Beginnings of a novel: Establishing Routine and the Inciting Incident

A good way to start your novel is to begin with a gripping scene that grabs the readers’ attention. But most of the time this gripping scene is probably not what is drawing your character to leave their “normal” life to partake in the adventure of your story.

arcIf you look at the standard story arc, you will note that at the beginning, you need to establish the norm or everyday life for your character.

Examples from the movies

Harry Potter – We find Harry living under the cupboard under the stairs. We see the awfulness of his life with Dursleys.

Indiana Jones – While we meet Indy during an exciting scene, we are then returned to his life as a professor.

Cinderella – We see her everyday existence of sweeping up the ashes and basically being a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters.

It is only after the normal routines have been established that the character is then thrown into a different situation. The event that really kicks off the story is typically something that is beyond the character’s control. This incident or trigger will require your character to make a choice and truly begins the story.

Again examples from movies

Harry Potter – Harry receives a letter inviting him to be trained as a wizard, and Harry decides to attend Hogwarts.

Star Wars: A New Hope – Luke’s family is killed, and he decides to leave Tatooine with Obi-wan. (Of course, an argument can be made that for the whole story, the inciting incident is when Darth Vader boards Princess Leia’s ships, and she hides the Death Star plan in R2. But for Luke, our main character, it is the situation above.)

Lord of the Rings – Frodo receives the ring from Bilbo.

In a romance, the inciting incident is probably where the two romantic leads meet each other for the first time. In a mystery, it is when the first dead body is found.

No matter what the event is, this is what gets the story rolling. It introduces an inequity or problem into the character’s life. The protagonist will seek the solution. The Antagonist seeks to prevent it. But without this event, nothing changes. If Harry hadn’t received the letter from Hogwarts he would have continued to live under the stairs – something very unexciting and certainly not worth a seven-book series. If Frodo never received the ring, he would have stayed in the Shire.

You could start a story without establishing routine, but you can’t have a story without an incident that starts your character off on the adventure. Now whether you show this incident at the beginning of your book or not is your choice.

Let’s go back to the beginning where I said that you should start your story with a gripping scene. Perhaps your character is already on their adventure, and we will learn of their “normal” life and the inciting incident in back story. This is perfectly fine. But the story can’t take place without something propelling your character into the adventure of the rest of the story.


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