Sunday, March 06, 2011

Finish the Darn Book: Where to Start?

It's early in the year, and we're determined to get at least one book finished before 2012 gets here, right? We're going to finish the darn book. But how do you get past that first page, sitting there blank and taunting?

Some people jump right into the story. Then they end up cutting out the first chapter or so of backstory and exposition and start the book around what was originally chapter two or three. Other people, including yours truly, figure out all that backstory and exposition in the plotting phase, and then they take the time to figure out the point in the story where the initial change—the inciting incident—occurs. What event or change throws our hero/heroine into the middle of the story problem?

Whether you're a plotter or a pantser, the inciting incident is the inciting incident. It doesn't change based on your style of writing. All that differs is how you reach the point where the story is supposed to begin.

People will give you helpful hints—start with a catchy first sentence. Start with dialogue. Or, my personal favorite, start with a gunshot or a bomb blast. Any of those things works just fine. They all work just fine.

But they won't save your beginning if you've started in the wrong place.

I wish I could tell you a failsafe way of figuring out where your story starts. Take the idea of starting in the middle of the action. The book I just finished could easily have started with my hero and heroine taking gunfire unexpectedly. That does happen in the second chapter—so why didn't I start there?

Because, as exciting and heart-pounding as that moment might have been, taking gunfire wasn't the real moment of change for my characters. The change came when the heroine—a former CIA agent hiding from life in a small mountain town—discovered that her past had found her. And the hero was part of that change—manuevered by a CIA master spy into calling an anonymous phone number, he heard the voice of a woman he'd once loved but thought he'd lost forever.

That's my inciting incident. Gunfire alone wouldn't have sent my hero and heroine on the journey on which they embarked. Finding each other again, in the heart of that danger, is what spurred them to the actions they took once the gunfire started.

So, whether you're plotting ahead or writing organically, you still have to ask yourself the question: what is the one thing that could happen to make my hero and/or heroine leave behind their settled, comfortable lives and embark on this strange, scary, exciting and difficult journey?

Find that answer, and you'll know where to start your story.

And now, an exercise for anyone who wants to participate: in the comments, tell us, briefly, the inciting incident in the book you're writing at the moment, and why you think that's the moment of change that calls your characters to their adventure.

Alternative exercise, if you're still struggling with finding your inciting incident: tell us what you're struggling with. Maybe we can help you figure out your inciting incident—sometimes, it's easier to see the details from outside a problem rather than inside it.

Now, get posting!


Christine said...

Love this post. I am in revision mode so keep restarting the book LOL. I have found that I need to just barf it all out on the pages, not worry about if it is the "right" moment and then go back and look for it. I was working on a 5th book--feeling stuck but plowed through. I was asked to revise my 3rd MS and have been working on it. It's tough to rethink the story. But I like the challenge. I have found that my characters remain the same flawed people. Where they are and what they do might change.

No time for the exercises--revision process is taking up all my noodling time. But I did tweet this. I love the ideas!!

Thanks for a great post!

Paula said...

Well, as long as you're working, I'll give you a hall pass on the exercise, Christine! LOL

M.V.Freeman said...

I love this! Its so true. I'm finishing a final touch up on a story I'm writing...and I have a shiney NEW story I am pondering. I'll do the old one...

Inciting incident in current story (Urban fantasy): Hero makes a deal with an enemy and uses his family as collateral. (Or if you need the heroine in there--hero sees heroine and immediately makes sure she is reeled in...)

Does that work? LOL. My new story..I'm fiddling with...I believe I have the inciting incident..but I have to ponder it a bit longer.

I love these things Paula, thanks!

Christine said...

Thanks for the hall pass, Paula :-)

Louisa Cornell said...

What the heck is going on with Blogger?? IT keeps eating my posts! Sheesh!

Let me try this again.

I am currently revising the manuscript I finished in November. My agent loved the set up, but the middle has some things that need to be cut back and other things that need to be expanded on. I have decided it is easier to write a book from scratch than it is to revise one!

How is this for an inciting incident ?

My hero wakes up in his lover's bedroom and realizes he has been selling himself in her bed for the past three months and he just can't do it anymore. This is something of an epiphany for him as he simply saw it as her giving him gifts (which he pawned) and bankrolling his nights in a gaming hell (where he kept his winnings.) This morning she has simply left cash on the dresser. He tells her he is leaving. They have a terrible argument. She threatens to blackmail him. He says "Do that, Millicent, and you won't live long enough to regret it."

M.V.Freeman said...

I want to read your book! I love that last line!

Carla Swafford said...

Great post, Paula.

My current is a medieval and the inciting incident is the hero ransom's the heroine. Then he plans to see her punished for her supposed crimes. While she tries to escape and confront her father for leaving her.

Lexi said...

The book I am working on now opens with the heroine finding Meredith, her high school nemesis and the wife of her current boss, messily murdered and left dead on her desk at work. Not a good way to start the morning, especially before caffeine.

Great post. Figuring out where to start is half the battle. I have a book under my bed that I've literally started and restarted no less than 30 times. Arggh.

Paula said...

Y'all all have great inciting incidents! And what I love, too, is that it's immediately obvious, from the blurb, the kind of stories you're writing, too. Not that inciting incidents aren't universal--every story has one, of course. But you've chosen "change" that's absolutely appropriate to the kind of story you're telling.

That's terrific!

I'll share the inciting incident of the book I'm writing: the heroine, a former FBI agent speaking at a writer's conference, finds herself the target of an abduction. Despite being doped with Ketamine, she manages to get away from her captors, only to be grabbed by a ghost.

And I'll just leave it right there to titillate your imaginations. ;)

LindaC said...

Love this post. Here's my inciting incident: heroine, Jill, catches her fiance' with the wedding planner moments before walking down the aisle. She arrives at a bar where the hero is working undercover as a bartender. She's the doppelganger for his late partner/lover.


Paula said...

Good choice, LindaC! Definitely a change that sets the heroine on a whole new path, and for the hero, an encounter that puts his undercover plans in jeopardy.

Gwen Hernandez said...

Great post, Paula. I've been struggling with this myself. In my current MS, it's when my hero's team is beat by the heroine's team of women during a military training exercise.