Inciting incidents

“You’ve lost me,” I said. I pressed HOME on the Kindle, a few other buttons and deleted the book. I felt bad, but then no one would ever find out.

Except – then I decided to blog about it. But why?

On Sunday just gone, I read the start of a book by a self published author. I picked up on the author from Google+ (which by the way is an amazing social media platform). Interested in their posts and the occasional link to their writing, I investigated, which led to a free sample of their book from Amazon.

Because their posts were lucid and well written, and because they talked about the publishing industry, I settled into their book with positive feelings. Here I could learn from somebody.

The book started with description, it described a scene. A quiet scene, and by the end of the first page, when nothing much had happened except the scene establishment, I was starting to waver. Don’t get me wrong, it was well-written, it’s just… nothing was happening. But I’d been reading this person, this author’s posts on Google+ for some time, so I wanted to like it. I persevered.

Finally there was some dialogue between two characters. Ah, was this going to lead somewhere? Would it give us the all important inciting incident? That thing which happens which is the cause of the story.

No. It was a minor exchange, which was probably meant to be tense, but because of the scene establishment – all rather bucolic, thank you very much – the dialogue came across as incidental. The scene moved on rather pleasantly and ended. And then we were somewhere else, where not much else was happening, other than a list of things in a different scene, and some one-sided dialogue in which a character listed things incidental to any story.

I ploughed on for a couple more pages, still hoping, and still nothing happened.

Which is when I decided to stop reading the sample and delete it from my Kindle. The writer had lost me. Or perhaps in retrospect it’s fair to say they’d never found me. I wandered, waiting to be found, but remained lost.

I used to do the same thing. It’s not always natural to start a story with an inciting incident. Sometimes as a writer you want to create the world first, so that when your reader finally gets to the story they get it. I mean, they really get it, in the same way the writer does in their head.

But here’s the rub: “…when your reader finally gets to the story…“. That’s what the reader’s there for, the story. Writers need to get to the story quickly. Pick up a book and read the first two pages. When does the story start? When is that all important inciting incident?

There is a great story about Ernest Hemingway setting a challenge  to write an emotionally affecting story in as few words as possible. He came up with, “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” (And from there we get the game of “six word novels”.)

Bang! Those final two words out of six suddenly reveal the full horror of the story. We are set up by the first two words, “For sale:”. This is the inciting incident – something has been put up for sale. It’s the cause of the story. The middle two words give us some description, “Baby shoes”. At this point we don’t know why they’re for sale, but we know that the story has started – something has been put for sale by someone, and we are interested in what. Then we know that it is baby shoes for sale. These two words open up the reader’s emotions, making them vulnerable to the story. Babies are cute, babies are sweet, babies are delicate and need protecting, and babies can sometimes be annoying. So where are we going? We’re waiting for input, ready to invest ourselves in what comes next.

The final two words say everything that’s needed. “Never worn.” We don’t need any other description. We no longer need a description of the “for sale” sign, where the advert was placed, what the baby looked like. We don’t need to be told anything. We don’t have to know who wrote the advert, or when or in which country. Those two words, “Never worn” finally make our open minds do all the work in the story. We fill in from our own knowledge of the world.

Knowing when to give and leave out description comes from experience, of course. And some readers like more description and some less. Writers also have preferences with description. I prefer to give as little as possible and leave the reader to fill in the blanks so that the literary world becomes personal for them, whereas other writers are sumptuous in their scene descriptions. Eventually it comes down to a matter of taste and some compromise. Description is needed occasionally, and it has to be relevant and well written.

But regardless of where we lie with description – colouring in the universe in which our story is set – we still need the story. And stories need to start.

I’ve made the same mistake myself. My first novel, planetfall (currently with agents under the name All Fall Down) started with a couple of pages of slow description, where I tried to re-create a cinematic shot I could see playing in my head. It was sweeping, it was visual, it was beautiful. But there was no story in it. The story started, eventually, about ten pages in. That’s a lot to ask of someone, to read through pages of world creation without giving them a story.

So what can we do about this? If we’re amateur writers, and we want people to be interested in our stories, then how do we start our story, while also creating a world that people are interested in?

The best thing is to benchmark our approach with those already successful. I’ve just pulled four books at random from the bookshelf here. I’ll quote the inciting incident from them, and tell you where it is in the story:

James Joyce – The Dubliners: the very first line of the book. Here’s the first few sentences to show that the first line is the inciting incident

There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true.

So we know that someone has died, there is a change in the quality of light, and that this had long been predicted. But we don’t know why, yet. There is some tension to be resolved.

Christos Tsiolkas – The Slap: a little tricky this one. It’s not as immediate as The Dubliners, but we are drawn into a world with tension from the first page. Here’s why:

…Hector’s hand sluggishly reached across the bed. Good. Aish was up.

We already know in the first three lines (as printed on the page) that Hector is happy to wake up alone. Then we build further down the page,

Sweet young cunt. He’d spoken out loud.

Connie.

At the thought of her, sleep surrendered its grip on him. Aish would think him a pervert if she had overheard him.

Now we know something else. This man, Hector, slowly waking, has said “Sweet young cunt,” out loud, and thought immediately of another woman, Connie. And we know that Aish, the woman he’s glad wasn’t in his bed when he woke, would think him a pervert. We are setting up dramatic tension. The inciting incident is established – Hector has woken, his private thoughts have leaked out, he is thinking of another woman, and he is suddenly glad his wife, Aish, isn’t with him in bed. We are now just before the end of the first page.

AS Byatt – Possession: this starts by quoting a poem, and then by establishing a scene. But buried on the first half of page is the inciting incident:

The librarian handed [the dusty book] to Roland Mitchell… It had been exhumed from Locked Safe no.5

In the opening lines we are in a world where books are locked away, rarely seen, and handed to people. The transfer of knowledge is the inciting incident. The opening of a book will let us – and Roland Mitchell – learn something. Over the next few lines we learn that this dusty book

sprang apart, like a box, disgorging leaf after leaf of faded paper, blue, cream, grey, covered with rusty writing, the brown scratches of a steel nib. Roland recognised the handwriting with a shock of excitement.

The world is established. Secret knowledge has been locked away, the librarian, the keeper of the secret knowledge, has handed it to Roland, and the book has sprung open, eager to disgorge what it contains.

Iain Banks – Espedair Street:

Two days ago I decided to kill myself.

Bang, straight in with Mr Banks.

Here we have different examples of inciting incidents: A light in a window showing that someone has died; a man waking alone and thinking of another woman; a book being passed over and springing open; a man deciding to kill himself. They all start on the first page and are fully established within two pages. Some start without description (Iain Banks), while others are prose-like (AS Byatt).

If you’re writing – short stories, novellas, novels, reports, articles – read over your recent works and try to establish if your inciting incident is captured within the first page or so. And if it is within the first page or so – is it obvious to the reader? Does it create some kind of dramatic tension, to which we need resolution? Who has died and why is it important? Why has Hector woken thinking of another woman, and who is Connie? What is in the book and why is it important to Roland? Why did the man decide to kill himself, and was he – or will he be – successful?

Try a few different versions of your inciting incident, and see what works for you. And importantly – ask someone to read your opening few pages, and ask for some feedback. Good luck.

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