Your novel's inciting incidents
"Inciting incidents?" you may be asking. "As in, more than one?"
Yep. When I think about the structure of a well-paced novel, I identify two inciting incidents, which I call . . . wait for it . . . the first inciting incident and the second inciting incident. (Okay, so the terms are not catchy, but they are accurately descriptive.)
First Inciting incident (aka 1st inciting)
A novel's first inciting incident is the first clue about the book's primary conflict. There are a lot of ways this could look, and it doesn't have to be a huge event to be effective. But the key here is that it is An Event, a Plot Point, a Thing that Happens. Usually it's something that the MC doesn't really have to respond to . . . at least not right away.
The 1st inciting can occur before, during, or after the first five pages of the book, but it at least needs to be hinted at in the first five pages in order to give the pages forward momentum and give the reader confidence that the plot they just read about in the query letter or the book blurb is in fact forthcoming.
Second inciting incident (aka 2nd inciting)
The second inciting incident is the plot point that really kicks off the primary conflict. The MC must react at this point, and that reaction includes a goal that drives the narrative up until the next major plot point, if not longer.
In my experience, the 2nd inciting needs to happen by p. 50 in order for the plot to feel effectively paced. Depending on how much lead-up is necessary, it can even happen sooner.
What's the difference between a 1st inciting incident and hook?
I've seen other structure models use the term hook to describe what I call the 1st inciting incident. (And they call the 2nd inciting the first plot point.)
The reason I use the term 1st inciting as opposed to hook, though, is because we so often talking about "hooking your reader" in the opening pages. You can hook a reader with a lot of things: the character's voice, humor, a kick-ass first sentence (followed by a kick-ass first paragraph), a haunting or immersive image . . . you get the idea. What hooks the reader doesn't have to be a plot point. But the 1st inciting incident is An Event, a Plot Point, a Thing that Happens that's going to build up to or enable the 2nd inciting.
It's possible that what hooks the reader is the 1st inciting, but it's also possible that the 1st inciting isn't super hook-y at all but instead does its subtle magic in the background to provide that forward momentum while other elements in the first pages tell the reader that yes, this is in fact a book they want to sit down with.
What happens between the 1st and 2nd inciting incidents?
So glad you asked! I have a blog post about that: "Your novel's first 50 pages" ;*)
Does a novel have to contain both inciting incidents?
Nope. There definitely exist effectively structured books that begin at the 2nd inciting incident, which can make for an exciting, fast-past read. One of the most common examples of a book that contains only the 2nd inciting is a murder mystery that opens on the murder being committed or on the cops getting called to the scene, post-murder.
- First, my usual disclaimer: there are no hard and fast rules in writing. What I offer are guidelines based on what I believe to be most effective, and my intention is to be descriptive rather than prescriptive (even if I do argue hard for the timing of these plot points).
- Second, my theory on what's most effective is based on my study of novels published by western/European cultures. Other cultures may have other narrative traditions, and hence other structures, that are totally different from what I'm describing here, and still very effective in those contexts.
- Last but not least, I seek to describe conventions of structure that readers have been trained to expect, whether they're conscious of it or no. If you want to break from the conventions, it's super helpful to know what readers will expect so you can decide how to set up different expectations.