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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Since posting my About Me Video, the number-one question I hear from fans is, “Are you OCD?”
They’re referring to my deceptively organized wall of notecards that represents my current book-in-progress. After describing my process dozens of times, I decided it might make an interesting addition to my writing tips!
This tip is a subjective, step-by-step guide to the writing process that works best for me. This method won’t work for everyone, but I hope you can use my example to develop your own unique process.
And remember, the only thing that matters is words on the page! If you find that you spend more time tinkering with your system than writing your novel, you need to rethink your process!
Before I begin a new project, I make sure I’m stocked up on notecards, pens, tape, and push pins. I use 5×8 index cards for scenes, and I cut 4×6 cards in half for individual ideas. In addition to the usual office supplies, I also buy a new journal and write my name and address on the first page.
I make sure my journal is in my pocket whenever I leave the apartment. If I hear a joke or an interesting anecdote—or if my mind wanders into the realm of my current story—I take a note. When I fill a few pages, I copy any relevant notes onto the small notecards that have been cut in half. This usually amounts to a sizable stack of mini index cards to be sorted later.
This may seem like a redundant step, but I’ve found that rewriting my journal notes onto index cards not only reminds me of my ideas, but allows me to expand on them with a fresh perspective.
This is where the magic happens. As the story develops, I’ll begin to detect key scenes. When I do, I immediately write them across the top of the large cards and place them in a rough sequence on my bulletin board. Next, I flip through my tiny notecards and tape ideas to the relevant scene. This process usually starts a chain reaction in my mind; the more the story comes together, the more I’m able to see new connections, and the more I expound on my initial notes.
THIS CAN BE A MESSY PROCESS. I don’t try to make the cards look perfect… they’ll be rearranged a hundred times before I’m finished!
Next, I repeat step three until the story has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s important to note that I still don’t know everything about my book! There could be a hundred unanswered questions throughout the story, but I’ll generally have a good sense of character arcs, twists, vital scenes… and ALWAYS my ending.
It’s finally time to start writing! I usually remove the first scene, scan the tiny cards to make sure I don’t miss important beats, then I begin to write the scene.
Just because I’m working on the book itself doesn’t mean the index cards don’t move! Sometimes a character will become obstinate and ignore what I wrote on the card. This is okay! The notes are a general guideline, not hard and fast rules.
When I finish a card, I remove it from the board and file it away.
Every so often I’ll have a card with a giant question mark on it. This means that I know what needs to happen in the scene, but I haven’t fleshed out the details yet. Instead of waiting until I reach that card, I’ll pull it off the wall, put it in my pocket, and spend a day thinking about it. When I have an idea, I write it on the card!
Benefits of the Notecard System
- It keeps the story tight! I only keep the notes that add to my story… and I cut the rest. If a scene sucks but has important story points, I can always cut the scene and transfer the notes to another card.
- It helps you avoid an extensive rewrite process! Every book needs a second or third pass when the first draft is complete… but if you structure your story correctly before you start writing, you can greatly reduce your stress later. The notecards help significantly.
- It kills writer’s block! Even if the order of the scenes change, I always know what beats to hit, so I never find myself trapped in the middle of my story with nowhere to go. I always know what comes next.
- It lets me know how much work I have left! There’s no better way to judge the amount of time it’ll take to finish your book than a notecard system. When I fall into a regular pattern, I get pretty good at estimating my completion date!
Again, it’s important to remember that my process will not work for everybody. However, if you’re a new writer who’s still developing your craft, I hope this gives you a good place to start!
Want more writing tips? Check out my new book, Put the Cat In the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen.
Every writer has a specialized knowledge outside of writing. Some of us know about animal training, skateboarding, corporate financing, food preparation, running a hotel, astronomy, or pop culture. Whether you do it on purpose or not, your unique insights will worm their way into your writing… and they should! People like to read the details and secrets of unfamiliar professions, and your insider knowledge will bring authenticity to your work.
There are, however, important types of knowledge that could be necessary to your story. Are you writing a science-fiction novel? You probably need to understand the basics of science. Psychological thriller? Historical drama? Existential comedy? Even if these aren’t your usual genres, “big concepts” can pop up in any work of fiction, and you need to be prepared.
Dedicate a bookshelf to introductory reference books, beginner’s guides, “For Dummies” books… there are entire series of books dedicated to teaching the basics of vast or difficult concepts. Search them out, page through them when you’re bored, and keep them close when you’re writing.
Not only are these resources useful for understanding big concepts, but they can be a great source of inspiration!
This goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. If you’re writing about a specific concept such as manic depressive disorder, the origin of Hinduism, or a vaccine that will end aging, you need to research these topics thoroughly! Michael Crichton didn’t write Jurassic Park by reading Chaos Theory For Dummies.
In short, be an expert at a few things, but understand the basics of everything.
Continued from Part One: Digging for Truth
Now that we know how to dig for Truth using “What if” questions, how do we identify the Truth when it’s uncovered?
First, lets look at the qualities of Truth.
Truth is Universal
It doesn’t matter if your story is a romance between a flying turtle and a jelly bean. If you tell your story with honesty, everyone will be able to identify with it.
Truth is Often Unique
You may be searching in familiar territory (Love, death, hope, obsession, terror), but when you discover Truth, it will something special… something only you could find.
Truth Can Be Provocative
If you reach a question that makes you think, “Whoa… I don’t know if I should go there…” chances are, you’re on the right track.
Truth is Always Captivating
Because it’s universal, unique, and provocative, people are captivated by honesty.
“Death is sad,” is not Truth. It’s an observation that is often true, but not always.
What happens if you’re Nate Fisher from the third season of Six Feet Under? Here’s a man who threw his life away by marrying the woman he knocked up. He hates the banality of his new life. He might even hate his wife.
But then she goes missing. Several episodes later, nobody can find her. Death is the only explanation.
“Sad” doesn’t even come close to describing Nate’s emotions. Neither does “relief.” Nate (and the Six Feet Under writers) had to dig deeper to find Truth with a capital T. Through his wife’s death, Nate discovers that he actually loves her. He feels guilty for wishing her out of his life. He misses her despite his newfound freedom. Truth, in this instance, is a horrific crucible of emotions that never would have been unearthed if the writers had stopped at “sad.”
If I was writing a scene about death before my father died, I WOULD have stopped at “sad.” I wouldn’t have been able to write about how my nightmares became comforting because my reality was worse. I never would have known about the hatred I’d feel towards doctors for limiting a patient’s morphine intake. I didn’t know that the worst part about my father’s death would be the fact that he’d never see me succeed as a writer.
Now, scroll up and scan this post again. I bet you were mildly interested in the first half (or you wouldn’t have gotten this far)… but I bet you were fully immersed in the last two paragraphs.
THAT is the power of truth.
Want more writing tips? Check out my new book, Put the Cat In the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen.
Writers are always preaching about “the truth” in writing.
Until recently, this has been an abstract concept for me. I know what it means to “tell the truth,” but how does this relate to my story? Isn’t fiction a lie by definition?
Thanks to a long week of exploring, explaining, and defending my work, this concept has finally clicked in my brain. For the next two tips, I’m going to try to find a concrete way to explain it.
Part One: Digging for TRUTH
First, spend days, weeks, months, or years digging toward the REALISTIC core of your story. When you find it, expose it to the world through character and plot. Is the Truth taboo? Even more of a reason to expose it.
I explain best by example, and since I have intimate knowledge of my own work and the reactions to my work, I’ll use The Accidental Siren as an example. Siren is a story about a twelve-year-old siren named Mara Lynn. Mara is objectively the most beautiful girl in the world. James Parker is also twelve. He, like the rest of the world, has an unnatural attraction to Mara.
The idea for this story began as a simple “what if” concept: “What if there was a girl more beautiful than anyone in the world?”
If we stand on the surface of this idea, we might write a generic paranormal romance. But if we pursue Truth, we’ll find ourselves digging to the very essence of this concept. Essentially, we can find the Truth by asking ourselves, “What would ACTUALLY happen if a prepubescent boy met the prettiest girl alive?”
-dream about her.
-keep her for himself.
-feel bad for objectifying her.
–hate himself for objectifying her.
-lie for her.
-fight for her.
-kill for her?
-hit puberty sooner.
-ask friends about sex.
-read books about sex.
-experiment with his own sexuality.
-attempt to be different from other boys.
-find ways to prove he’s different from other boys.
-betray his friends for her affection.
-betray his family for her affection.
-betray himself for her affection.
-see her as unique.
-see her as supernatural.
-see her as God.
Hopefully this list helps to clarify what I mean by “digging.” If we stop after the first few layers, we are not telling the Truth, but rehashing clichéd stories.
Notice that the goal of this exercise was NOT to be provocative. I wasn’t looking to offend readers with this book. I just followed the Truth as far as a 28-year-old male from Michigan could. I drew from my past experiences as a twelve-year-old. Like all guys, I remember the experience. Unlike all guys, I’m willing to tell the Truth about it.
Stay tuned for:
Part Two: Identifying the Truth
I’m using my own story as an example. But are there any popular books, movies, or TV shows that you feel exemplify this concept?
I have had dozens of hopeful writers ask me, “y dont ppl take me serious when i say im a writter?”
I don’t need to point out the irony.
When you text, email, post in a message board, blog, instant message, or tweet, use the opportunity to hone your skills.
Use email correspondences to enhance your vocabulary. Use Twitter to perfect your pithy anecdotes. Use text messages to practice word economy. Use message boards to test the most powerful ways to structure a sentence.
Honing your skills is enough of a reason to change your daily writing habits, but there’s an even more important reason: you need to look professional.
Writers have very little expectations when it comes to social and professional expectations. Lawyers need to wear suits and ties to assure potential clients that their own life is in order. Therapists need to refrain from gossiping. Photographers need to scrutinize their Instagram pictures before posting. But writers are lucky! We can wear whatever we want. We can refuse to shave. We can talk to ourselves on the subway or ask random people odd questions. We can get away with these things because they’re expected from creative minds. But there is one major exception: writers need to write well.
If you want to be a professional writer, then present yourself as a professional writer.
This is a simple tip, but the impact can be huge.