The inciting event or incident – the situation that ignites circumstances fueling your story – is an opportunity to intrigue and win your reader’s commitment. Remember these 7 tips to write riveting inciting action:
1: Make readers care
2: Stoke expectations
3: Promise development
4: Build suspense through inciting action
5: Create interest in characters
6: Set tone, mood and pace
7: Keep description concrete
Let’s unpack these suggestions for strong inciting incidents further:
1: Make readers care
Opening action making readers invest in your characters’ arcs is effective.
Consider, for example, the cheery opening to ‘A Long-Expected Party’, the first chapter of Book One in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga:
‘When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first bithday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement and Hobbiton.’
Although there are no guns or car chases, there is a palpable sense of the excitement accompanying the action – Bilbo announcing his long-anticipated birthday extravaganza.
A darker opening example: Alfred ‘Archie’ Jones’ foiled suicide attempt that opens Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth:
‘Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewod Broadway. At 06:27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate face down on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him.’
The reader (if empathetic to Archie’s situation) immediately hopes he doesn’t complete this action. The chapter title (‘The Peculiar Second Marriage of Archie Jones’) gives us an indication said marriage has something to do with Archie’s state. The hint of romantic strife makes Archie’s situation relatable, as many readers will have experienced their own romantic heartbreak or strife.
In both the above examples, authors show intriguing action stemming from a situation of heightened emotion.
2: Stoke expectations
Great inciting action stokes readers’ expectations by showing:
- Actions that have strong potential consequences: For example, a character performing an illegal activity such as theft or murder
- Watershed moments for characters: For example, a character quitting an unfulfilling job
Gripping inciting action gives these opening story events a degree of intensity.
Take, for example, the opening paragraph to Lindsay Clarke’s retelling of Arthurian legend, Parzival and the Stone from Heaven:
‘Ever since he had first put his infant head inside the iron hollow of his father’s helment, [Gahrumet] had dreamed of growing into a man big enough to fill a suit of armour. As a youth his greatest delight had been to practice knightly skills, learning how to wield lance and shield, to fight with a sword and mace, and to inspire confidence in his mount so that it would swerve and leap at his command. And even when, as a young man, he watched his father die from a lance-wound taken in a violent clash of arms, his appetite for the kind of glory that can only be won through combat remained undimmed.’
Even though the inciting action described takes place in the past, it is full of dramatic intensity, from swerving horses to Gahmuret’s father being killed in battle.
The inciting action of the story conveys how deadly and full of uncertainties the world of knights and quests is. This also explains why Gahmuret’s widow, Parzival’s mother, raises him in near isolation in the woods. The opening stokes our expectations regarding the world characters inhabit – we gain an inkling of the stakes and tragedies awaiting them.
3: Promise development
A character waking up is an inciting action that is repeatedly used across many genres, from fairy tales to contemporary YA. As an inciting action, waking up is perhaps not the most riveting development. After all, every sentient creature wakes up after sleeping. It isn’t a particularly exceptional, intriguing, or unusual situation Compare to Archie Jones’ situation or the exciting announcement of Bilbo’s birthday celebrations in the examples above.
These openings promise story development because they introduce specific situations that have dramatic potential.
Types of inciting action that promise development:
- A character doing something unusual or unexpected (e.g. Archie’s sitting in a fume-filled car; a jewel-thief creeping down a darkened corridor)
- A tense or suspenseful sitaution that cannot last (for example, a villain checking in on a captive, then seeing a news item on the intensifying police hunt)
- A character receiving exciting (or devastating news) – an early sign in the story their life will change
These are just some types of inciting action that promise story development and make readers need to find out what happens.
When we say ‘action’, we often think of action in the sense of ‘violence’ or conflict. Yet even the act of opening an important letter can have (non-gory) violence and conflict. The inner conflict, for example, of a character’s indecision to open an important or worrying letter now or later. The violence when they rip it open (or even in half, accidentally) when they can’t wait any longer.
4. Build suspense through inciting action
Inciting actions that build suspense show how the dominos begin to fall. An anti-hero sets off an alarm just as they’re nearing the prize in a heist. Or a terrible typhoon is described approaching a small coastal town.
Read the following example:
‘It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.’
This opening from the first book of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy uses a classic trope of detective fiction – the mysterious phone call – to build suspense. The use of the vague pronoun ‘it’ (‘that started it’) leaves the reader wondering what ‘it’ is. Phone calls in the dead of night are seldom good. Mysterious inciting actions such as this – an unexpected phone call, encounter, or omen – leaves readers wondering what will happen next.
5. Create interest in characters
If you read over the examples of diverse inciting actions above, each creates interest in the character:
Why have Bilbo’s birthday celebrations been anticipated so long by Hobbiton’s inhabitants? Why does Archie attempt to take his life? What will Gahmuret’s unwavering pursuit of action and acts of valour bring him?
Create interest in your characters at the outset by revealing, through inciting action, one or more of the following:
- Passions and desires: What (or who) do they love? What shapes and propels their choices?
- Uncertainties and dilemmas: What unknowns must your characters face from the outset? What dangers, fears or difficult choices?
- Turning points and significant changes: What momentous change is on the horizon? Do any hints of personality suggest how your character could embrace or struggle with approaching challenges?
Consider the opening lines of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières:
‘Dr Iannis Had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse. He had attended a surprisingly easy calving, lanced one abscess, extracted a molar, dosed one lady of easy virtue with Salvarsan, performed an unpleasant but spectacularly fruitful enema, and had produced a miracle by a feat of medical prestidigitation.’
Immediately, we know the character’s medical profession, and there is a sense of the doctor’s affable, easy-going nature (the next paragraph begins ‘He chuckled…’). Because the doctor’s work spans everything from vetinerary science to consulting with sex workers (‘one lady of easy virtue’), the character’s opening actions are intriguing. We wonder why one doctor would do so many different duties, ones usually handled by specialists.
Through de Bernières’ opening inciting action, we see an affable, at ease doctor. Yet the chapter heading ‘Dr Iannis Commences his History and is Frustrated’ creates further tension, between title and content. The promise of a development, the doctor’s frustration, seems at odds with his easy-going temperament. So we keep reading to find out what this unlikely frustration will be.
6: Set tone, mood and pace
Inciting action is more riveting when it establishes intriguing mood, pace and tone. Let’s take another example, the opening lines to John Le Carré’s third spy novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold:
The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”
Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.
“You can’t wait forever, sir. Maybe he’ll come some other time. We can have the Polizei contact the Agency: you can be back here in twenty minutes.”
“No,” said Leamas, “it’s nearly dark now.”
Le Carré’s inciting action immediately creates a tense mood, a tone of expectant waiting. The opening gesture – the American handing Leamas ‘another’ cup of coffee – conveys immediately that the characters have been waiting for some time.
Dialogue is also a great tool for helping pace to unfold quickly, and here Le Carré strips it down to essentials, such as Leamas’s ‘No, it’s nearly dark now.’ The dialogue is just enough to convey setting and other details that establish a keener sense of scene.
Simple details – an empty street, characters chain-drinking coffee at a checkpoint – are all it takes to establish intriguing tone and mood.
7. Keep description concrete
Hazy, vague inciting action is an interest-killer. Pepper your reader with abstract noun after abstract noun and vague action in your opening pages and they will likely lose interest. Instead, keep your description and actions as clear and precise as possible.
Looking at John Le Carré’s example above, it’s clear the characters are waiting for someone important. The disappearing light and empty street make the waiting seem futile, more hopeful and more futile too. When it’s clear what characters want and do in your opening, and there are intriguing unknowns at play, you’ve given your reader good reasons to turn the page.
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