Inciting Incident - how soon is too soon?

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sherryosbornecarter
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Thu Dec 05, 2019 7:34 pm Post

Hello! We all know that with only a few exceptions, you want to get your inciting incident to occur fairly early in your novel. Otherwise, you risk boredom for your readers.

However, is there such a thing as too soon? Can the inciting incident happen on page one? Or right at the beginning? I am working on a new story and although I'm still figuring out my outline, I have written my opening paragraphs and the inciting incident is what kicks the story off.

I don't think I can make the story work any other way but I'm wondering what your opinion is. Technically, I suppose you could say that the inciting incident actually happens "off-screen" in that my opening is the beginning of the aftermath but it's definitely what sets the path for my main character.

Are there any examples of books that have done this successfully? I don't want to figure out a beginning that suits a rule if it doesn't feel right but I guess I just want reassurance that this does work!

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kewms
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Thu Dec 05, 2019 7:59 pm Post

How do you define "inciting incident?"

It's quite common for mysteries and thrillers to open with something dramatic: someone is killed, a body is discovered, the bad guys steal the bomb, whatever.

In romance, the eventual couple usually meets pretty early, but it isn't always clear to them or to us: the eventual Prince Charming may be just one guy at a party, and maybe not even the most appealing one.

Or, the first chapter or two can be pretty expository: introducing characters, introducing setting, introducing looming sense of doom, but the plot doesn't really get going right away. That's more common in genres that require a lot of worldbuilding -- fantasy, science fiction, historical -- or in "literary" books.

Overall, I'd say it's a matter of pacing: for a "faster" book, start the action earlier.

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Jaysen
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Thu Dec 05, 2019 8:26 pm Post

Someone here once said something that was clever. I am not clever so I will paraphrase it poorly;
someone smart wrote:We study and know the rules so we know how to break them effectively.

If your story is solid then it won't matter where you put the "inciting incident". Heck, I leave them out altogether

But then my writing isn't any good ;)
Jaysen

I have a wife and 2 kids that I can only attribute to a wiggle, a giggle, and the realization that she was out of my league so I might as well be happy with her as a friend. 26 years marriage later, I can't imagine life without her. -Me 10/7/09

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sherryosbornecarter
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Thu Dec 05, 2019 10:45 pm Post

kewms wrote:How do you define "inciting incident?"


I'm going based on the idea that the inciting incident is where the path changes for the main character. I can't really go into a whole ton of detail because I'm still trying to piece the story together in my head, but the gist is that the MC is surprised to find herself dead and is about to embark on life after death. (Completely non-religious, more of a "beyond the veil" concept.)

So my opening paragraph is the MC's surprise at how anticlimatic it was. We will learn about some of her previous life as the book goes on but I feel like it would be a bit "meh" to write her regular life first.

Thank you, this was helpful!

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sherryosbornecarter
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Thu Dec 05, 2019 10:46 pm Post

Jaysen wrote:Someone here once said something that was clever. I am not clever so I will paraphrase it poorly;
someone smart wrote:We study and know the rules so we know how to break them effectively.

If your story is solid then it won't matter where you put the "inciting incident". Heck, I leave them out altogether

But then my writing isn't any good ;)


That is a great reminder, thank you! I think I knew that but self-doubt gets in the way.

And I do not believe your writing isn't good! :D

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kewms
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Thu Dec 05, 2019 11:13 pm Post

Unless you're going for an "I see dead people" twist like The Sixth Sense, the main character being dead is a pretty critical fact. So yes, probably good to start there.

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sherryosbornecarter
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Fri Dec 06, 2019 3:11 am Post

kewms wrote:Unless you're going for an "I see dead people" twist like The Sixth Sense, the main character being dead is a pretty critical fact. So yes, probably good to start there.

Katherine


Haha, yes, definitely not going for a surprise. The only one who is surprised is my protagonist, which I guess is pretty normal if you suddenly realize, "well crap, I'm dead!" :lol:

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Fri Dec 06, 2019 11:15 am Post

The key, I should think, is how your character discovers she's dead.

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popcornflix
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Sat Dec 07, 2019 10:34 am Post

The idea of the Inciting Incident is borrowed from 20th Century screenwriting. Many modern novels hew to movie conventions.

Michael Arndt, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Toy Story 3 and Little Miss Sunshine has a good description of an Inciting Incident:

It's a moment of big change for the character and a call to adventure, but the most important thing is that it must either change their life irrevocably, or offer them a vision of a new future. Before the Inc/Inc, the protagonist is in stasis -- their future is set, for better or worse. They know exactly what their future will hold. The Inc/Inc either changes their future in a way the protagonist can't control, or it's an invitation to a new life.

You can start your story after the Inc/Inc, but you're going to have to explain it in an anecdote or a flashback eventually so the reader understands the situation. Many satisfying stories begin with showing the protagonist's stasis, and then shake everything up with the Inc/Inc.

HTH
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auxbuss
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Sat Dec 07, 2019 5:59 pm Post

If there's one thing I've learned about writing and writers, it's that no two are the same and what one writer considers inalienable fact is anathema to another. So, appeals to authority are vacuous, because there is no authority.

Do whatever the story tells you.

And, in my opinion. you can't possibly know your story until the first draft is done, and even then, you only have the starting point.

I now feel compelled to write something where the "Inciting Incident" is revealed in the final paragraph.
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auxbuss
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Sat Dec 07, 2019 6:03 pm Post

kewms wrote:Unless you're going for an "I see dead people" twist like The Sixth Sense, the main character being dead is a pretty critical fact. So yes, probably good to start there.

Mixing this with The Crying Game twist is starting to be a proper story.

Next NiaD? Eh, Rog?
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kewms
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Sat Dec 07, 2019 7:36 pm Post

auxbuss wrote:I now feel compelled to write something where the "Inciting Incident" is revealed in the final paragraph.


Been done. Memento. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_(film) (Link has spoilers.)

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Sat Dec 07, 2019 8:15 pm Post

Movies are different to books... By the time you “read” the first few ”paragraphs” of a movie, you’ve already found a babysitter, driven to a theatre, bought a ticket and invested in some popcorn and a large soda. You’re not going to get up and walk away because the narrative playing early enough in the movie to still have actors’ names flashing on the screen is some slower scene-setting stuff about someone’s life before their inciting incident.

You might just leave that book in the bookstore, though.

As a general rule, if you think a chapter is less interesting to write, your audience will find it less interesting to read. It sounds like you’re less inspired by the steady state so don’t worry too much about it. “Marley was dead” is a great opening line.
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auxbuss
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Sat Dec 07, 2019 9:30 pm Post

kewms wrote:
auxbuss wrote:I now feel compelled to write something where the "Inciting Incident" is revealed in the final paragraph.


Been done. Memento. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_(film) (Link has spoilers.)

Heh, that's a coincidence. I erased a bit of text before posting where I alluded to committing to storytelling by tattooing it on oneself and, naturally, Memento came to mind.

Everything has been done before, of course.
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Sun Dec 08, 2019 12:02 am Post

Even the first line isn't too soon if the storytelling is strong.

Here's an idea: Unless the title and premise of your book is obvious before the reader opens it, you could begin the first chapter like a normal story-building setup and then have her die when the reader is least expecting it, before the chapter ends. Creating the expectation that she is the main character and that something else being setup in the first chapter is 'obviously' the thing the book will be about, can be done in a number of ways.

Imagine picking up a Michael Crichton novel and in the first chapter we meet a female scientist working for a oceanic non-profit and it's a big deal because all the cutting edge marine biology entities tried to hire her in vain, and suddenly she gets a call on her personal cell phone -the number to which she gives out to no one but immediate family- from the Pentagon, about an undersea site that they want her to see immediately and that they are coming to get her right that moment to take her there... and then she dies in the helicopter crash to the site. No one is going to see that coming. That would certainly be an unusual twist that many would like, even if they already know it's going to be about dying.

Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors and my style is influenced by his (and Ron Hansen's), but I put down The Crossing for two weeks before being in the mood to pick it back up, because of an unexpected event (no the main character didn't die) that removed a huge part of the buildup and the draw of the book for me to that point. It was a long way into the novel as well and I felt like that wasn't the intended effect he was after, as I always love his style of surprises and twists.

So even the best authors don't always get the major direction change down perfectly.

Good luck