Do your friends or family yawn when you show them your latest work of fiction? Are you struggling to start your story in a way that your readers never forget?
Do you want to light a fuse in your story so that your readers just have to read on and discover how the tale turns out?
I’ve spent the last few months rewriting a collection of short-stories, and I’ve faced all of these problems.
I won’t lie to you.
It’s disheartening to read something you spent hours on and realise you (never mind your would-be readers) want to put it down after the first three pages.
I had this problem. So I got help.
Recently, I attended a workshop by the master storyteller Robert McKee, during which he explained why the inciting incident is an essential part of any compelling story.
In this post, I’m going to share what I learnt from Robert and offer practical tips for writing a more compelling inciting incident that grips your readers.
Warning: there be spoilers and plot points ahead!
What is the Inciting Incident?
In his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee offers this inciting incident definition for writers and storytellers: ‘The inciting incident radically upsets the balances of forces in your protagonist’s life.’
Prior to the inciting incident, your hero lives a normal or ordinary life, but after the incident in your tale nothing is the same for your hero.
This incident could be a positive story event like:
- Your characters or hero winning EUR3.2 million in the lotto
- Your characters or hero being offered a high-paying job in a large tech firm on the condition he screws over his mentor
- Your characters or hero being bitten by a radioactive spider
Or the inciting incident could be negative story event, such as:
- The father/mother of your hero dying in a fatal late night hit-and-run the day before Christmas
- Your hero being fired from his job and coming home from work early to find his wife sleeping with his boss.
Your hero being framed for killing her spouse with hemlock.
Here are 7 tips for writing a compelling incident – that keeps the reader in your story:
1. Include Your Inciting Incident in the First Quarter of Your Story (Or Sooner)
Obviously there are exceptions, but the writers of popular and successful stories include an inciting incident in the first quarter of their tales.
For example, in the novel Misery by Stephen King, the inciting incident comes almost immediately within the first few pages.
The hero of the story Paul Sheldon wakes after a car crash in Annie Wilkes’ remote country house, realises he can’t move his legs, and that he’s a prisoner.
If the inciting incident comes later than the first quarter of your story, readers will feel bored and wonder when your story is going to start.
Here’s the problem with bored readers: They have a frightening tendency to put books down and never pick them back up.
2. Change Your Hero’s Life for Better or Worse
In the first act of the Spiderman film, a radioactive spider bites our hero Peter Parker during a school trip.
The next morning, Peter’s whole life changes. He wakes up and find he is super-strong, can shoot a spiderweb from his wrists, and his other senses are heightened. Peter can never go back to the way things were because of this inciting incident.
You can change your hero’s life for the worse too.
In Misery, things were bleak for the novelist Paul Sheldon’s after he woke up to find he couldn’t walk and that he was prisoner of the deranged Annie Wilkes.
Things were great for the reader hungry for a gripping yarn though.
3. Awaken a Hidden Desire In Your Hero
First, consider the plot points of the classic novel The Godfather. After rivals shoot Don Vito Corleone and threaten his business, his nephew Michael discovers a desire within himself to protect his family and their business interests at any cost.
When Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, this awakens a desire in Peter to become something more than just a clumsy high-school student who people ignore.
In Game of Thrones, when Ned Stark is visited by his friend Robert Baratheon, this visit awakens a desire in Ned to become a loyal and just friend.
When writing the inciting incident of your story, consider what your hero wants (or sub-consciously wants) and then let this incident awaken this desire in them.
4. Consider Your Climax: Now Work Backwards
The climax of the first Game of Thrones book is the execution of one of the book’s heroes: Ned Stark. The inciting event in this book comes when King Robert Baratheon calls on Ned Stark to help him in Winterfell.
When Ned accepts his old friend’s request and leaves the safety of Winterfell, his fate becomes irrevocably tied with Robert’s.
In the book Misery, the writer Paul Sheldon bludgeon’s his captor to death with his typewriter.
Almost all the story events in both stories from the inciting incident onwards build towards these shocking (and inevitable) climaxes.
5. Force Your Hero To React to the Inciting Incident
A successful inciting incident throws the life of your hero out of balance because they have to react. It is simply impossible for your hero to go on with their normal lives.
How can Peter Parker continue to be a normal school boy when he’s got the skills to fight crime and get Mary Jane/Gwen Stacy?
How can Ned Stark stay in Winterfell with his family without being disloyal to his oldest friend?
How can Michael build a life outside the family business when everyone around him needs his help?
6. Write a Single Memorable Event that Happens to the Protagonist
In the first Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker’s life is irrevocably changed when he finds Princess Leia’s plea for help in a broken droid.
It’s impossible for Luke to forget his message or go back to his normal life, and he goes in search of Obi Wan Kenobi who is living in the hills as an old hermit.
It’s equally difficult for Peter Parker (or the audience) to forget about being bitten by a radioactive spider. His actions shape the story.
When you’re writing an inciting incident, ask yourself if this single event is something your hero and your readers will remember after the incident has passed?
7. Start a Conflict
Almost every great story is about a conflict, and the inciting incident is often the spark that lights the powder keg in your story.
The shooting of Don Vito Corleone leads Michael into a violent gang war and ultimately tears apart his family.
After Luke Skywalker finds R2D2’s message, he goes on a quest that culminates in a life or death battle against an evil empire, and which unearths a shocking family truth.
And when Ned Stark agrees to help his old friend, what happens next tears the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros apart.
Hook Your Readers Every Time
A powerful inciting incident is the catalyst that all great stories are built on.
Yes, it’s possible to break all of the above rules and still write a compelling story; literary writers do this all the time.
However, masters of story like Robert McKee argue that newer writers must learn the rules before they can break them.
The good news is no matter what type of fiction writer you want to become, you can always use an inciting incident to write the beginnings of a story that hooks your new readers.
Now go get ‘em!
This post originally appeared on Writers’ Village. Be sure to get the writing bonuses over there.