Which is no mean feat, because it has a lot to compete with — beginnings of novels have to work so hard.
You’ve set up your book. You have a killer first line. A character with a stonkingly clear desire and a terrible fatal flaw. Your reader is IN. Now you hit them with the conflict — the inciting incident. Your novel’s first big turning point.
From The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
At the end of Chapter One, Starr and Khalil are driving along the road when they are pulled over by a cop. This powerful inciting incident from The Hate U Give hits us at the end of Chapter One, when the cop pulls over the two teenagers. Chapter One ends there. The full inciting incident is revealed in Chapter Two, and it’s the ultimate in conflict. Khalil, an African-American boy in the south of the USA is shot and killed by a white cop. And Starr’s ‘new world order’ begins. Something has happened that is life-changing for Starr, and now she can never go back to a time before it happened. She must learn to embrace her new world.
But what if you’re not writing about something so life-threatening? What if your book is a comedy about a teenage girl who really doesn’t want to be a model, but ends up loving being one anyway?
From Geek Girl by Holly Smale
In the first two very short opening chapters, Harriet is in bed pretending to be sick. Her best friend, Nat, drags her from bed and forces her to admit that she is, in fact, not sick at all.
Being dragged to The Clothes Show Live by her best friend is the inciting incident that sees Harriet spotted by a model scout, and her ‘new world order’ begin. Harriet can’t go back to life before she was spotted — she must embrace her new life as someone who is potentially a model. Because at this point, immediately after this inciting incident, Harriet is not suddenly a model.
It is her action in response to the inciting incident that propels her story forwards.
Just as, in The Hate U Give, Starr is not immediately an advocate for Black Lives Matter. It is her action in response to the inciting incident that propels her story forwards.
The conflict comes from what your main character does next. Because the perfect inciting incident is a ‘call to action’ that highlights your main character’s fatal flaw.
Starr doesn’t want to rock her world. She’s already uncomfortably, but fairly happily, straddling two worlds — her black home world in a run-down part of town, and her white school world in an affluent area. If she speaks up against the cop, her entire world will crumble and she will be the centre of everyone’s negative attention. Speaking up could have very real and very dire consequences for Starr.
Harriet is intrigued by the offer, but she doesn’t think she wants to be a model. She doesn’t think she even could be a model, not really. Models are glamourous, and she’s… well, she’s not. She’s bullied at school for being a geek. To comfort herself, she hides from the limelight and recites lists of facts. Plus, her best friend really does want to be a model, but she wasn’t ‘spotted.’ If Harriet opens herself up to this new possibility, she’d have to step into the limelight. The bullying could get worse and her best friend could feel betrayed.
What will Starr do? What will Harriet do?
The important thing the inciting incident does then, is usher in a period of ‘debate’. How does the main character feel about what just happened? And what are they going to do about it?
The debate leads them to action.
And we are hooked.
Could I have stopped reading when I understood Starr’s dilemma? Absolutely not. I had to know what she would do, and how that would work out for her.
And equally I couldn’t stop reading when I knew that Harriet was thinking about turning her back on a whole new life, just because she was afraid to step out of the shadows.
What’s your inciting incident?
Whatever it is, I hope it plunges your main character into turmoil – and has your reader hooked!
Screenplay by Syd Field – Chapter Eight “Two Incidents”
Story by Robert McKee – Chapter Eight “The Inciting Incident”
Julie Marney Leigh writes contemporary novels for teens about fun, friendship and feminism. She grew up in Lancashire, and now lives in Scotland where she gained a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh, and fell in love with the city.
She lectured in English at the university for many years, as well as being a Director of the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School. More recently, she is an alumna of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children Course with Catherine Johnson.
She is represented by Hannah Weatherill at Northbank Talent Management.
Follow @jules_leigh for updates.