Writers are often encouraged to start their novels off with a bang. Hook them in the first paragraph, the first sentence—heck, the first word. Sometimes, it takes on the form of marketing strategy. “Look at television commercials,” they say. “The scene is set, a problem arises, and the product appears as the answer to the problem. Thirty seconds well spent. That should be the pattern you follow for your novel—the question should appear within the first chapter, if not the first page. People don’t have time to give your novel ‘a chance.’ So don’t depend upon the stylishness of your prose to keep them on the line for more than half a page. You’re not Hemmingway.”
Other times the advice comes from the angle of action, but is essentially the TV commercial ploy in different words. “Start mid-scene. Grab the reader’s attention. People don’t like incomplete information. They have to keep reading to find out what’s going on.” Again: question, answer. Which, if you think about it, is not bad advice. It is fundamental to fiction that you need to have something that compels the reader to keep turning pages. The earlier you establish it, the better. No argument from me there. Which brings us to the inciting incident.
Besides being fun to say, the inciting incident is the event that starts the plot. It’s the protagonist’s parental figures being murdered before their eyes, setting them on the path to impose justice upon the world, a la Spiderman and Batman. It’s the move to a new community, which makes the protagonist have to find their niche in a new school, a la Harry Potter and Twilight (I know, I spoke those two names in the same breath, it’s an unfortunate similarity). It’s the discovery of the magical object that leads to some sort of quest, a la The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Anything that requires the protagonist to actively respond in some way. But I’m not here to tell you how to do inciting incidents properly—no, you have all the above-named examples to show you the way. I’m here to tell you how not to do it. In a word: don’t overdo it.
Let me ‘splain… no, there is too much. Let me sum up: if a small incident is sufficient motivator for getting the protagonist started, then use a small incident. Once the protagonist has gotten some traction, other things will happen that will keep up the momentum (unless you intend to write a completely uneventful borefest). Your inciting incident does not always need to provide sufficient motivation for the entire plot. Because people are creatures of very little retention, your inciting incident will hardly ever carry through clear to the end. But if you pile on too much drama in the first ten pages, attempting to “hook readers” and “establish motivation,” you’ve bound yourself to carrying on at that level of intensity, or higher, for the rest of the book. Which is hard to keep up unless you’re writing actiony-adventure type stuff or a soap opera. If you are, more power to you. But if not, which is more likely, start small.
Qualifier: small does not mean insignificant. Aim for small, but significant. Something pivotal enough to your character, themes, or plot that you can bring it back around sometime later, whether at some waypoint in your character’s journey (metaphorically speaking) or at the end. Which may involve planning. Which I suck at. So I need to take my own advice here. The object or incident or what-have-you that kickstarts everything (the question) needs to be significant or meaningful enough that it rings a bell with a satisfying ding! in the reader’s mind when the key or conclusion (the answer) appears.
But I said I wasn’t going to tell you the right way to do it. Carrying on with my original, negative advice: don’t use a traumatic event as an inciting incident if it’s not going to be integral to the ensuing action. (And for the dangers involved in keeping up with the repercussions of intentionally using a traumatic inciting incident, see two paragraphs above.) That’s a little like presenting a question in a commercial and then the product turns out to be something completely unrelated that doesn’t answer anything about the problem. And while there are commercials like that that are trying to be cute and unexpected, people are a lot more forgiving about thirty seconds of time-wasting misdirection than they tend to be about an energy-draining slog of two-plus-hours through a meaningless novel. For a specific example: don’t throw in the death of a loved one right at the beginning of the story just so the protagonist can sail away to Australia and never think of that loved one for the rest of the book.
I read a book like that once. It was awful. And what’s more, I didn’t care. Spoilers (if events that take place in the first chapter of a novel can be called spoilers), but the main character’s brother died. Did I know who the main character’s brother was? Did he ever appear on the pages before his untimely demise? Did anyone speak of him in a way that established their relationship or anything about his character? Well, if they did (which they didn’t), it would have been a waste anyway because in two pages, he was dead. That’s that. Moving right along, then.
Takeaway from this: the inciting incident has to be something that matters to the reader, and not just because you say it should. “But he’s her brother so it should matter!” That might work if we’d even had enough time to form any attachment to the main character, but no, not even that. There was no establishing scene of any kind. And, I’m sorry, but having a character suffer a loss in a vacuum is not enough to make them sympathetic. Grieving is not a personality trait. Instead, the brother becomes pure plot device, never to be conjured up again for the duration of the story unless in a passing throwaway remark. The bereaved sister sails away to Australia where she falls in love with her crappy employer. Wasn’t it all worth it?
Probably the reason this steams me up so much is that there was perfect fodder surrounding the brother’s death for it to have had more callbacks and repercussions if the author had known how to plot her way out of a paper bag. It was a politically motivated killing, because the brother was involved in fighting for Irish independence. But, instead of the sister taking up the cause or even getting unwillingly entangled in the cause in any capacity (which would justify the novel beginning the way it did), we have a literal continent get in the way: Australia. Kangaroos. A completely new cast of characters, stakes, and conflict.
I know I said I wasn’t going to tell you what you should do instead, but I’m already here so I might as well demonstrate what I mean. Instead of throwing a meaningless death in the beginning before we can form any attachment to the characters, this book could have improved by having the brother survive the attack. Or even having someone target the family: i.e. the sister. Then, when the danger his actions bring to himself and his family become clear, the brother could talk his sister into emigrating. It would provide a simple cause, with the potential for risk escalation, while also having the added benefit of character development. Also, the sadness of parting and the uncertainty of whether or not her brother continues to be safe could provide tension throughout the rest of the novel, while still being in-the-background enough to allow room for new concerns in her immediate environment of Australia.
There’s more conflict available suddenly, because now the sister has to decide what’s most important to her and how much she can afford to care about the people in her new life while still worrying about her brother back home. Or maybe she gets distracted by her new life and feels conflicted about investing more of herself in the people around her. Maybe halfway through the novel she gets word that her brother has been killed. That alone would have more impact than simply tossing it off in the first few pages, because we know this guy: we know how he feels about his sister, his cause, and we hoped he’d be okay because now we’ve had time to empathize with the sister’s character and feelings. Now, suddenly, her grief means something. And she’s far from home when she’s dealing with it, with new friends, instead of showing up already having desensitized somewhat to the loss. See what I mean? That would be so much more interesting to me as a reader.
It reminds of some musical advice I once got years ago in piano festival. I played a piece called “Storm Warning” by Frank Mills. There’s a rumbly left hand pattern like thunder and a high, ringing repeating pattern in the right hand almost like the beginning of rain, with passages throughout with lots of big block, four-note chords. I had a blast pounding that piece out and thought I did an okay job of performing it, too. Imagine my surprise when the adjudicator asked me afterwards what the song was called. “Storm Warning,” I replied. The adjudicator nodded: “What you just played was ‘Storm.’ You started at forte, which left you nowhere to go. It got so intense so fast you couldn’t maintain the energy throughout the rest of it. That’s when you start losing audience interest because there’s no dynamism. What would have been far more effective and interesting to listen to was if you had started way down at a pianissimo and slowly built it up until finally intensifying it to forte right before the very end.”
So make sure you establish some context and characters, then plot your inciting incident to be meaningful to the story but not too dramatic, and make sure to pay off the setup from the beginning later in the story. Let your inciting incident be the storm warning—save the storm itself for last, or you’ll end up with a showy crash of thunder that only produces a disappointing drizzle of a story.