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!