Which comes first?

I’m writing this on Thanksgiving morning, and I’m feeling grateful to all of you who follow the blog and particularly to you who chime in with questions and help for fellow writers!

And I’m aware that some of you are in the NaNoWriMo home stretch. I’m sending good wishes your way. By the time I post this you’ll be done and, I imagine, fast asleep. When you wake up, please let us know how it went and what you accomplished. Congratulations!

On November 19, 2020, Beth Schmelzer wrote, I just heard from publisher and editor Kiri, at MG Chicken Scratch Books, that you shouldn’t start with an inciting incident in the first scene or chapter, but you should ground the reader in the MC’s “normal.” What do you all think? She analyzed Dan Gemeinhart’s SCAR ISLAND with the 3 Turning Points on a webinar with the SCBWI Montana chapter last weekend.

Two of you responded:

Melissa Mead: I think you should do whatever works for that story. There’s no one right way to write.

Christie V Powell: The first scene doesn’t have to be the inciting incident (II), but it still should be an interesting hook, something crafted perfectly to show the character’s character. KM Weiland calls it a “characterizing moment”: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/multi-faceted-characteristic-moment/

In my Mira’s Griffin, I opened with the main character climbing a cliff, being startled and falling off, and being rescued by a strange creature which turns out to be a griffin. Then she goes back to her normal world for a chapter and a half. The inciting incident is when she is captured by griffins. So the opening is still exciting and hints at the conflict to come, but the II isn’t until chapter 3.

I pulled another book off my shelf. High Sierra by Adrienne Quintana. The opening is when the main character arrives at a cabin and realizes her mother sent her to a “wilderness therapy” program. She’s judgmental of the “problem kids” and of her surroundings, but she’s relatable because of the conflict with her mother. The inciting incident is when their van sets out to drop off their group in the wilderness, and she meets their attractive wilderness guide.

My kids were just watching the movie Newsies in the car. It opens with setting up the setting, and introduces the main character “Jack” as someone who’s tough, respected by the other boys, and stands up for others. He speaks out against a bully, starts a fight, and manages to get away without punishment. The II comes a bit later, when the newspaper owner increases the prices the boys have to pay for newspapers.

I’m with both of you. There are no absolutes, or the only absolute is that whatever works is what we should do. The II doesn’t have to come in the first chapter, but it certainly can.

First off, the II is the event that charges up our plot, though I’m not sure I can pinpoint it in every book of mine or anyone else’s. The II can be something that happens to our MC (and possibly other characters too) or something our MC does. Confession: I never think about IIs when I write a story, although I think my books have them. Do you think about them? Are you a pantser or an outliner? I have to work backwards to talk about the II, to locate mine from a finished story.

We’re really talking about beginnings when we talk about the II anyway, and, for kids’ books certainly, the beginning has two parts: an II, to be sure, whenever it comes; and something that makes readers care, generally about our MC and sometimes about the MC’s world. In Lord of the Rings, for example, we care about Bilbo and about Middle Earth.

The worst example, in my opinion, of starting out by setting up the world of a story—though many readers love it—appears in the novel Hawaii by James Michener (high school and up). I don’t know how the book, which was published in 1959, would stand up to modern sensibilities or even to my current sensitivities, but I loved everything except the beginning when I was a teenager. The novel is about Hawaii and is told in several time periods, the first being the geologic formation of the island. Yawn. I never managed to read more than a page or two.

The II happens in my Ella Enchanted in the first paragraph, when Ella is cursed with obedience. Ella has no normal because she’s a newborn. I think the reader starts to care about her on the next page when she’s commanded (unintentionally) to eat her birthday cake, and she can’t stop.

In my The Wish, the II occurs in the prologue, which is a problem because many kids skip prologues. MC Wilma’s normal is set up in the first chapter, and the reader comes to care about her when her teacher reads out loud to her class a super embarrassing essay she’s written about how much her dog loves her.

But in my Fairest, the II happens on page 93. At least, that’s when I think it does. Before then, Aza hates being unattractive, but the consequences of everything are set in motion by something the queen does.

In Pride and Prejudice, I’m pretty sure we start to care about Elizabeth when Darcy refuses to dance with her and calls her looks “tolerable.” This may do double duty because it may also be the II. Or the II may come earlier when Mrs. Bennet says how much she wants her daughters to be married well. Even though Austen makes fun of her, the reader realizes how essential matrimony is for a woman who isn’t wealthy in her own right.

I’m not sure what the II is in my historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells. Trouble gathers slowly. Loma, my MC, is like the fabled frog in the slowly heated water. She and the reader don’t know what’s coming until it’s upon them. Or, the II may come when her grandfather becomes very attached to her and starts taking her with him when he travels—but at first that seems like a lucky break for her.

(About that frog, you probably know that frogs really can’t be lulled into allowing themselves to be boiled to death, but—argh!—according to Wikipedia, a lot of frogs suffered to prove that false.)

The normal establishes what’s at stake when matters start going south. That’s the worldbuilding that comes with every story we write. Sometimes the II doesn’t change the world, doesn’t change much at all. The normal in P&P stays the same after Darcy makes his disparaging remark. Please argue with me if you disagree.

One reason to establish normal first, though, is so that readers feel on solid ground and not flailing in deep water. Along those lines, my editor asked me not to introduce so many characters in the first chapter of Ceiling. In that case, I needed to set up normal more gradually.

On the other hand, unless my memory is wrong, here’s a story that has no normal: Alice in Wonderland. The reader never finds out what Alice’s life is like when she isn’t diving down rabbit holes.

The beginning is probably the part I revise the most because I write it when I’m least certain about how my story will unfold. This may not be true of people who outline extensively, or you may revise your outline’s beginning more than once.

It may be a tad strong for me to say that I hate when people say there’s just one way to do something in writing.  I guess I dislike it—a lot! Such advice is often constricting and can make us be hard on ourselves, especially at the beginning of a story when we’re particularly tender. I’ve talked about a few different approaches to the II, and you may, by experimentation or sheer brilliance, happen upon one that’s new to the rest of us. Don’t be afraid of it!

Here are three prompts:

  • Write a new first chapter for Alice in Wonderland that sets up her normal before her descent below ground. Another confession: I’m not fond of Alice, which seems to lack causality and be little more than a string of oddities. If you feel as I do, give her a reason for following that rabbit. Make something be at stake. If you need more than a chapter, go for it.
  • Write a prologue to the fairy tale “Rapunzel” that shows the normal for the witch and reveals why she wants a baby. This can be from the witch’s POV or not.
  • In the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” not the play or the movie, the Beast comes to life only in the presence of Beauty or her father. Write a scene showing what he’s like when he’s alone—his normal.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thank you insightful advice, writers! I agree with you all. As a pantser who writes MG family mysteries, I am still discovering the best place to LAND my Inciting Incident. I learn from you all every month.

  2. KM Weiland has an article about identifying the inciting incident, including the difficulty of defining it: different writers use the term in different ways, for different points in the story structure. https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/your-books-inciting-event-its-not-what-you-think-it-is/

    “The vast majority of confusion over this structural pillar is the fact that we find different writers referring to three very distinct moments in the story by the same name.” Paraphrasing: The three things are the first crucial moment of the story, the first plot point (“the all-important big moment that happens at the end of the First Act… where your story gets going in earnest”), or the call to adventure in the middle of Act 1.

    • Answering the NaNoWriMo question: I finished a new novel. I have no idea when I’m going to edit it because I have several other projects going, but the rough draft is there when I’m ready for it. It’s called The Captain’s Dowry and it’s inspired by Shakespeare’s As You Like It, except at sea.

    • I know everyone’s structure and opinion is different. For what it’s worth, here’s how I would break down Ella Enchanted (warning: spoilers).

      Act 1:

      Hook: Ella receives her curse.

      Inciting Incident: Ella is forced to go to boarding school and leave her home and Mandy.

      First Plot Point: Ella runs away from finishing school, actively choosing to figure out a way to break her curse.

      Act 2:

      First Pinch Point: Ella is almost eaten by ogres.

      Midpoint: Mandy saves Ella from being “all puppet”, and Ella considers how much it would mean to break her curse.

      Second Pinch Point: Ella’s new stepfamily discovers her curse. This not only makes her life worse, it raises the stakes by pointing out how awful it is if everyone knew about her curse.

      Low Point: Ella breaks up with Char.

      Act 3:

      Trigger: Ella decides to attend the balls.

      Climax: Ella goes to the balls, risking discovery.

      Climactic moment: Ella faces her curse head on, and breaks it herself.

  3. Just finished NaNo! Wrote 100,000 words (broken up in editing, writing, outlining, brainstorming, etc. etc. etc….) as a Rebel and am very proud of myself for putting in the work even when it got difficult. I wouldn’t have thought it possible even just last year…

    As for Alice in Wonderland, as an Alice aficionado, perhaps I can help! I’ve always thought of the book as steeped more thoroughly than a lot of others in its cultural context. Being a story told to children, the “before world” is skipped because it’s theirs– it’s the world in which they are listening to the story. “Alice” is really every little girl in Victorian England, dealing with the pressures of school and manners and grown-ups… alternatively, one might say that the world of Wonderland is itself a funhouse mirror of the real world/before world, since it satirizes the culture. Of course, that makes it difficult for us modern folks to relate!

    Thanks again for another wonderful blog post– I read them every time, and this time I got the chance to sit down and comment. Love spending time on your blog.

  4. I am now tempted to worry about whether or not my own story has an inciting incident, or if I suffer from the problem of taking twenty-odd chapters to get the story rolling. Which I suspect is a bad thing for a story that’s meant to be middle-grade. For the time being, after spending months in knots over worries about how XYZ aspects could be interpreted, I’m trying not to think about these things anymore. I got some 12,229 words hammered out over November. By hand! Added to the ~6,000 I’d already written. My accomplishment was writing every day for just over a month, until I missed yesterday. And as long as I’m still writing in my notebook I’m not going to bother over issues of strict plot structure, editing, the number of characters that keep popping up only to disappear a minute later, how people might react or choose to interpret anything, or how the major issues of the book are going to play out exactly and how things will be resolved. I know some things that are being worked toward, I know the kind of ending the story is going to get, but how the problems are going to be resolved exactly, I don’t know. It might happen that the story’s inciting incident doesn’t happen until chapter fifteen! I just hope that there’s enough going on, and there’s enough to be established before that ball gets rolling, that it doesn’t matter so much.

    • Fixing those sorts of things is what editing is for! Just keep going. A finished rough draft is better than a polished first chapter.

  5. Hey Gail! I just wanted to thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us. I’ve come so far from the writer I was before I discovered this blog. I think most of us have. It’s a privilege to be able to come here and draw from your well of knowledge 🙂

  6. I’m having some trouble with setting. In one of my stories, I have a magical inn. In my head, the inn always seems really fantastical and fun, but when I try to write it down it just seems pretty normal and not very interesting. The same thing is happening with another magical location in another story, this one a house belonging to a family of witches. Does anyone have any tips for how to make the magical parts of these settings really stand out? I would really appreciate any advice. Thanks! 🙂

    • Quirks! In many stories, the places that are fantastical and different feel that way because the author puts quirks into the story. For example… in The Harry Potter series, many things seem fantastical. mysterious and exciting because of oddities. Some, like Hogwarts’ moving staircases, floating candles, and Forbidden Forest are obvious, but there are small things that change the way we see a place. Such as the Weasly’s house, if we didn’t hear about their trouble with screaming garden gnomes and Mrs. Weasly’s clock that tells where everyone is and what state of danger they may be in, we would just assume they lived in a messy, yes quirky, but not magical home. In many of Gail’s books, the way she describes things causes the level of awe and fantasy to shoot up! I love the castle in Fairest – the courts full of singing courtiers, the birds chirping in the alcoves of ceilings, the way everything seems to be singing. And the elaborate colors all around. In Two Princesses the Fairy’s palace is perfect, it is nestled on a mountain in the clouds and everything there is simply better than it is in Bamarre. You could also make your people the quirky ones – maybe the innkeeper has a collection of unicorn tusks hidden that no character knows about, but the reader does, these are the reason the food tastes good in the inn, the beds are soft, and people continue to stay over. Using your imagination is my best advice!

    • Another way to think about this is that magical places give you an excuse to put in the really cool/ridiculous ideas that would never fit in anywhere else. If you’re the list-making person, you could go through your old lists, find the most ridiculous things you thought of, and put them in. If you want a ceiling made of moss and a floor made of clouds, go for it. Humor and detailed descriptions are your best friends here.

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