Can you start your novel with the inciting incident? If not, how do you decide where to put it?
James posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have placed my inciting incident real close to the beginning, like 2 pages or so. In order for the reader to care about what happens to the protagonist in the inciting incident, my first scene has no conflict. It’s just some emotional stuff as he thinks about his girlfriend and proposing to her that night after work. I just didn’t know if I should have anything to overpower the inciting incident. Is this kosher. Given this, do ALL scenes have to have the three aspects: goal, conflict, and setback? If so, I’ll have to come up with something. I wanna do this right. Thanks for any help. If you happen to have time to answer this, will you answer Online or email to me?
Randy sez: First, let’s define our terms. The inciting incident is some “new thing” in your protagonist’s world. It marks the change that is ultimately going to pull your protagonist into your story. Usually, this is something external to your protagonist, but it’s possible it could be an internal change.
I don’t see a problem with starting the inciting incident in the first two pages of the novel. You can put it pretty much anywhere you want, so long as it’s reasonably early in the story and as long as it works. Some stories start fast out of the gate, and some take longer to get rolling.
I do see a problem with a scene that has no conflict of any kind. Conflict doesn’t get in the way of your reader caring about your protagonist. Conflict is often the reason your reader does care, at least early on. When we see somebody in trouble, we instinctively care about them. We might later stop caring about them if we decide they aren’t worth caring about.
But let’s face it—when somebody’s in trouble, we care. The news this last week has been about twelve young soccer players and their coach in Thailand, trapped by rising floodwaters two and a half miles into a cave. The minute we heard about them, we cared. Because that’s what humans do.
I don’t know anything about your story, James, but I would think that “some emotional stuff” about a girlfriend your protagonist is about to propose to sounds reasonably interesting already. Fiction is about giving your reader a powerful emotional experience. I would also guess there’s some conflict here, even though only your protagonist is in the scene. Internal conflict is conflict.
James, you asked if all scenes must have a Goal, Conflict, and Setback. The answer is no. That’s one strategy, and we call that strategy a Proactive Scene. But another strategy is the Reactive Scene, where you have a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision. (For much more on both of those, see my latest book, How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method.)
I strongly recommend that all scenes be either Proactive or Reactive. These are solid design patterns that work well and that your readers are already primed to understand. If you have a scene that’s neither Proactive nor Reactive, you should be able to explain to yourself what makes the scene work—why is it giving your reader a powerful emotional experience? And then you should ask whether you can make the scene better by turning it into either a Proactive or Reactive scene. Because usually, you can.
Let’s circle back to the inciting incident. I don’t sweat the exact location of the inciting incident, as long as it’s in the first several chapters. Remember that the inciting incident is not what makes your reader start caring about your story. The inciting incident usually comes much too late for that. Long before your reader reaches the inciting incident, she should already care about your story.
My thinking is that you want to start pulling your reader into your story with a strong first sentence.
Followed by a strong first paragraph.
Followed by a strong first page.
Followed by a strong first scene.
If you do all that, then it really doesn’t matter when the inciting incident happens, because your reader already committed to the story from the very beginning. The inciting incident just gives your reader words to explain why she’s committed.
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