The inciting event. You can’t talk about how to write good openings without someone mentioning it. But what exactly is it and how do you make it work for your novel?
What it is: The inciting event is that moment early on in your story when things irrevocably change for your protagonist. The event that sets them on the path that will become the novel, the major conflict, the whole reason someone picked up the book in the first place.
Where it is: Within the first 30 to 50 pages of your manuscript. Now, this doesn’t that mean it has to come between pages 30 and 50. Just somewhere between page one and 30, or page one and 50 (for longer novels). Some books require a little more set up. If you have a larger word count, the first 50 pages might work better for you. A smaller word count, 30 pages is more than enough time to get to the inciting event.
How do you make it work? Use it as a bridge between an intriguing opening scene and the core conflict of your novel.
My fantasy novel, The Shifter, has an inciting event that works well as an example. The basic story is:
A girl with the unique ability to heal by shifting pain from person to person, discovers it’s the only weapon she has to save her missing sister.The book is about Nya (my protagonist) trying to save her sister. That’s my external core conflict. But it also has an internal core conflict about Nya struggling with using her powers as a weapon. These two conflicts pretty much sum up the book. However, having the sister go missing in the first chapter gets to the story too soon, and there’s not enough time to let the stakes and tension build. I needed to set the scene a bit before I threw the reader into the core story.
There’s nothing wrong with setting the scene in the opening, as long as what’s happening in the opening is interesting, hooks the reader, and sets up the core conflict. That’s exactly what an inciting event is for.
The opening scene in The Shifter starts with Nya stealing eggs for breakfast. She gets caught, tries to escape, and in the process of that escape, uses her pain shifting ability. Naturally, someone sees her use it. This all takes places in the first ten pages of Chapter One. Someone seeing her shift is my inciting event.
Why this works: It gives the reader a likable protagonist and something interesting going on right away. An unusual theft where someone might get caught. It also shows the pain shifting ability in action so readers understand the mechanics of it, and connects to what will become the core conflict because of who sees her use that ability. Had Nya not shifted pain in this scene, the rest of the story would not have unfolded as it did. Two very critical things happened here that set the rest of the book’s plot in motion:
- She was seen shifting pain by people in a position to tell the bad guys about it.
- The people involved in the actual pain shifting later become involved in both the external core conflict and the internal core conflict.
You’re right, because jumping right from this to the missing sister would probably leave the reader wondering why the heck we needed that opening scene to begin with. There’s still a lot that has to happen between this seemingly unimportant moment and the core conflict. That’s the bridge part, and I think this is where a lot of the confusion over inciting events comes in. The inciting event doesn’t launch your core conflict, it launches the steps that gets you to your core conflict.
Once Nya made those critical connections, I needed to show how those connections and events got her to the core conflict. I also needed to let readers meet the sister so they’d care when she disappeared. See Nya’s world and discover the inherent dangers there. Care about her, see the trouble starting to snowball, and start to worry about all that trouble catching up to her.
The second half of Chapter One is just that. Nya goes to her sister, you see their respective lives, and the first result of being seen has a consequence by the end of the first chapter (page 20). Something Nya did in the opening scene has now come back to bite her and cause another problem. But we’re still not to the core conflict yet.
Chapter Two adds a second consequence that is triggered by the first (still with me?). This is woven into the story as Nya does her day-to-day stuff, and Nya doesn’t even realize what’s going on. By the end of the chapter (page 38), yet another consequence results from her using her shifting ability–three so far for those keeping track. And though the reader doesn’t know it, that consequence connects directly to the internal core conflict of the novel. I’m lining up the plot points so the core conflict will have the most impact once I get there.
But I still don’t go there yet. I’m building the story and suspense. Layering in the bits and pieces so the reader is (hopefully) intrigued by what’s going on and wondering how all of this ties together. They know from reading the cover copy that the sister disappears, so they’ll be curious about what aspects of the story so far will connect back to that.
Chapter Three throws in the first hint of the core conflict, but just a hint. The plot pieces for both the internal and external core conflicts aren’t lined up yet. It’s important to get those set up and ready so they both clash at about the same time for the most dramatic punch I can get. By the end of Chapter Three, (page 57) I’ve tied the plot back into the opening scene yet again, by bringing back one of those critical first scene characters. Nya’s actions in Chapter One have another direct consequence on what’s happening to her (consequence number four).
In Chapter Four, everything finally comes full circle. By the end of the chapter (page 92) the core conflict takes over the plot, the internal core conflict has begun, and the story can really get down to business. The novel has 370 pages, so this is roughly 25% of the book. If you use the Three Act Structure like I do, it’s Act One. It sets up the core conflict, but the plot is already in full swing, and has been since line one.
That’s a lot to happen between that inciting event on page ten, and the core conflict event on page 92. But all the groundwork, the reasons why those later events mattered, the world building, the character introductions, all that stuff that goes into a story had to happen first. A reader had to care about this missing sister, care about Nya, and see how much trouble she was going to get into because of this problem.
But notice how much plot went into those first four chapters. And how all those plot moments led to the core conflict, and were triggered by that simple little shifting inciting event. The steps between the two events.
Your inciting event doesn’t have to be a huge deal if that doesn’t fit your story. It can be subtle, or it can be in-your-face-obvious. But it has to lead somewhere and cause something that’s much bigger, even it if takes you a few chapters to get there. Bridges take lots of steps to cross, but if there’s a great view along the way, folks will enjoy the journey.
Originally posted during the Blue Fire blog tour at Sierra Godfrey's blog