Generally speaking, writers — from beginners to professionals — know what it means to have an inciting moment for our stories. The inciting moment is the occurrence that sets in motion all the events that constitute our narrative — Luke Skywalker’s purchase of two droids from the junk hauler on Tatooine; the unannounced arrival of dwarves at Bilbo Baggins’ otherwise peaceful and respectable home in the Shire; the chance meeting at a masquerade of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers from feuding families.
The inciting moment is not necessarily the beginning of conflict. Rebels have been battling the Galactic Empire for ages before Luke takes R2D2 to his uncle’s farm. Others have tried and failed to steal Smaug’s treasure before Gandalf employs Bilbo as a thief. And the Capulets and Montagues have hated each other for generations. Incitement is more than a beginning. It is the moment when a grander story meets our protagonist(s).
There is nothing revelatory in what I’m saying here. You’ve heard versions of it before. I have chosen to focus this week’s post on it, though, because while most of us understand inciting events, and can even identify them in the works of others, we often have trouble choosing exactly where to place them in our own work. And yes, I speak from personal experience.
I am in the process of plotting the second book in my new supernatural thriller series. I know what needs to happen, and I even know what the inciting moment looks like. I’m struggling, though, to get there, to figure out where to begin the story so that we arrive at that event both quickly enough and slowly enough. Weird, right? But here’s the thing: I want my inciting moment to hook the reader, but I also want it to happen naturally enough that the reader understands the stakes and already cares about my protagonist.
With the first book in the series, the inciting moment presented itself clearly and with perfect timing. Other moments in the narrative gave me some trouble, but not this one. The idea for the series and that first book came to me with the incitement fully formed. This second novel focuses on different characters and has a more complex plot. Hence some of the trouble I’m having.
But the truth is, lots of writers struggle to begin their stories — short fiction or novel-length — at precisely the correct moment. In editing anthologies, I have noticed again and again that writers of every experience level can miss the mark now and then. The most common error is to begin too early, giving readers far more lead-in than they need to acclimate themselves to the story background, characters, and setting. And that’s all right. Part of an editor’s job is to say, “You know, you could begin this story here, on page 3 [for example] and cut or greatly condense everything that has come before.”
Less frequently, authors will begin their stories too late in the narrative arc’s development. I actually believe this is a professional’s mistake. There is a golf truism, that professional golfers miss putts long, and novices miss them short. Novices are afraid to be aggressive and so leave their putts shy of the hole, while pros understand that a firm putt has a much better chance of going in; usually when they miss the ball winds up past the hole. In the same way, beginning writers are sometimes afraid of giving their readers too little information, and so they often start their stories way earlier than they need to. Professionals aren’t afraid to withhold a bit of information early on, understanding that keeping readers in a constant state of discovery is a great way to keep them engaged. As I say, though, occasionally this leads pros to start things a little too late in the arc.
This, then, is the dilemma I’m grappling with now. I know better than to give my readers too much information early on, but I don’t want to give them too little by rushing my inciting moment. I have no doubt that I’ll figure this out — even now, I feel like I’m circling in on the right solution. But with this new novel on my mind, and recent edits of stories that faced both problems fresh in my memory, I thought I would address the issue here.
So how do we time our inciting moments for maximum effect? That is a good question with, I am afraid, no easy, formulaic answer. The best response I can offer is this:
It should come early — chapter 1 if at all possible — but it doesn’t need to be on the first page or even the first five. We do not need to explain everything to our readers before the inciting event occurs. I cannot stress that enough. Go back to the examples I offered up front — Star Wars, The Hobbit, Romeo and Juliet. We as readers/audience still had plenty to learn after the inciting events. We knew the bare outlines of the underlying conflicts (far less than that, actually, in The Hobbit), but we didn’t have the all the details we would need to understand the rest of the story. And that’s as it should be. On the other hand, by the time the inciting event occurs, we want our readers to care — about our world and the people in it. We want them to have formed some attachment to our lead character. We want them to have some small stake in the events we’re setting in motion.
Yeah, I know: That’s pretty vague. The truth is, locating the inciting events in our stories takes practice and experience. Sometimes it takes some guesswork. But the good thing is, Beta readers and editors can help us fine-tune the timing.
And now, I am going to get back to the opening of my new novel. I’ll keep you informed as I make progress, and I am sure I will encounter other challenges that inspire additional posts.
Until then, keep writing!