Inciting Is Not Enough

The self-appointed pundits of fiction writing technique (who are legion) will assure you that your novel must begin with an inciting incident. This is the point where the crank gets turned on the plot of your Model T and the story sputters to life.

This is a fine concept. The inciting incident in literary fiction may be more diffuse, and it may not appear on the first page, but even in literature, something has to happen to set the story in motion. If nothing of the sort happens, you don’t have a story, you have a vignette. Vignettes tend not to sell well. Generally, they don’t sell at all.

As I take notes for a reboot of my first novel, I’ve improved the inciting incident. It’s more compelling than it used to be. In the original version, Salas Tarag made a bet in a tavern and set out to win the bet — but he did it on a whim. It wasn’t gripping.

Now I’ve reached a point in the rebooted plot that doesn’t get talked about quite as much, though it may be even more important and more difficult to manage. That point is the crisis.

At a certain point in plotted fiction, something needs to blow up. The bear trap snaps shut, the screaming starts — characterize it how you will. If there’s no crisis, the story will just plod along. Sooner or later, readers will begin to yawn.

In the crisis in the book I’m rebooting, Salas Tarag is accused of kidnapping and thrown in prison. The person he’s accused of kidnapping has indeed disappeared, but he didn’t kidnap her, and neither he nor anybody else knows where she is. Also, smoke and sword-fights and stuff.

Unfortunately, the crisis as I originally wrote it makes very little sense. First, it relies on a very unlikely three-way coincidence: The lilith sneaks out of the mansion at the same moment Tarag is sneaking in, and in the midst of that some underground radicals attack the mansion. Also, the reason I gave for the attack of the radicals makes no sense. Hey, it was my first novel, and anyway Del Rey bought it and published it. But I’d like to think that today I can do better.

It’s a tricky one, though. The lilith does need to sneak out. Tarag does need to be accused of kidnapping. And it’s hard to accuse someone of kidnapping when you catch him in the act, because where did the kidnappee go if the kidnapper failed to escape? That being the case, I probably need some other desperadoes to put in an appearance and then run off without being caught — and there’s the implausible three-way coincidence again. Dang!

I’m thinking out loud here. Haven’t solved the problem yet. But if you’re writing fiction, you may want to think a bit about where and how the crisis occurs in your plot. At what point does the tension explode?

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3 Responses to Inciting Is Not Enough

  1. I’m currently rewriting my manuscript and am having problems all over the place. I want to change the inciting incident, but that would mean changing everything else. I want to sharpen my scenes, but that would involve choosing which useless details I should delete (as well as their accompanying storylines).

    Maybe I should try outlining more, lol.

    • midiguru says:

      Rewriting is not a sin. My 4-volume fantasy epic (book covers shown up at the top there) started out in 2004. I completely rewrote it starting in 2015 and published it in 2018. Of the original 2004-05 version, probably no more than half a dozen paragraphs remain. It has the same characters (mostly) and the same basic plot structure (with a major addition for book 4, which contains events that were nowhere in the original version) — but it’s a floor-to-ceiling rewrite.

      I don’t just outline, I take reams of notes. And then I extract the best bits from the notes and put them into an outline. The basic thrust of my notes is to ask myself as many tough questions as I can think of. Absolutely anything can be tossed up into the air to see if it will land jelly side down.

      • I just expected the rewriting bit to consist of ‘making things sound nicer’. I didn’t think I’d be changing the entire novel. So sad.

        By the way, I love your prose. Am looking forward to reading more of your work.

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