Introducing your readers to your magic system takes careful consideration. Don’t blindside them with the supernatural. Prepare them properly and they will be ready to believe anything.
Inciting incident: the point of no return
And now doom
The inciting incident is the event that forces the main character to action. It is the one event that sets him on his path. Before this moment he could continue his normal life. Once the inciting incident happens, everything changes.
- Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games
- Gandalf invites Bilbo on a quest
- Hagrid gives Harry a letter
The inciting incident changes something. While many inciting incidents throw your character’s world into chaos, the change does not have to be negative. Harry’s letter was probably the best thing to happen to the boy. But it did change his life. Once Harry knew who he was, his life had been altered permanently.
An inciting incident:
- Forces the characters to act
- It is the point of no return
An effective inciting incident:
Must be the results of the setup
This is the moment you’ve been building toward. (I’m looking at you pantsers.) Otherwise, it won’t make sense, and readers will feel duped. Imagine if Prim had been chosen for a beauty contest? The opening chapters in the Hunger Games established Katniss as a skilled hunter and demonstrated her need to protect Prim. None of that would have been pertinent if Prim had been chosen for a pageant.
Can’t have an easy solution
How many times have you been turned off by a book or movie where for some inexplicable reason the main character responded to a crisis with the dumbest, most complex response imaginable. Your character doesn’t need to helicopter jump to the top floor of a building when it has a perfectly good elevator.
Must be logical
This means if you want your teen to knowingly date an assassin, you need to craft your set-up so that it’s believable. Just like the Hunger Games example above, the inciting incident is the event that changes the world (normal life) you have just established for your character. It can’t be random. It must challenge the status quo.
Must be personal to the main character
Katniss volunteered because Prim was her sister. Harry wanted an escape from his miserable life. The inciting incident can’t be something that happens far away. It must happen to the character, and it must threaten him personally.
Reflects the stakes already established
As you are establishing your character’s world, you will show the reader what your character holds dear, the thing he doesn’t want to lose. Make sure your inciting incident threatens that thing. In Inside Out, Joy believes making Reily perpetually happy is her personal mission, but Sadness’s actions threaten the status quo, forcing Joy to act.
Everything in your opening chapters leads to this moment
Inciting incident is the moment everything changes for your main character. It is the result of your set up, the carefully crafted event that sends your hero on his path. Make sure yours is up to the task.
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The Secret to Writing a Great First Line
The first line is the most examined line in your story. Many readers will use this small collection of words to judge your entire book. Make sure your opening line is selling your story.
According to Jeff Gerke, an opening line must be “simple, engaging, and appropriate for the tone of the book.” (The First 50 Pages, p. 193)
Creating a simple opening line
Opening lines need to have one idea. Too often writers want to pack too much information into an opening line. As a result, the opening line answers whatever question it poses and leaves the reader no compelling reason to read further. Or it becomes too convoluted and confusing for the reader to follow. Deliver information in manageable bites. No one wants to eat the entire steak at once. No matter how delicious it is.
The scent of fresh baked cookies hits my nose as I entered my best friend Julie’s bakery, The Cookie Brigade, making my stomach growl, while my brain simultaneously reminded me that I only have three more weeks to fit into my size 6 wedding dress.
The scent of fresh baked cookies filled me with an overwhelming sense of doom.
Notice how the simple line is much easier to swallow. It also sets up a question, inviting the reader to learn more.
Creating an engaging first line
An engaging first line is one that captures the reader’s interest. Sounds simple, but this is the part that trips most writers because what captures a reader’s interest is subjective. It’s also difficult because the writer already knows where the scene is going so many writers stuggle to get enough distance from the subject to see if the first line is truly engaging.
Gerke further explains that effective opening lines fall into four categories: Striking, profound, funny, mysterious. (p. 197)
Striking: Everyone has a demon; mine is sitting in a beat-up leather recliner smoking menthols.
Profound: The worst evil was always the one hiding behind respectability.
Funny: There are two things that work best when they’re invisible: God and underwear.
Mysterious: I woke up on the other side, knowing there was no way home.
Matching the tone
The first line is the introduction to your book. It must match the overall tone of the story. No matter how snappy your opening line is, if it doesn’t match the rest of the book it doesn’t work. Imagine beginning your gothic horror with a joke, or your rom-com with a graphic depiction of violence. It doesn’t work.
Steps to creating your opening line
- Plan out your scene.
This scene must start your story. There must be conflict. The conflict does not have to be the story’s main conflict, but it must be the first step in your character’s journey. No false starts. No matter how clever or funny the dialogue, or how much world-building, or character building you have in the scene, if the conflict isn’t part of the character’s journey, it does not get the responsibility of being your first chapter. There is too much at stake to waste those critical first pages not telling the story.
- Visualize your character at the beginning of this scene.
Have a clear picture of where your character is, what she wants, and what is in her way. Once you have this, you can decide where you need to start your scene. Only show the reader enough for the conflict to make sense.
- Now write what is right in front of your character’s face.
This can be literally right in front of their face, or it can be the last thought that runs through your character’s mind. Remember the character must be focused on his current conflict. The opening line must introduce or lead to this conflict.
Have something? Now make sure it passes Gerke’s test. Is it simple, engaging, and appropriate for the tone of the book?
Yes? Great job. If not, figure out which element isn’t working and try again.
A memorable opening line can sell your book
Writing your opening line is difficult, but it’s not impossible. The effective opening is a simple, engaging hook that introduces your story and gives the reader a reason to continue. By using Gerke’s checklist you will be sure you have created the introduction your novel deserves.
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Further reading: (affiliate, but I genuinely recommend this book)
No matter how great your plot is, bad prose will sink it, fast.
Good writing must have a solid structure (plot, pacing, etc.), but if the prose is bad, nothing else matters.
What are the elements of good prose?
There are plenty of philosophies and rules about how to write the best prose. The prose is the voice of your story, the palette the author uses to paint the story. Good prose enhances and reflects the plot but never overwhelms it.
Good prose is invisible.
Imagine going to the cinema and trying to watch a movie while the projector clicks incessantly in the background. Good prose never draws attention to itself. It tells the story without interfering.
Good prose is simple and straightforward
Good prose must communicate an idea effectively. The most effective communication is the most simple. Good writing must always strive for the cleanest version, the simplest representation. Otherwise, the experience will feel false, and the reader will lose interest.
Mistake: Busy prose/Flowery Prose
There’s no need to overwrite. While this might be a symptom of a NaNoWriMo draft, there is no prize for putting in extra words that add nothing to the sentence. Keep it simple.
Example: The ambrosia of warming fragrances received me as I opened the door to the bakery.
Ask: Would a normal person say this in real life?
What are you really trying to say? “The place smelled like fresh-baked cookies” is a perfectly good line, and it isn’t going to elicit eye-rolling from your editor.
Overwriting is an easy trap to fall into. We are writers we want to create something beautiful, but the art comes in the selective use of color, the mastery of walking between what is there and what isn’t. Embrace the negative space. Keep your message clear and simple. This is key to effective communication.
Mistake: Restating what you have already said.
Example: I winced; heat rose to my face. I suddenly felt very awkward.
Here the author shows us that the character is embarrassed, and then she translates the action and spoon feeds it to the reader. Trust your readers to understand typical body language. “I winced; heat rose to my face” works on its own. Don’t retell the story. This is like watching a movie with someone who has already seen it, and after every important part he asks,” Did you see that?”
Mistake: Voice doesn’t match time period
Example: She found his company most vexing. Vs. He was asking to get bitch-slapped.
Both examples give the same information, but one of them sounds contemporary and the other sounds like it was written 200 years ago. Make sure your prose matches your time period, and if you are writing a historical, a little flavor is plenty.
Mistake: Using contemporary concepts/ideas in a historical setting
Example: The sword hummed with electricity
This mistake is so common I even see it slip through in published novels. We all remember the Orc shouting about meat being “back on the menu.” (Not sure how many cafés there are in Mordor.) Putting words or ideas into a character’s voice that don’t exist in their world makes the experience feel false.
Fix: This sword hummed with a quiet power that raised the hairs on the back of my hand.
If this were a contemporary, we could easily say “electricity” but in this instance writing out the sensation of electricity allows the character to accurately relate the experience using words and concepts that are familiar to a medieval setting.
The prose is the window through which your reader glimpses the story. Keep it clean
Plot structure, tension, and characterization are nothing without solidly written prose to carry them. As you edit your work, keeping an eye out for these common mistakes will help make your prose more effective at vanishing on that page and letting your story come through.