A novel is not just some random collection of events.
A novel is a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and they’re connected. There’s a direction to the story. The beginning is about the lead character’s pursuit of a certain ending. The middle is about all the complications that come from pursuing that ending. The ending is about whether the lead character gets the ending he wanted, or some other ending.
The ending that the lead character wants is called the “story goal.”
But it’s a rare novel in which the lead character knows on page one what the story goal is. In many novels, the lead character doesn’t even know on page one that there is a story goal. Often, the lead character begins the story with nothing more than a vague discontent with The Way Things Are.
Something has to happen for the lead character to decide on a specific story goal. That’s often what the beginning of the story is all about. By the end of the beginning, the lead character should know what that story goal is and be committed to getting it, at any cost.
But what is it, exactly, that moves the lead character off his butt from his initial vague discontent? What leads him to begin trying to define a story goal?
The Inciting Incident
Something has to happen to change things. Very often, that “something” is external to the character. It happens to the character and focuses that vague discontent into a stronger emotion—rage or terror or desire or whatever.
That “something” is called the “inciting incident. Every story needs an inciting incident. It can come early or it can come extremely early, but it needs to push your lead character off balance and into the story.
Example 1: The Hunger Games
In The Hunger Games, the inciting incident comes quite early. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, goes to the Reaping ceremony, just hoping her name doesn’t get drawn. That will enable her to get on with her life.
The good news is that her name isn’t drawn.
The bad news is that her little sister’s name is.
That’s the inciting incident. Up till now, Katniss has been unhappy with the way the Capitol is running things. She’s thought of escaping District 12. But she hasn’t taken any action or even decided what action she might take.
But now her sister’s name is called. Her sister is a young kid, and going to the Hunger Games is a death sentence. Katniss doesn’t even think about it. She reacts instantly, volunteering to take her sister’s place.
Her assumption is that this means she’s going to die. It hasn’t occurred to her that she might win the Hunger Games. That thought comes to her later.
The novel is the story of Katniss’s attempt to win the Hunger Games.
But that story would never have even been possible without the Inciting Incident—the Reaping in which Katniss is forced to volunteer.
Example 2: Pride & Prejudice
Pride & Prejudice starts fairly quickly. In the first scene, we learn that a certain eligible bachelor, Mr. Bingley, has moved into the neighborhood and he’ll be making his appearance at the coming country ball.
Our heroine, Lizzie Bennet, is not particularly interested. She finds most men to be dull and narcissistic. She suspects she’s going to die an old maid, because she wants to marry for love, and that’s just not going to happen.
At the ball, Mr. Bingley brings his best friend, Mr. Darcy. Bingley has a fine time dancing with Lizzie’s older sister, but Darcy makes a bad first impression on everybody as a man who is stiff and formal and arrogant.
In reality, Darcy feels socially inept and is afraid to be friendly because he doesn’t know how. But he’s powerfully attracted to Lizzie Bennet, which leads him to make an off-hand comment to his friend Bingley denying his attraction.
Unfortunately, Lizzie hears the comment and is deeply offended. She’d like nothing more than to put him in his place.
Darcy leaves the dance wrestling with the terrible fact that he’s now infatuated with a woman who is far below him socially.
The dance is the inciting incident for this story. Early in the story, Darcy will fight his feelings and Lizzie will subtly mock him. At a certain point, Darcy will realize that it’s no use fighting. He’s going to have to pursue Lizzie, because he has to. But by this time, she’s committed to evading his pursuit.
The novel is the story of Darcy’s pursuit of Lizzie, and Lizzie’s attempts to evade.
None of this would have happened without the Inciting Incident—the dance where Darcy and Lizzie meet.
Example 3: The Godfather
The Godfather is a massive novel about a thoroughly repugnant character, Don Corleone, the godfather of a Mafia family.
The story begins with the wedding of the godfather’s only daughter. A lot happens at the wedding that will be relevant later. But the story really hasn’t begun yet. Fact is, the godfather is sitting rather pretty right now. He has multiple streams of income, he has the honor of his community, and he has any number of judges in his back pocket. The one nagging concern is that none of his sons is quite right to replace him as the godfather, but that’s not a big issue. He’s healthy and apparently has many years ahead of him.
Soon after this, he meets with a young gangster named Sollozzo. Sollozzo works with a rival family, and he wants to begin importing a new drug that has enormous profit potential—heroin. Sollozzo needs the godfather’s help in getting legal protection. His men are going to get arrested occasionally. It will be crucial to be able to bribe the godfather’s pet judges.
The godfather says no. He doesn’t care about the people who will be harmed by heroin. His concern is that drugs are too hot, that his judges will balk, and his empire will be harmed. So he refuses to cooperate.
But the godfather’s impetuous son Sonny expresses interest. Verbally. To Sollozzo.
Sollozzo leaves the meeting and orders a hit on the godfather. It nearly succeeds. Don Corleone is now terribly wounded and his empire is thrown into disarray.
The novel is the story of Don Corleone’s search for a successor—one powerful enough to regain the Corleone family’s standing as the premier Mafia family. And ruthless enough to exact a stunning revenge on Sollozzo and his backers.
None of this would have happened without the Inciting Incident—the initial meeting between the godfather and Sollozzo.