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In The Beginning …

July 27, 2011

For me, the hardest part of writing a novel is the beginning. Let’s say the book I’ve been working on is finished – polished and tweaked until it shines and I can’t find one more thing to change. In reality, there’s not much chance of that actually happening, but at some point I realize I’m just tinkering: changing, but not necessarily improving my story. It’s time to move on – start another book. So, I open a new file. I can’t think of a title. Not a problem. I’ll do that later. So … what do I type at the top of the page?

Sound familiar? What do you do? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are writers. Here’s one that works for me:

Ask yourself some questions.

Who is the main actor?

What is the main actor’s goal or story question?

What is the inciting incident?

Ah … inciting incident … that’s where the story begins.  Think of your favorite books, the ones you loved from the very first paragraph. One that comes to my mind is Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck. I read this book years ago and recently re-read it for a book group. Here’s the inciting incident:

It is the morning of Madame Wu’s fortieth birthday. She has decided it is time for her husband to take a second wife. She wants some time for herself.  It’s obvious this will bring about changes in her life. She thinks she knows what those changes will be and she welcomes them.

As a reader, I have my doubts and am immediately sucked into the story, intrigued by the situation Ms. Buck has set up. When I looked at it with a writer’s eye, I realized how cleverly she has captured my attention. She doesn’t tell her husband of her decision in the first scene (and, curiously enough, he doesn’t seem to have a vote in the matter). She doesn’t show us Madame Wu in an agony of self-examination as she makes this decision. When the book opens, it’s already made. All she has to do is carry it out. Here are the first two sentences:

“It was her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu sat before the tilted mirror of her toilet case and looked at her own calm face. In her mind she was comparing it with the face she had seen in this same mirror when she was sixteen.”

She’s remembering the morning after her marriage, important because it relates to the inciting incident (her decision to find a second wife for her husband of 24 years). There are a few more scenes with other members of the household. She tells her best friend, her first son and her maid of her decision before she tells her husband. We learn about the sons of Madame Wu and other members of the household.  There’s a wonderful scene when she tells her maid and instructs her that it is her job to make sure that the new wife will be respected and treated well by the servants.

All of these things lead irrevocably to the inciting incident. By the time she tells her husband, you can’t wait to see how he’s going to react.

You can do it this way or you can jump right in. Ms. Buck could have begun her novel with a scene between husband and wife wherein she tells him that it’s time for him to take a new wife and that she will choose an appropriate one for him. That also would have made a very effective opening. That’s one of the challenges of beginnings. There are so many choices. How can you be sure you’re making the right one? You can’t. That’s OK. This is your beginning, your first draft. Nothing is written in stone. You can change anything you want, but however your story ultimately begins, you need to get something down – and figuring out the inciting incident is a good place to start. If you need to add other scenes to build suspense or to ground the reader as to time and place, you can add them later. First, though, figure out what sets the story in motion and let the story flow from that.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 28, 2011 8:32 AM

    Wonderful post, Sandy. In my arm-chair travels, Pearl S. Buck has been one of my favorite tour guides. Writing the first few pages of a new story generally comes fairly easy for me. It’s those that come after page 5 or 10. That’s when my new idea begins to sag. It isn’t unusual for me to rewrite the beginning (and the ending) several times, until I’m satisified. Pearl S. Buck, Ellery Queen, Cynthia Voight, Virginia Henley are authors I’ve used to guide me in my writing. Oh, then there’s Linda Lael Miller, Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiweiss, too.

    • July 28, 2011 8:56 AM

      Thanks, Loretta. For me, one of the perks of writing is that it has taught me a new way to enjoy my old favorites and to fully understand why some of them have become classics.

  2. July 28, 2011 1:24 PM

    Very Interesting. As a book lover, I often wonder why SOME books are intriguing and some books end up in a heap in the corner of my closet. i think you just answered my question, ‘the inciting incident’ ! I’m off to purchase “Pavilion of Women”

  3. August 8, 2011 6:08 PM

    I’m late getting here, but I loved your post. I read everything of Pearl Buck’s I could find years ago, but I think I’d appreciate some of the less obvious ideas more now. You’ve made me want to re-read them.
    And now to the point. I can come up with inciting incidents–it’s what to do afterward that defeats me. Always a challenge, to keep the story going and make it interesting. Thanks for such a nice post, Sandy.

    • August 8, 2011 8:37 PM

      Thanks, Ellis, for stopping by. There are so many old favorites I’d love to read, also so many new, untried authors. I agree that what comes after the inciting incident is a challenge. Writing is not for the faint of heart.

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