I like to compare plots of novels to a quest. Something happens in the character’s life, it makes them want something big, and then they have to go on a long journey, whether that’s an inner journey or a literal journey, to try to get what they want. They emerge forever changed.
That thing that knocks the character’s life ajar is called many things, everything from the “inciting incident” to the “premise” to the “call to adventure.” For the purposes of this post, let’s go with inciting incident. (I’m also going to refer to protagonist in the singular, these principles still apply even if you have multiple protagonists).
Here’s what you need to know.
In this post I’ll cover how to…
- Show a glimpse of a character’s normal life
- Craft a good inciting incident
- Close off the easy escape routes
- Clarify the protagonist’s goal
- Send the character on their way
Show a glimpse of a character’s normal life
Even if you jump right into the action and include the inciting incident very early in a novel, it’s good to give the reader a sense of the character’s life before it starts to change.
The contrast between the life the character used to know and their present circumstances becomes powerful as the novel goes along, since the protagonist often craves a return to that comfortable normal life (Frodo missing the shire in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) or it serves as a useful contrast for how far the protagonist has voyaged (Harry Potter and the Dursleys).
The challenge here is that while it’s good to show a character’s normal life… normal life is often extremely boring and static. Very often when I’m editing novels I see authors try to “establish” secondary characters and the protagonist’s normal life through a series of scenes where not that much happens, which gets the novel off to a very flat start.
The solution here: give the character a mini-quest. Show the character trying to accomplish something that’s important to them in their “normal” life, even if it’s not the big thing you’re setting up as the main plot.
Craft a good inciting incident
An inciting incident is the second most important scene you’ll write behind your novel’s climax.
It’s a crucial moment because it sets up why a reader should care about the rest of the book. It’s the hook that will keep someone reading until they figure out whether the protagonist will succeed or fail.
Here are the elements of a good inciting incident:
- It knocks the protagonist’s life ajar. A good inciting incident shakes a protagonist out of their comfort zone. It tugs at their emotions and serves as a literal or metaphorical punch on the nose.
- It provokes them in an intriguing way. Often the inciting incident will stir latent desires within the protagonist and create new opportunities and perils.
- It makes them want something big. Once the inciting incident happens, it forces the protagonist to go after something in order to try to restore the balance in their life. (More on this in a sec)
Sure, it’s a film, but Star Wars: A New Hope is a great example of an excellent inciting incident. When Luke Skywalker sees the hologram of Princess Leia he’s immediately stricken, it stirs his desire for adventure (he immediately complains to his aunt and uncle about being bored), and it leads him toward Obi Wan Kenobi and eventually wanting to save said princess on the Death Star.
Even in literary novels, an inciting incident might be a bit more diffuse and subtle, but it’s still there. For instance, in Gilead, Marilynne Robinson gets right to the inciting incident in the first page. John Ames tells his young son that he’s old and could die before his son really knows him:
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. …
If you’re a grown man when you read this–it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then–I’ll have been gone a long time.
Ames’s conversation with his son inspires him to go on a “quest” of trying to impart a sense of himself and his family’s legacy to a son who won’t ever truly know him.
Above all, a good inciting incident inspires a sense that a protagonist’s life will never be the same. They can’t put the genie back in the bottle. They have to work very hard to return to anything resembling normalcy.
Close off the easy escape routes
Once the inciting incident has happened, slam the door on the possibility of things going back to normal. Show the reader that the protagonist can’t escape their quest.
For instance, in Star Wars, Luke is skeptical about Obi Wan Kenobi and initially refuses the call to adventure, but he returns home to see that stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle and burned everything. Luke can’t return home even if he wanted to.
In my novel Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow, once the kids are in outer space, I didn’t want to make it easy for them to get back home. So I blocked off the route back to earth with the titular cosmic space kapow.
And in Gilead, John Ames says early on that a doctor has told him his heart is failing. He doesn’t have long to live. He can’t just hope that he’ll live to a ripe old age.
Close off those escape routes early. It will help focus the protagonist and force them onto their quest.
Clarify the protagonist’s big goal
Once the inciting incident happens, it inspires the protagonist to want something big. This doesn’t always have to happen immediately, it may take the protagonist some time to piece together the implications. But really focus the reader on that goal.
In my opinion, you can’t possibly be too clear about what a character wants. Sharpen this, paint a clear picture for the reader of what happens if a character succeeds and what they fear will happen if they fail. This will form the basis of the stakes of the novel.
To wit: in Star Wars, Luke Skywalker says precisely what he wants. Out loud.
“I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.”
Boom. There you have it. Goal established.
In Gilead, Ames’ desire is more implied than stated outright, but it’s still clear enough. Ames says…
I do regret that I have almost nothing to leave you and your mother. A few old books no one else would want. I never made any money to speak of, and I never paid any attention to the money I had. It was the furthest thing from my mind that I’d be leaving a wife and child, believe me. I’d have been a better father if I’d known. I’d have set something by for you.
Though he doesn’t come straight out and say it, it’s very clear what Ames wants to leave behind in lieu of material possessions: this letter that tells his son about his family’s legacy.
The protagonist going after the big goal forms the spine of the plot. Wanting to see if the character will succeed or fail will pull a reader through the novel to see if they get it.
Send the characters on their way
Once a protagonist’s life can never be the same and they have a big goal, they need to go after that thing. We need to see them actively pursuing their goal.
This part is so crucial. You’ve just established a big goal. If the protagonist then sits around or is passive in the face of that goal, the reader’s natural conclusion is that the protagonist can’t really care about it. And it’s hard for the reader to invest in a protagonist that doesn’t care.
Once the journey begins, you start placing obstacles of increasing intensity in the protagonist’s way and the rest of the plot unfolds toward the climax.
Voila! You have yourself a plot.
Hope that covers everything you need to know about inciting incidents. Have any more advice? Have any favorite inciting incidents?
Take to the comments!
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Art: Albert Bierstadt – Swiss Mountain Scene
Great advice, Nathan. How do you suggest treating this in slice-of-life fiction? Similar to the Gilead example?
Nathan Bransford says
The essence is the same. Something knocks the protagonist ajar and it makes them want something. That can be to restore a relationship, to reach greater understanding, overcome addiction, etc. etc. It doesn’t have to be a physical quest, but after the inciting incident things can never be the same and by the end of the novel the protagonist has been irrevocably changed as a person.
Veronica Knox says
I wrote a two page prologue to introduce a female protagonist’s ‘normal’ life. Page 3 starts the first chapter where I offer a life changing incident that sets her on her way from teenager to old age before the incident is resolved.
Love your blog
John Levins says
Excellent advice, presented in a way that’s universal to all stories! I’m checking my work-in-progress now against these guidelines. Thank you!
Neil Larkins says
Nathan, this “formula” is spot on. I have used it – successfully, I believe – in every story I’ve written. It makes the construction of the story so much easier AND is very flexible. An unlimited number of variations is possible. Thanks for the reminder!
Ken Hughes says
I’m especially fond of that “mini-quest” (also called “bridging action”) that can be offered before the inciting incident itself. It’s usually the best way to be sure the first pages have a strong something to relate to, but still showing the character in their normal environment. That means we get to know who *they* are before the life-changing situation hits, and from then on we can appreciate how someone who was just a farm boy has to scramble to take on the Empire.