Last night my husband and I watched the latest Star Trek. We saw it in the theaters, of course, but watching it again at home, I couldn’t help but be struck by how incredibly well it begins. For both Kirk and Spock, the introductions are perfect. The writers picked pivotal moments in each of their lives to illustrate the kind of men they would turn out to be. In 20 minutes, they take us from origins to present adulthood in a way that’s difficult to achieve on paper. The childhood flashback of movies is tantamount to the prologues that seem to be so out of vogue in fiction, and it’s something that I personally like.
In fiction you only have a very brief window during which to hook you reader. Some readers are more forgiving than others. If your style isn’t offensive to them, they might give you a little more leeway before they put your book down, never to be picked up again. But at most you have maybe three chapters to snare their interest. In such light, it behooves you to be economical in your choice of how to begin a story.
In 2008, I read something that I really didn’t understand well at the time. I can’t remember where or who said it, but the thing that I read was that you should begin your story with the inciting incident. Okay I went back and dug up the post where I talked about this. I got it from Shery L. Clark during a LBLI series on Great Beginnings. According to Sherry,
The inciting incident is what propels the story into motion. It implies, and must have, action, conflict, drama and movement forward. It’s not description or exposition or backstory or characterisation – it is purely and simply a key point of action that makes your main character act or react. If you are starting with something that doesn’t demand action or reaction, you’re probably not starting in the right place.
This seems very obvious. You should start your story with action. That’s not the part that I didn’t understand well.
What I misunderstood about the idea of inciting incidents is that this does not necessarily mean start with the scene in the story that is really what kicks off THIS story. The point of no return so to speak. Not that it’s a bad thing to begin with such a point. It’s how I started the first draft of Hunted in Shadow. With action. Marley is using subterfuge to break into Anya’s hotel room to try and find out where her friend has disappeared. And it doesn’t suck as a beginning. It certainly doesn’t drag, and it says something about her character.
But the thing that didn’t gybe for me is that in my mind, many stories are served by beginning with action at a different point in a character’s life. Something that might not necessarily be what set them on the path of the current story, but which is a defining or illustrative moment in their lives. What I think of as pivotal moments. The story that most clearly sticks into my mind about this is Til Death, what I was writing when the inciting incident concept came up. Pot and I argued about the beginning of this book. It starts with a prologue, yes. Really unpopular thing, prologues. I’ve talked about that elsewhere, not coincidentally during a time when this particular argument was taking place. The thing that we were arguing about was whether the moment I chose to start this book was the inciting incident or not. The scene takes place 20 years before the current story, when our hero Wyatt is a boy. He’s playing around on his grandfather’s back 40 and finds human remains. The scene isn’t very long. A few pages. But the reason I chose it was that in my mind, it was a pivotal moment in Wyatt’s life. This is the reason that he becomes the man he becomes, and I really felt (still feel) like it’s the best way to begin the story. Including it somehow as a flashback or a dream or simply being told wouldn’t be as powerful as being in his head at the time this occurs. Pot disagreed with me on this. She didn’t think it was a bad way to begin, but she didn’t think it was the inciting incident. Right this moment, I can’t remember what she said the inciting incident was because I opted to go with my gut on this.
Then last year, along comes the idea of Story Structure from Larry Brooks at Storyfix (which is still a marvelous idea even if he’s taken to sounding a bit like a car salesman with most of his posts since then–I’ve never seen anyone so adept at doling out breadcrumbs [I do not refer to the Story Structure series here, which is rich and detailed and amazing, but rather to the more recent posts, which seem to be a bit less substantive] ). Brooks talks about The Setup and its five goals:
- Setting a killer hook
- Introducing your hero
- Establishing Stakes
- Foreshadowing Events to Come
- Preparing for Launch
All of these lead toward what he calls The First Plot Point. In Brooks’ words:
Because the First Plot Point is the moment when the story’s primary conflict makes its initial center-stage appearance. It may be the first full frontal view of it, or it may be the escalation and shifting of something already present. In either case, nothing about the story is the same from that moment forward.
There is a time and a place to introduce the reason your hero/protagonist sets off down the appointed path of your story – at roughly the 20th to 25th percentile. That moment is the First Plot Point (FPP), sometimes referred to as the Inciting Incident (emphasis mine).
It is the bridge between Parts 1 and 2. Which means, everything that comes before is a set-up for it, and everything that comes after is a response to it.
The angels might as well have sung the hallelujah chorus when I read that. I felt like I finally was getting a clue. The inciting incident is the point that sets the CURRENT conflict into motion and ISN’T necessarily where you start the book. If you throw your reader directly into the story at this point without really introducing your hero, without establishing stakes, giving a hint at what’s coming or whetting the reader’s appetite–why should the reader really care about him/her?
That’s what I feel like I accomplished with how I began Til Death.
This is something I skipped in the first draft of HiS. I had no set up. You’re getting to know Marley on the fly, and while her actions are moderately interesting, they don’t necessarily hook you in and give you a clear idea of why she’s doing what she’s going. One of the biggest changes I’m making to the book in Draft 2 is to add a clear setup, establishing the stakes, and really giving a clear picture what her life is like before the story begins. I am starting with a pivotal moment–not a flashback or some childhood event, but a lonely Christmas Day where it becomes painfully clear in a very big hurry that her best friend and only family has been missing for the better part of a year, and we get to see the aftermath up close and personal.
Either way, I feel like I understand both pivotal beginnings and inciting incidents a helluva lot better now than I did before.