The Elusive Inciting Incident

Once upon a time, I wrote a novel without an inciting incident.

But how is that even possible? I asked myself, as rejection after rejection piled up, all citing the same reason – Nothing happens in the first half of the book.

That was…painful to read again and again, let me tell you. My CPs and betas had loved the first part of the book, had told me they couldn’t put it down because there was so much tension, and basically that everything was awesome.

Before getting that feedback, I had assumed my “inciting incident” was something which happened on the first page. That was where my MC’s world was changing. That was where all the drama started. But the reality remained that all of my tension and conflict was internal, or inter-personal. There was no overarching external conflict, which is a pretty big deal in a book pitched as High Fantasy.

Eventually it became clear nothing was going to happen for this book if I didn’t make some big changes. I cried for about five minutes. Then I did a lot of research on inciting incidents and novel beats.

I stumbled upon this amazing resource: http://jamigold.com/for-writers/worksheets-for-writers. Immediately I started analyzing my novel in new ways. I realized if I moved a certain event from the midpoint of the book to within the first 50 pages, I could blend the external conflict with the internal conflict, and omg wouldn’t that be way better anyway???

So I outlined how I thought things would go. Then I revised harder than I’ve ever revised in my life. It was difficult at first. I couldn’t wrap my head around the new sequence of events, and how it changed the dynamics between the characters. Things which had been sources of major conflict in the first draft no longer worked, and I had to make new conflict. But I did it, and I do think I’ve got a much better book as a result.

But then I started looking at my WIP, A FRAGILE LINE, and realized it had the same issue.

I cried for another five minutes. How could I have written three full manuscripts without a fundamental understanding of what an inciting incident is? Luckily, AFL was only at about 30k. So I scrapped the whole thing and started over.

While I intend to incorporate a lot of the original 30k in the new draft, so it won’t be a total loss, I wouldn’t be facing this if I’d taken the time to do the initial research about story structure and beats. As much as I love being a pantser, sometimes you need to do more than just throw yourself into a draft (at least, I did).

What about you guys? Any great tips or tricks for making sure your plotting and pacing are where they need to be?

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One thought on “The Elusive Inciting Incident

  1. I took Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel course and it completely changed the way I rewrite and revise in the best possible way. It allows me to still pants as much as I want during the first draft, but focuses very clearly on how to fix everything that’s broken in a single, methodical rewrite. And, of course, once you’ve taken it, it helps you write a better first draft to begin with. I highly recommend it, although I really only mentioned it because that’s how I address the very problems you discuss in this post. It’s great at identifying where conflict is, where it should be, and what actually qualifies as conflict, among a ton of other useful diagnostic tools for plot, pacing, character interaction etc. It’s the only writing course I’ve ever paid for, and it’s so very very worth every dime.

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