Revising your early chapters using the inciting incident

Upright lit match next to unlit match with green tip

One of the trickiest parts of drafting any novel is moving into the narrative quickly enough to get readers fully hooked on the story. During the first few chapters, it’s very easy for your audience to loose momentum and interest—and for e-book readers, those sample chapters often determine whether your book gets a purchase or a pass.

Many times, the problem is that the book doesn’t start in the right place. Readers are having to wade through several chapters of backstory before the good stuff begins.

This draft weakness is common for a very simple reason: writers need more backstory than readers do. We have to be able to imagine all the details and history that affect our characters, otherwise we can’t figure out the story. But in the end, often only the highlights are actually key to our final plot.

One way to approach the opening chapters of a novel is to structure them around two pivotal plot points: the setup, and the inciting incident.

So what is an inciting incident, and how is it different from the setup?

The setup is an event or situation that changes the protagonist’s status quo. The inciting incident is the moment the protagonist must respond to that change. It’s easiest to define these two points by example, so I’ll jump into one based on some common story tropes.

Let’s say we’re looking at a draft of a cyberpunk thriller about an ex-con who is dragged back into her life as a hacker. In the first chapter, an old friend appears at her door, looking for shelter. This is the setup—our main character is enjoying a settled existence, and something has happened to threaten that security. Acting on old loyalties, she lets the thief in.

In the second chapter, the thief reveals they were part of a heist that went bad; two crews tried to claim the same score. The thief wants our main character’s help to escape both the cops and the rival crew’s vengeance. She is reluctant but agrees to give an answer the next day.

Unfortunately, the thief has been tracked. Mayhem ensues, and in the mad rush out of her burning apartment, our main character has a choice: go with her friend, or head as far as she can in the opposite direction. This is the inciting incident—it’s the event that sets the book on the track it will follow for the rest of the story, the initial point-of-no-return.

It’s easy to mistake the arrival of the thief as the inciting incident. But that’s really just the establishing shot. The true story doesn’t get going until the protagonist decides to go after her friend. Up until that moment, she could refuse to help, and there would be no story. (Or maybe it would be a short story in which nothing ultimately happens and we contemplate the meaninglessness of our lives.) But once she throws her lot in with the thief, she’s made a choice she can’t undo. That’s where the story begins.

Expectations vs. reality: backstory does not equal setup

In my invented example, we start with the setup in chapter one and reach the inciting incident at the end of chapter two. Exciting! But let’s imagine we’re reading the very first finished draft of that novel. It’s much more likely that the pages would go something like this:

  • Chapter 1 - Protagonist eats 3D-printed ramen noodles while patting her cat, thinking back on her glory days as an underworld badass

  • Chapter 2 - Protagonist goes to her boring day job, has a run-in with her least favorite coworker, and longs for her glory days as an underworld badass, when she could have just cut that bitch

  • Chapter 3 - Protagonist commutes home and notices every building she passes as if for the very first time, helpfully describing the cyberpunk architecture for the reader

  • Chapter 4 - Back at home, she decides to be happy she is no longer an underworld badass because nobody will try to cut her while she eats her ramen (and oh hey, there’s a knock on the door!)

You get the idea. We’re now four chapters in, and we’re just reaching the setup. It’s probably another 30-50 pages before the inciting incident finally throws the protagonist into the real story.

If you’ve written a draft that looks like this, it’s nothing to feel bad about. This is how writers figure out the raw materials of our stories: places, characters, histories. Some rare writers nail all that down in their outlining and brainstorming process. But for many of us, those details emerge organically (and sometimes mysteriously) as we write our early drafts.

How to revise a draft using the inciting incident

The key is to take a step back, examine where the narrative truly begins, and trim out anything keeping readers from getting there. Look for the first moment when your characters take an irreversible action or make a major decision. This point is often described using the metaphor of a roller coaster, or a rock tumbling down a hill. The scene when your story tips over that first edge is the inciting incident.

Once you’ve identified that pivotal scene, work backwards and find the setup. This will be the moment when all the necessary pieces for the inciting incident are in place, waiting to be triggered. If you have more than a chapter or so before the setup point, it’s time to trim your opening pages.

After you’ve made those difficult first cuts, it often becomes easier to let go of backstory and details you might once have thought were indispensable. And the good stuff can be worked back into the narrative fabric at other points in the book.

It’s also important to remember that even if your book does start with the right scenes (i.e., with the setup), it’s still possible to take too long getting to the inciting incident. If our ex-con and her friend spend chapters two and three reminiscing about successful heists and doing research on the rival crew, readers may wander off before the nighttime attack that triggers the real action.

Not every novel will follow the structure of a setup and an inciting incident - but many genre novels do, in one way or another. The amount of content readers will sit through before getting an inciting incident varies by genre; stories with more worldbuilding require more pages to establish the setup (think fantasy vs. cozy mystery). There’s no hard-and-fast rule that you must have an inciting incident by chapter three or page 50.

But the sooner you push the book over that first narrative ledge, the sooner readers will be eagerly turning pages. Ultimately, that’s the goal of every good story.

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