A few months ago, Kate Sullivan, a senior editor of YA and MG at Delacorte, tweeted the following question:
Is there are “rule” for when people think the inciting incident or catalyst needs to happen in a novel, pg-count-wise?
— Kate Sullivan (@katert0t) September 2, 2015
The whole thread is worth a read, and it definitely got me thinking about Inciting Incidents, and beginnings in general. When talking about plot and structure, a lot of people talk about inciting incidents as “the event that starts the story.” But sometimes, the inciting incident isn’t always so clear-cut or defined, especially for writers struggling to identify it for their queries. Is it when the stranger comes into town? Or when the protagonist’s father is killed and she’s forced to flee for her life?
I’m a pantser, but I tend to know my story beats before I start writing anything. I naturally think in acts or parts, and generally to know what the turning points are before I even sit down to work. A novel is a narrative of change, and the turning points are the fulcrums of change. The inciting incident is one…and The Moment The Story Begins is another. Usually the first comes at the very beginning of the novel, and the other closes the first act. These two inflection points comprise your entire beginning.
Let’s take Act I. In our fictional story, we have a protagonist in a small town, where everything is the same. (Chapter 1) Then one day, a stranger comes to town. [Inciting Incident] (Chapter 2) The stranger brings with him all kind of changes, a disruption in routine. (Chapters 3 through whatever) But then when the protagonist’s father is killed by the stranger’s hand in what seems to be a planned murder, the protagonist takes off after the stranger, vowing revenge. [The Moment The Story Begins] (End of Act I.)
Between then one day and but then is probably quite a few words. That’s okay. That setup is crucial context for the rest of the story. Act I is the slow climb to the top of a hill on a roller coaster. It builds anticipation. Another thing to keep in mind about Inciting Incidents and The Moment The Story Begins is that the former is generally an external event, whereas the latter is when the protagonist gets personally involved. One is plot-driven, the other is character-driven.
For example, in my forthcoming novel, the Inciting Incident is when the protagonist’s sister eats forbidden fruit, therefore making her vulnerable to goblin enchantment. (This comes at the end of the second chapter.) The Moment The Story Begins is when Liesl decides to go Underground to rescue her sister after the Goblin King steals her away. (End of first act.)
To use an example cited by Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein, in Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, the Inciting Incident is when Mr Bingley comes to Netherfield and the The Moment the Story Begins is when Mr Darcy slights Lizzy at a dance, setting the tone for all their interactions until the Midpoint Reversal (we’ll get to that another time).
So that’s it! What do you think? Was this helpful? Would you like another post breaking down the different story beats? Sound off in the comments!