THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INCITING INCIDENT
Everything that occurs before that point is backstory. Everything after that point should be some sort of progressive complication in the plot. Although you may have flashbacks of backstory, overall you must move the story steadily forward to a climax and a resolution.
Occasionally, you’ll run across a novel with an inciting incident that leads to a long flashback framed by a beginning and an ending in present time. That’s the form I used in The Starlite Drive-in. It begins in the present with the discovery of human bones on the grounds of a drive-in theater, then flashes back to 1956 and tells the story of how those bones came to be there. At the end, it returns to the present and, with the new evidence from that grave, the protagonist is able to solve the puzzle of a man’s disappearance.
At times, The Bridges of Madison County flashes back and forth from the present point of view of an Iowan woman’s grown children to the story of her intense four-day love affair with a photographer. While the book was faulted for its melodrama and flowery prose, I haven’t read any complaints about its structure.
A more complex plot occurs in the movie “Memento,” a psychological thriller that chronicles two separate stories about an ex-insurance investigator who can no longer build new memories. His last memory is of his wife’s murder, the inciting incident, but it is initially referred to rather than shown, effectively teasing the viewer into suspense. As the protagonist searches for the killer, one story line moves forward in time while the other tells the story backwards. It’s a head-spinning but powerful adventure.
Whether a plot is linear or not, it needs an inciting incident that captures the reader’s attention. A couple of tips:
1. Engage the senses as soon as possible. Sensory detail—smell, sound, touch and taste as well as the more-often-used sight—draws the reader into the scene and makes it vivid.
2. Create a strong image in the reader’s mind. I will never forget the mental picture that opens Frederick Busch’s novel, Girls. “We started clearing the field with shovels and buckets and of course our cupped gloved hands. The idea was to not break any frozen parts of her away.”
3. Start in medias res (in the middle of the action). Busch could have begun his novel with investigators arriving at the field or their discussion of what they plan to do, but instead he chose the more dramatic moment when they’re digging up a body.
4. As part of the inciting incident, introduce a story question that will keep readers reading because they want to know the answer. Here are examples in the opening sentences of these two novels:
A Soldier’s Declaration. I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
From Regeneration by Pat Barker
What statement? What is the soldier going to say in defiance of military authority? Why are the authorities deliberately prolonging the war?
“We have to talk.”
Ah, those four magical words. They strike dread in the most manly of hearts, and as a woman, it was an interesting experience to be on the receiving end.
From Spin a Wicked Web by Cricket McRae
Those words are frequently the preamble to the breakup of a love affair. Is that what’s happening here? If so, how is it going to change this young woman’s life.
5. A reader will stick with you for several pages, maybe even a chapter or two, but you need to introduce the inciting incident as soon as possible. Gone with the Wind opens with Scarlett O’Hara flirting with the Tarleton twins on the porch of her father’s Georgian plantation. The twins tell her that Melanie Hamilton and the man Scarlett loves, Ashley Wilkes, are to be married. The news rocks her perfect life, but the more important news comes on page two. The Civil War is going to start within days, and although Scarlett dismisses it, the astute reader knows that’s the real inciting incident.
6. Don’t start with a dream unless you have a dynamite new way of showing it.
The problem with delaying the inciting incident is that until it happens the protagonist has no clear goal and no definable antagonist to generate conflict. Introduce it soon in your plot and make sure it’s dynamic and dramatic and ensures you have a direction to move your story forward.