The F Words: Inciting Incident

In fiction the main character experiences an “inciting incident.” The inciting incident is an event — not just any event, but one that propels the main character into the actions that will constitute the story. To state it another way, the inciting incident  (which need not be the first event in the book) triggers the primary actions of the story. 

In The F Words the inciting incident, which thrusts Cole into the actions of the story, is his spray-painting the f word on the brick wall of his high school (not just once, but fifteen times) — and getting caught by Mr. Nachman, his tenth-grade English teacher.

The inciting incident should occur early in the story: within the first three minutes of a movie, and within the first twenty pages of a novel. The inciting incident of The F Words starts on page one. (My attitude is, if you’re going to incite, don’t delay!)

In some novels there is backstory before you get to the inciting incident. But it’s the incident, not the backstory, that propels the main character forward into the conflict/journey/struggle. 

When I first started to write fiction I didn’t put my inciting incident on page one. In She’s on First, I think the inciting incident is in Chapter 2 — when Al Mowerinski signs Linda to play for the Chicago Eagles. Chapter 2 is a long way into the story for an inciting incident. I might have sensed that, because I began the novel with a strong hint of what the inciting incident would be. I then continued with backstory, and in Chapter 2 fulfilled the expectations of the inciting incident.

But by the time I was writing my second novel, Dirty Proof, I had somehow or other decided that the inciting incident should go on the first page of that particular story.

And speaking of page, it’s important for a writer to understand that the best inciting incidents are events/actions that take place on the page (not in summary or narrative or flashback). Not only should the main character experience the inciting incident, but so should the reader. The reader should be able to feel everything the main character feels about that incident, be it fear, surprise, anger, befuddlement.

A writer must make certain that the inciting incident makes the main character act in a way he or she would not have normally acted. Consider the incident of Cole being caught by his English teacher. When he catches Cole in the act of tagging the high school wall with the f word, Mr. Nachman tells Cole he will not report him to the principal if Cole fulfills two conditions. First, he must volunteer to clean the words off the wall. Second, he must, for every week of the school year, write two poems, each about a word that begins with f, and he must hand these in to Mr. Nachman every Friday morning. 

You can see that, had Cole not been caught, he would not have volunteered to clean the spray-painted words off the school wall. Nor would he have volunteered to write two poems a week for his English teacher. The inciting incident pushes Cole into a different set of actions than he would have taken without that incident. Because the inciting incident causes the main character to take actions he wouldn’t have taken otherwise, it causes the character to change — and change is important in fiction. The character on the last page of the story is different from that character as he appears on the first page of the story. He (or she) has undergone a journey and has changed.

At the end of a novel, the reader should be able to see the arc of the journey the main character has undergone. And, it is always rewarding to a reader when she can see the first step of that journey and the inevitable link between the first step and the conclusion.

The importance of the inciting incident can’t be underestimated. Yes, it grabs reader attention and kicks off the story. But more than that, it draws a line between the character’s previous life and this moment: Now. In fiction the inciting incident and its results change the character’s life forever.

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Rising Action

In fiction rising action need not be action itself, and that’s because the term “rising action” includes not only character actions, but also character decisions, as well as events within the setting or plot (an economic depression, for example, or an earthquake). Taken together, all these incidents help build interest, suspense, and tension — and lead to the novel’s climax.

The individual events that constitute the rising action are important because they help lead the story to its climax. To put it another way, the climax is the ultimate, logical outcome of the rising action. If a writer doesn’t plan the rising action so that it’s believable and so that the cause-and-effect is very strong, the climax may not satisfy the reader.

Rising action is created when a writer throws obstacles in his hero’s path. These obstacles stand between the hero and her goal. The obstacles can be other people . . . or the character’s own doubts or hesitations . . . or society . . . or the natural world.

All action is, in a way, change. Rising action, then, is escalating change — to a character, to a relationship, to a plan, to a mission, to a town, country, or world. Again, this change need not be action: it could be something as simple as a character making a discovery, or being told a secret. Much of the rising action in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca consists of the protagonist (the second wife) learning things that change her perception of and understanding of Rebecca.

In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen encourages writers to think about the arc of their story: the plot events that curve upward from the first incident to the climax. Kernen believes that as you outline or list these story elements, you should “naturally feel the level of tension, anticipation, and your characters’ stakes rising.” I agree. Rising action is something you can feel as you think about your story’s plot. And you can especially feel it as you’re writing the escalating events.

Many months ago I wrote about Rewriting: Macro. If the story in manuscript form doesn’t contain rising action, the writer must rewrite the entire story so that it does contain rising action. That’s a major  (macro) rewrite. So it pays for the writer to pay attention to rising action from the first page onward.

Rising action is often depicted as a set of stairs, with each step an escalation (increase in intensity or seriousness) of the protagonist’s situation and choices. I prefer to think of rising action as a series of bridges that get burned behind the protagonist due to each choice she makes. Or as a tunnel of increasing narrowness, with no retreat possible: the only way out is through bold action.

Recently I wrote my first YA novel (publication date not yet set)and in plotting it I tried hard to make certain there was one bridge crossed and burned toward the end of the first 20% of the manuscript, maybe two additional bridges crossed and burned in the next 60%, and the final bridge crossed in the last 20%. I knew that if I plotted the novel with rising action embedded in the story, I wouldn’t have to worry that my first rewrite would require the insertion of rising action. What I chose as my steps of rising action were there from the beginning, pulling the story forward.

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Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, contains a chapter titled “Rising Action and Pace.”