Hi, great to meet you! Hello, pleased to make your acquaintance. Hey, good to meet ya!
From just a few words, you can tell a lot about a person. You only have seven seconds to make a first impression. The first moments of your introduction to someone new are critical in determining the fate of friendships, romances, business partnerships, and even casual acquaintances.
Your books face the same challenge.
Readers are busy, and if they’re not captivated from the beginning, they won’t stick around. Nancy Pearl and Austin Kleon recommend the Rule of 50: if a reader is not enjoying the book after 50 pages, it’s time for a new book. That gives you six to eight scenes — about half of your Beginning Hook — to grab your reader.
Or less. Reading 50 pages takes about an hour, on average. That may work as a rule for a book you’ve committed to read, but a reader making a purchase may use far less. Kindle samples are 10% of your content length. For an 80,000 word thriller, that’s at best 8,000 words (and that’s not including front matter), or just four to five scenes. There’s no guarantee that a reader will get through even that much before deciding to read on or move to the next book.
You need to hook your reader fast.
If your goal is to sell more books, you need to get them to invest in your story in the first few pages. Once they’ve bought into the story, buying your book is an easy choice.
If your goal is to create a masterpiece that can stand the test of time, well, you need to do the same thing. Think about the books that you love. The ones that you return to, again and again, like trusted friends. Once upon a time, you opened that book for the first time. What if it had taken hours of reading to get to the good part? Would you have given it a chance?
Before your book can become a reader’s old friend, it has to make a great first impression.
Commandment Number One
“Thou must have an Inciting Incident,” Shawn Coyne wrote in The Story Grid. It’s the first commandment, the start of the protagonist’s journey, the “big event scene that kicks off your Story.”
A common misconception is that the Inciting Incident is always the first thing to happen in a story. Sometimes, the Inciting Incident is in the first scene. However, in many stories the Inciting Incident doesn’t happen until a few scenes in. Placing your Inciting Incident can be critical to the success of your Global Story.
To find the ideal place for the Inciting Incident, start with its purpose — your Inciting Incident is there to “upset the life balance of your lead protagonist(s). It must make them uncomfortably out of sync… for good or for ill,” Coyne writes. It should go wherever it serves this purpose best and makes the story work. The amount of development that the story’s Ordinary World needs before you throw it out of balance varies from story to story. Evaluating the characteristics of your Inciting Incident and the needs of your Global Story will help you to find the perfect place for it.
Let’s look at some practical techniques for determining where to put your Inciting Incident.
Starting with a bang
In some masterworks, the Inciting Incident does happen right at the beginning of a story. These stories plunge us right into the action. For this placement to create excitement and intrigue instead of confusion and frustration, your story needs the right kind of Inciting Incident: it must have primal stakes or be universally relatable.
Primal stakes grip readers because they are instantly understandable. When readers encounter characters in these situations, they can empathize with them without knowing anything about them. They will root for a character fighting to survive. They will grieve with a family that has had a child taken. Inciting Incidents with raw emotion and high stakes need no introduction.
The Martian by Andy Weir is a perfect example of this. It opens with Mark Watney stranded on Mars. He is the sole representative of humanity on an alien planet where every part of the environment is trying to kill him, and he has no help because everyone on Earth believes that he’s dead. It doesn’t get much more primal than that.
Universally relatable Inciting Incidents tap into scene archetypes. Some scene types lend themselves well to Inciting Incidents. Stranger Knocks at the Door is a common and effective way to start a story. Tolkien used this to great effect in The Hobbit, in which Gandalf’s visit to Bilbo Baggins sets the adventure in motion. Getting a Job is another relatable Inciting Incident. Stephen King’s The Shining starts with an interview in which Jack Torrance lands the job that will send him to the hotel where the horror of the story will unfold. Note that these scene types place unfamiliar characters together. One or both of them will need information to ground themselves in the events of the story. The reader, as another newcomer to the story world, identifies with this need and forms a bond with the information-seeking character.
Your global genre can also give you options for a relatable Inciting Incident. The reader comes into the story with genre expectations. Scene types that fulfill those expectations can make effective early Inciting Incidents because they give the reader a sense of familiarity and direction. In a murder mystery, for example, the Discovery of the Body scene can be the first scene.
The biggest advantage of putting your Inciting Incident in the first scene is that it launches your reader into the story. It amps up the narrative drive and gets your reader hooked. However, if your Inciting Incident isn’t right for the first scene, putting it there can drive readers away instead. Depending on the needs of your story, you may want to include a few scenes before you dive into your Global Story.
7 reasons to delay your Inciting Incident
1. Establishing your narrative device.
How you choose to tell your story might require some setup before your Global Story begins (Not sure how to choose a narrative device? Check out this article on linking your point of view to your controlling idea). If you have an overt narrative device, like a framing story, your first scenes will establish that frame in which your Global Story will be told.
Steven Pressfield’s The Legend of Bagger Vance sets up a compelling narrative device right from the beginning. Dr. Hardison Greaves, the narrator, gives a historical note on the exhibition golf match that will be the main event of the novel. Then, he starts telling the story to his protegee, Michael, who has lost his way and is giving up on golf and medical school. He intends the Global Story to offer a solution to Michael’s crisis. This introduction sets the stage for the entire story. We find out why Dr. Greaves is telling the story and invest in the outcome because a brilliant young man’s future hangs in the balance. This gives depth and meaning to the story that we would not experience without the framing story setup before the Inciting Incident.
2. Setting up genre expectations.
The surest way to disappoint a reader is to set up a story as one genre and then fail to deliver — or even deliver another genre altogether. The Inciting Incident is often indicative of the genre, promising the reader a set of conventions and obligatory scenes that will be fulfilled before the end of the story. Sometimes, though, the Inciting Incident is ambiguous and we only find out its true nature as the story progresses. In these cases, the reader would not know what to expect from the story just by experiencing the Inciting Incident with no context. In such cases, introductory scenes can set the stage for the intended genre.
In Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Fight Club, the Inciting Incident occurs when the narrator’s apartment burns. It is unclear whether this is coincidental — perhaps it is an unlucky turn of events that could end up pushing him toward a relationship with Marla (Love) or a symbolic loss of identity that could propel him into a journey of self-discovery (internal genre). It could be causal — maybe a crime (Crime) or the act of a nemesis (Action – duel). With so many possibilities left open, we wouldn’t know what to think.
Instead of opening with the fire, the first scene of Fight Club is a glimpse of the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene. We see the narrator with a gun in his mouth during his showdown with Tyler Durden. With this glimpse of the Core Event of the genre, we know that we are in a Thriller. We can use that as a clue to infer more information about the ambiguous events, like the Inciting Incident, that we encounter throughout the story. Most importantly, we know what to expect.
3. Defining the reality leaf.
The first scenes of your story sketch out the borders of your world, so this is the time to alert the reader to key differences between your world and reality. This is particularly important for stories in which the fantastical aspects of the world don’t manifest until well into the story. Introducing magic or technology too late in the story can feel contrived. Once your reader has formed the boundaries of your story’s world, you need to play by your own rules.
In the first scene of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore and McGonagall meet on Privet Drive to await Hagrid’s delivery of the baby Harry to his muggle aunt and uncle. As they wait, they perform feats of magic. Dumbledore extinguishes all of the streetlights, and McGonagall transforms from a cat into a professor.
Imagine if J.K. Rowling had started off with Harry living a normal, if dismal, existence at the Dursleys’. As readers, we might become grounded in this realistic world and feel disbelief when Harry started to perform magic — or, if we knew going in that the book was about a wizard, we might skim through the non-magical scenes to get to the wonder that we were promised. Including the magic early both satisfies the reader’s expectation and sets the stage for more to come.
Early scenes also tell the reader the kind of magic to expect. In the first scene of Like Water for Chocolate, Tita cries a flood of tears when she is born. There are so many tears that, when they dry, the family harvests ten pounds of salt from them. This sets up the magical realism that pervades the story once Tita starts her romance with Pedro. Without this early introduction of a magical sensibility, Laura Esquivel would have risked losing readers when Tita did start to manifest magic in her cooking. This visceral emotional magic is different from the more intellectual, studied magic in the Harry Potter books. Swapping the first scenes for each other wouldn’t work because they don’t set up the right rules for the story.
4. Building the stakes. Getting to know the protagonist before the Inciting Incident can amp up the stakes for the Inciting Incident, creating tension and narrative drive.
The Inciting Incident of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is the reaping ceremony, but it begins with a hunting scene. The reaping in itself is certainly primal — children are chosen to fight to the death. However, the hunting scene raises the stakes even further. As we see Katniss and Gale hunt in the woods, we learn about her family and her fear for them. We find out that her mother and sister depend on her to survive. We also come to admire her for taking responsibility for her family, choosing to stay and help them even though she could leave and survive on her own outside of the oppressive system.
By the time that we see the reaping, we are firmly on Katniss’s side. We know that she is the sole provider for her family. We have seen her love for her sister. We feel her dread when Prim is chosen — and horror when Katniss, the character that we have identified with, chooses to go instead. The stakes are much higher and more personal than they would have been if we had gone into the reaping without learning about Katniss’s ordinary life.
5. Getting the reader on your protagonist’s side.
Not every protagonist is a hero that your readers love to love. Sometimes, that love is hard won. Your readers don’t have to like your protagonist, but they do need to empathize with them. If you have an unlikeable protagonist, you may have some work to do to get your reader to cheer for them by the time that they are challenged by the Inciting Incident.
Consider the Inciting Incident of Marvel’s Dr. Strange. When Dr. Stephen Strange gets into the accident that destroys his hands, he is on the phone with his assistant refusing to take surgical cases that are hopeless because they will damage his perfect success record. He is arrogant and seemingly uncaring. When he loses his talent, it would be easy to refuse to empathize with his pain because of his attitudes.
The reason that we care about Dr. Strange despite his arrogance is the introductory scene in the emergency room. We see him save a life with his extraordinary talent. We hear his rationale for his attitudes when he explains to Dr. Palmer that she is wasting her talents because she should be working on tricky cases that she would have a unique ability to solve instead of doing work that a less capable doctor could do equally well. We also see Dr. Palmer’s concern for him, and understand that she, who knows him better than anyone, has found good inside of him.
When he gets in the accident, we might not like his arrogance, but we understand him and we hope for him. That’s what makes the Inciting Incident work.
6. …Or the opposite.
Sometimes, we don’t want the reader to fully buy into the protagonist’s point of view. For example, the Inciting Incident in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is one of those primal situations that might give the reader immediate empathy for the protagonist. Nick’s wife, Amy, has gone missing, and from the state of the house, it looks like she was taken. If we went into this Inciting Incident cold, we might feel Nick’s fear and pain. However, Flynn builds up doubt about Nick’s motives by planting discord with Amy and hinting at shameful secrets in the first few scenes. This gives us enough emotional distance from Nick that, even as we experience the story from his point of view, we can question his motives and see him as a potential suspect.
Displaying the character’s flaws can also set up an internal genre that will follow the character’s growth throughout the story.
7. Make the Inciting Incident make sense. If your Inciting Incident is not a primal or universal event, you might need some backstory to help the reader understand what is going on. You can often drip in exposition over the course of the story and make sense of events after starting the action, but sometimes information is necessary before the Global Story starts.
An example of this is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. In the Inciting Incident, Ender learns that he has been accepted to Battle School due to his performance in a final test that he didn’t know was happening. He had his monitor removed, got in a fight, and injured a classmate. In the first few scenes, we learn about the status attached to keeping the monitors longer than other kids. We see Ender’s disappointment at being “washed out” (in the Inciting Incident, we find out that this means that he would not be selected for Battle School). We empathize with his guilt at his reaction to his classmate’s taunts.
It is critical that we understand Ender’s final test in order to understand the kind of commitment that he is making by joining Battle School. We need to know about the fight, and to understand the fight, we need to know about the monitors that children wear. Instead of dripping this in throughout the Inciting Incident, Card tells the story of the removal of Ender’s monitor and his fight in the first few scenes. This choice allows the Inciting Incident scene itself to proceed unencumbered with backstory, maintaining the momentum of the heated exchange between Ender’s parents and Colonel Graff and preserving the narrative drive.
Setting up your ordinary world the right way
If you decide to delay your Inciting Incident, then your Global Story won’t start in your first scene. However, that doesn’t mean that you are off the hook for creating riveting story content in your first few scenes. This is where you build up the Ordinary World, in hero’s journey terms, that will be knocked off balance by your Inciting Incident. It must be compelling for the reader to invest in the story and care about the hero’s quest to bring a gift back to this world.
Like any unit of story, the scenes that come before your Inciting Incident must abide all five commandments. The scenes must turn. Even if you are including them in order to give your reader necessary backstory, they must be more than exposition. Use exposition in these scenes as you would elsewhere in the story: as ammunition.
At a macro level, the conflicts and choices that you set up in your Ordinary World should relate to the Global Story. They show the Global Story themes in miniature — in a lower stakes environment, characters make choices that are thematically similar to the ones that they will face later on. They should reflect your Global Genre and Controlling Idea, setting up the main concepts that you will tackle throughout the story.
The most important principle to keep in mind when building the scenes that come before your Inciting Incident is to give them as much attention as you would a scene in your Global Story. To your characters, these scenes are the story that they are living, until a new story comes along and interrupts them. To your readers, these scenes are what they will use to decide if your book is worth getting to know.
Now it’s your turn
Think about your own work in progress. Is your Inciting Incident primal or universal? Or does your reader need to be grounded in the Ordinary World for your Inciting Incident to have its full impact?
How are you going to introduce your story to your reader? It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Let us know in the comments.