There’s a moment in every work of fiction—novels, film, or television—where the protagonist’s reality comes crashing down and a new problem presents itself.
Writing teachers call it the “inciting incident.” I call it the #$%! moment.
The following rules are a general guide to crafting a kick-ass inciting incident. Must you follow them to write a good book? No. But I can promise you this: If you do it right, your readers will continue to turn the page.
Let’s Start with an Example
The following text is a simplified list of scenes from one of my books. The #$%! moment is highlighted in red.
-James and Whit make a movie in the woods.
-James is attacked by Danny and loses his precious camera.
-James returns to his castle-like home and lies to his family about the missing camera.
-James discovers an ad for a new camera.
-James goes to buy the camera and discovers a dozen boys in the trees around the home. They’re in a trance, listening to the voice of a little girl inside.
-James meets the girl and they have dinner in a treehouse.
-The little girl is a modern-day siren… chaos ensues.
Make It Bad, Then Make It Worse
The goal of the #$%! moment is to hook your reader. You can’t do this by beating around the bush or devising a mediocre problem for your character to solve. You need to scare your protagonist and shock your audience.
The #$%! moment needs to set up the central problem that will consume your characters for the rest of the book. Make it clear. Make it bad. Make it memorable.
In the above example, James could have simply heard the girl’s voice. The scene would still be the inciting incident, but would it be exciting? No. To hook the reader, I added the boys in the trees. This puts a creepy image in the reader’s mind and makes them wonder why the little girl is so special. Because we see the boys in a trance, we fear for James.
The Sooner The Better
If you place the inciting incident too late, the reader will get bored. If you place it too early, they won’t understand it.
Here’s the trick: Let your protagonist determine the placement of the #$%! moment. Are your characters average people like you and me? Or do we need to understand the complexity of their lives in order to understand the inciting incident?
Before the #$%! moment, you need to establish “normal.”
In the example, I had four things to set up before the girl is introduced: James’ family dynamic, his relationship to Whit, the fact that he lives in a house that looks like a castle, and his missing camera. The second these concepts are in place—the second the reader understands “normal”—I hit them with the #$%! moment.
There’s a reason I harp on The Notecard System in almost every tip. If you plan your story before you write it, you can make sure that the inciting incident is as strong as possible. If you can’t pinpoint the exact moment when “normal” comes crumbling down, you need to make it stronger!
And remember, the bigger the problem, the better the book.
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