Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Something to Get Inciting About

Today I have a wonderful (really!!) guest post on the inciting event in plotting from the tireless and wonderful YA author Janice Hardy, whose new book, Blue Fire, was released this month! Janice is just wrapping up the last of her very thorough blog tour here. If you missed my interview with her, check here.

Now, I hand the reins over to Janice!

The inciting event. You can’t talk about how to write good openings without someone mentioning it. But what exactly is it and how do you make it work for your novel?

What it is: The inciting event is that moment early on in your story when things irrevocably change for your protag. The event that sets them on the path that will become the novel, the major conflict, the whole reason someone picked up the book in the first place.

Where it is: Within the first 30 to 50 pages of your manuscript. Now, this doesn’t that mean it has to come between pages 30 and 50. Just somewhere between page one and 30, or page one and 50. Some books require a little more set up. If you have a larger word count, the first 50 pages might work better for you. A smaller word count, 30 pages is more than enough time to get to the inciting event.

How do you make it work? Use it as a bridge between an intriguing opening scene and the core conflict of your novel.

My fantasy novel, The Shifter, has an inciting event that works well as an example. The basic story is:

A girl with the unique ability to heal by shifting pain from person to person, discovers it’s the only weapon she has to save her missing sister.

The book is about Nya (my protag) trying to save her sister. That’s my external core conflict. But it’s also has an internal core conflict about Nya struggling with using her powers as a weapon. These two conflicts pretty much sum up the book. However, having the sister go missing in the first chapter gets to the story too soon, and there’s not enough time to let the stakes and tension build. I needed to set the scene a bit before I threw the reader into the core story.

There’s nothing wrong with setting the scene in the opening, as long as what’s happening in the opening is interesting, hooks the reader, and sets up the core conflict. That’s exactly what an inciting event is for.

The opening scene in The Shifter starts with Nya stealing eggs for breakfast. She gets caught, tries to escape, and in the process of that escape, uses her pain shifting ability. Naturally, someone sees her use it. This all takes places in the first ten pages of Chapter One. Someone seeing her shift is my inciting event.

Why this works: It gives the reader a likable protagonist and something interesting going on right away. An unusual theft where someone might get caught. It also shows the pain shifting ability in action so readers understand the mechanics of it, and links into what will become the core conflict because of who sees her use that ability. Had Nya not shifted pain in this scene, the rest of the story would not have unfolded as it did. Two very critical things happened here that set the rest of the book’s plot in motion:

  1. She was seen shifting pain by people in a position to tell the bad guys about it.
  2. The people involved in the actual pain shifting later become involved in both the external core conflict and the internal core conflict.

That seems too easy.

You’re right, because jumping right from this to the missing sister would probably leave the reader wondering why the heck we needed that opening scene to begin with. There’s still a lot that has to happen between this seemingly unimportant moment and the core conflict. That’s the bridge part. And I think this is where a lot of the confusion over inciting events comes in. The inciting event doesn’t launch your core conflict, it launches the steps that gets you to your core conflict.

Once Nya made those critical connections, I needed to show how those connections and events get her to the core conflict. I also needed to let readers meet the sister so they’d care when she disappears. See Nya’s world and discover the inherent dangers there. Care about her, see the trouble starting to snowball, and start to worry about all that trouble catching up to her.

The second half of Chapter One is just that. Nya goes to her sister, you see their respective lives, and the first result of being seen has a consequence by the end of the first chapter (page 20). Something Nya did in the opening scene has now come back to bite her and cause another problem. But we’re still not to the core conflict yet.

Chapter Two adds a second consequence that is triggered by the first (still with me?). This is woven into the story as Nya does her day-to-day stuff, and Nya doesn’t even realize what’s going on. By the end of the chapter (page 38), yet another consequence results from her using her shifting ability – three so far for those keeping track. And though the reader doesn’t know it, that consequence connects directly to the internal core conflict of the novel. I’m lining up the plot points so the core conflict will have the most impact once I get there.

But I still don’t go there yet. I’m building the story and suspense. Layering in the bits and pieces so the reader is (hopefully) intrigued by what’s going on and wondering how all of this ties together. They know from reading the cover copy that the sister disappears, so they’ll be curious about what aspects of the story so far will connect back to that.

Chapter Three throws in the first hint of the core conflict, but just a hint. The plot pieces for both the internal and external core conflicts aren’t lined up yet. It’s important to get those set up and ready so they both clash at about the same time for the most dramatic punch I can get. By the end of Chapter Three, (page 57) I’ve tied the plot back into the opening scene yet again, by bringing back one of those critical first scene characters. Nya’s actions in Chapter One have another direct consequence on what’s happening to her (consequence number four).

In Chapter Four, everything finally comes full circle. By the end of the chapter (page 92) the core conflict takes over the plot, the internal core conflict has begun, and the story can really get down to business. The novel has 370 pages, so this is roughly 25% of the book. If you use the Three Act Structure like I do, it’s Act One. It sets up the core conflict, but the plot is already in full swing, and has been since line one.

That’s a lot to happen between that inciting event on page ten, and the core conflict event on page 92. But all the groundwork, the reasons why those later events mattered, the world building, the character introductions, all the stuff that goes into a story had to happen first. A reader had to care about this missing sister, care about Nya, and see how much trouble she was going to get into because of this problem.

But notice how much plot went into those first four chapters. And how all those plot moments led to the core conflict, and were triggered by that simple little shifting inciting event. The steps between the two events.

Your inciting event doesn’t have to be a huge deal if that doesn’t fit your story. It can be subtle, or it can be in your face obvious. But it has to lead somewhere and cause something that’s much bigger, even it if takes you a few chapters to get there. Bridges take lots of steps to cross, but if there’s a great view along the way, folks will enjoy the journey.

Thanks, Janice! Great information!

Here is some more information about Janice and her books.

Blue Fire

Part fugitive, part hero, fifteen-year-old Nya is barely staying ahead of the Duke of Baseer’s trackers. Wanted for a crime she didn’t mean to commit, she risks capture to protect every Taker she can find, determined to prevent the Duke from using them in his fiendish experiments. But resolve isn’t enough to protect any of them, and Nya soon realizes that the only way to keep them all out of the Duke’s clutches is to flee Geveg. Unfortunately, the Duke’s best tracker has other ideas.

Nya finds herself trapped in the last place she ever wanted to be, forced to trust the last people she ever thought she could. More is at stake than just the people of Geveg, and the closer she gets to uncovering the Duke’s plan, the more she discovers how critical she is to his victory. To save Geveg, she just might have to save Baseer—if she doesn’t destroy it first.

About Janice

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel.

Janice's blog, The Other Side of the Story


Linda G. said...

Clear, concise, and beautifully understandable. Thanks, Janice! Looking back, I can see all this in my book--I just didn't think about it that way while I was writing it.

BTW, Sierra, I'm blaming--er, I mean, thanking--you on my blog today. ;)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post, Janice and Sierra.

I sometimes find myself getting into the story too early, but you have set out really clearly how to set up and incorporate the inciting incident.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

Very useful post on those critical first chapters. Thank you, Janice and Sierra!

Janice Hardy said...

Glad I could help! One of the interesting things I've discovered about blogging about writing while writing, is that it forces me to really look at what I do and why. I'm always keeping an eye out for topics. It's also helped me better understand things I "knew" but never really thought about before in depth.

Anonymous said...

A lot of great information I'm going to bookmark and recommend to my writing friends. Congratulations on your book release!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for explaining this so clearly like you always do. I realized I was a bit confused.

demery bader-saye said...

Thank you, Sierra and Janice. So helpful for writing. AND, Janice, I'm ready to read! Fascinating premise.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thank you to everyone for commenting, and huge thanks for Janice for such a great post. I love plot discussions and Janice knows I am especially hung up on inciting incidents and the starts of novels just now. Thanks again!

Janice Hardy said...

Awesome, Demery, and thanks to all. And I just noticed my comment from earlier is missing, so it must not have gone up and I didn't notice.

I think inciting events are one of those things we hear a lot about, and we know kinda what it means, but applying it isn't so easy. It was helpful to me, too, to go through the exercise of writing this post and looking at mine. Doing this really made me "get" it more than I had before. I knew it started the protag on the path, but the bridge concept was something that clicked as I was thinking about what to write about. But that's what it is and I just hadn't noticed.

Roni Loren said...

Awesome post! I'm so tweeting this. :)

Melissa said...

Great post! This is one of the best explanations of the inciting incident that I've ever read:)

Janice Hardy said...

Thanks Melissa and Roni!

Jaleh D said...

Wow. I think I understand the whole inciting event concept better. I had been thinking I knew what my inciting event was, but it's more of a when-Tali-goes-missing sort of event. Thanks for triggering some possible ideas for what might work better as the inciting chain of events leading up to the life-changing situation in mine.

Janice Hardy said...

Jaleh, I'm sure there's wiggle room about when and what you can call an inciting event (there always is with writing), but looking at it this way made it a lot easier for me to tell when things start to go wrong and how I can plot using that. The big moments we're usually solid on. It's those smaller transition moments that often give us trouble when we're plotting.

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