played up the “debate” part a little more after reading your post on debate!

  22. Shelli April 11, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    Do you think that it’s more important for an inciting incident to show up sooner in YA than adult fiction? The last book I read on writing talked about timing and how important set up is to get your readers emotionally involved with your MC before you change his/her life. Hm, something for me to play around with. 🙂

    • Laura April 11, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

      Shelli – I’m not an expert but yes I think it can happen later for adults. A lot later. Writing for children and teens is different. And these stories that started with the inciting incident then took the time for set up. That’s why writing is so hard – it takes a skilled writer to immerse the reader in the life of the character only a couple pages away from the big change. Like in Liar Society they started on page one with the change but then slowed it way down and took the whole first chapter for Kate to remember her best friend. It’s all in execution.

      Margo – Yes, sometimes if we twist and turn our original story idea and go big with it – we’ll have high concept.

  23. Ghenet Myrthil April 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    My inciting incident happens at the end of the first chapter. I hint at it on the first page and build up to it throughout the first chapter. When it’s time to revise my book, I might do some rearranging but for now I like where it is. Great topic and examples!

  24. Leigh Moore April 11, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    in YA it has to happen right away, too, it seems. Not sure about MG… but even still, that’s not a complaint. And I guess the incite part is the “call to action.” Getting the story going. Yes? :o)

  25. Tana Adams April 11, 2011 at 9:12 pm #

    I’m really bad at having an inciting incident on my first page! Sin, I know!!! (BTW, I’m reviewing my first page and you should find it in your inbox by wed!!! I’m nervous. =)

  26. erica and christy April 11, 2011 at 11:36 pm #

    I’ve thought a lot about this lately, too. My plot-driven MG is very up-front, inciting incident on page one. My character-driven YA, though – umm, inciting incident, what inciting incident??

  27. Becca Puglisi April 12, 2011 at 12:36 am #

    Get out of my head, Laura! I just went back through Story (Robert McKee) to try and figure out the Inciting Incident in my WIP and make sure it was happening soon enough.

    I especially like what you said here: “And if we stick it on page one or two, will it really have the biggest emotional impact when we barely know the character? Depends on the writing.”

    Yes, it should happen early on, but you have to make sure the reader knows your character and world well enough for it all to make sense. In a fantasy with otherwordly elements, set-up may be totally necessary before jumping into the II.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  28. Eileen Astels April 12, 2011 at 2:39 am #

    Okay, I fully admit to being tired here, so forgive me, but in a romance I’m not sure that we start with an inciting incident always. We mainly start with hero and heroine meeting, which in itself is I guess a form of inciting incident since the interest or fight of interest does change their lives.

    So I guess that’s it really and yes, I do get it in there on the first or second page and it’s their responses to this meeting that I use to draw the reader in.

  29. Girl Friday April 12, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    This has always worried me a bit, as my inciting incident doesn’t happen til Chapter 3. But every one of my beta readers liked the beginning of the story anyway and found it gripping, so I’m hoping it’s okay…

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