14 Dec

An Antidote to Writing Poison: Inciting Incidents

I was just banned from a writing forum for insinuating explicitly stating its poobah was giving shitty writing advice, so I’m going to interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this special announcement.

The problem with your first page is there’s no inciting incident” is WRONG.

Unless your goal is to write a terrible action movie, the inciting incident of the story should NOT be on page 1.

The inciting incident of the first scene most likely shouldn’t be on page 1.

The inciting incident isn’t what incited arrival at the scenario that’s currently being presented. The inciting incident is a disturbance of the norm (at baseline or what becomes the norm following prior disturbances) that creates discomfort for a character that motivates the character to take an action to resolve it.

What the incident is inciting is action to achieve a meaningful goal.

One might even say it’s inciting the character’s transformation from ordinary slob into a hero, whatever that may look like in your particular story.

In order to understand and believe that motivation, which has to be strong enough to withstand all the failed attempts at resolution that will occur prior to the end of the story, readers require insight into the character and the character’s little piece of the world before you shake it up.

Setup is required to establish the norm (so the reader knows what’s being disturbed) and the character (so the reader has a filter through which to process the disturbance as uncomfortable, undesirable, and demanding action).

Stories (and, on a smaller level, scenes) are vehicles of change. In order to show change, you must first establish what the character/situation is changing from. If you have BLAM-O!!! on the first page, a character the reader has never met reacts for reasons the reader doesn’t know with a goal the reader can’t begin to guess. That creates a number of significant blanks the reader has to fill in in order to achieve comprehension. When you attempt to create context after the fact, readers will blame you — and rightly so — for all the wrong conclusions they had to supply up to that point because you failed to provide sufficient background information to draw them into the story as you intended it to be understood.

The inciting incident of the story is more likely to occur toward the end of the first scene, but I’ve seen more complex setups that, by necessity, delayed the inciting incident of the story until closer to the end of the first act.

Whatever amount of time you need to put readers in a position to care when you rip the rug out from under their feet is the right amount of time.

There may be a ton of things wrong with your first page, but lack of an inciting incident isn’t one of them.

Furthermore, I recommend taking any other advice from someone who tells you something as wrong as “it is essential to have an inciting incident on the first page” with a heaping serving of sodium because that is a BIG thing to be stridently wrong about.

Salty