I’m sure most writers have heard the term “plot arc” or “story arc.” Today I’m going to delve into the first part of that plot arc: the inciting action.
The inciting action is the event that propels your protagonist into action. Through this inciting action, you show the reader what the protagonist’s goal is and you establish a conflict that’s going to get in the way of achieving that goal. It doesn’t have to be on the first page, but it should be in the first chapter.
Here are a couple examples of inciting actions:
- A girl loses her scholarship to college. Here we see what her goal is (going to college), and the conflict that impedes that goal (losing the money to go to college). Upon this foundation, you can further develop why it’s so important to her to go to college or to this particular college. Maybe she has an awful home life she wants to escape and this scholarship was the only way to afford a college out of state (far away from her abusive mother). Or maybe this is the premier school for astronautics and going there would secure her a position at NASA (her dream come true). Her reason will help fill in her character at the same time you’re propelling the plot into motion.
- A murderer kills someone or a dead body is found. This is the classic inciting action in a mystery novel. The goal for the protagonist (whether they’re a cop or an amateur detective) is to figure out who’s the killer, and the conflict is that the murderer didn’t leave his name and address at the crime scene, hence no one knows who he is. Which isn’t to say that you absolutely need a dead body in the first chapter of a mystery. I represent two mysteries where the body doesn’t appear until around page 90. But each of them have an inciting action. In one a woman goes missing in the first chapter. In the other a woman is invited to her 25th annual high school reunion, which she doesn’t want to go to. (Shameless self-promotion: The latter, Class Reunions Are Murder, is coming out in January!)
The reason that an inciting action is so important is because it gives the reader an end goal for the protagonist. And if the reader knows what the end goal is and likes the protagonist (or is least intrigued by him), the reader will become invested in finding out whether or not he achieves his goal.
Sometimes I’ll receive submissions where the author opens with an action that propels the protagonist into motion, but the protagonist’s goal will be unclear. To me this is not a proper inciting action, because if I don’t know the protagonist’s goal, I have no reason to root for him. There’s nothing to keep me turning the pages, to make me invested in finding out what happens to him.
Or the defined goal the protagonist is trying to achieve is too vague and abstract. For example, if her goal is just to be happy or to find herself. The goal should be a tangible thing, or else there won’t be enough action in the plot to drive the story forward. Or it could make it harder for an agent to differentiate what’s special and unique about your book.
Sometimes I’ll receive submissions where the conflict doesn’t show up until halfway through the book. The protagonist has been going along, doing things, but she’s not put in a position where she needs to make an important decision until a third of the book has gone by. How can I be concerned about whether or not she’ll overcome the obstacles stacked against her if there are no obstacles?
Or I’ll receive a submission where the conflict doesn’t build over time. There’s one obstacle at the outset that doesn’t progress or develop. For example, a woman is trying to decide whether or not to sell the family farm. A way that conflict could build is to increase the obstacles stacked against her. She could have a bad crop season, her son (who she depends on to work the land) becomes sick, she can’t pay her bills, and there’s a nasty family next door who is pressuring her to sell (and might be killing her chickens, though she can’t prove it). Imagine that story without any of those additional obstacles, that doesn’t evolve beyond the decision of whether or not to sell the farm. The conflict is so passive and internal that there’s not enough action to move the story forward.
Or there are multiple conflicts instead of one consistent conflict. The protagonist goes over here and faces one conflict, then he goes over here and faces a different conflict, and so on. This kind of plot can leave the reader feeling like the story isn’t cohesive, that it’s too random.
If any of these examples remind you of your own book, take a close look at your book’s structure. Much of writing is in rewriting, so if you don’t realize your inciting action is unclear until after you’ve finished writing your book, you can always go back and revise. And I highly recommend you do.