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Balancing World-Building and Inciting Incidents

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Help! My MG fantasy starts off with action. I use that action to do a lot of world building and characterization. The second chapter is kind of a bridge that introduces us to the important characters and gets us to what is really, truly, the inciting incident in the third chapter.  Through a couple crits, I've realized that I either need to cut the second chapter or make it do more work and find a way to move the inciting incident up.


But is that still too late? If I keep my first two chapters exciting and action-packed, is the third chapter too late for an inciting incident? How do you balance world-building and action without bogging your reader down in too much telling? I thought I could "show" it in the first couple chapters, but now I don't know.


Thoughts?
#1 - January 13, 2014, 10:45 AM
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The third chapter is not too late for an inciting incident. I've even had a critique with one editor who suggested I move my inciting incident in a particular story to chapter five! But you say your first chapter is action--that's fine, as long as that action bonds us to the main character.
#2 - January 13, 2014, 10:50 AM
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I use Inciting Incident in the sense of Syd Field's book SCREENPLAY. It is basically the event which sets the story in motion. The Key Incident is the true starting point of the theme of the story. For example, the inciting incident of HOLES is Stanley being accused of stealing shoes and sent to Camp Greenlake for punishment. The Key Incident--when we find out that this is a treasure story, not a kid-builds-character or buddy story--is when he finds the lipstick tube in the hole he digs and the Warden gets very excited about it. This comes quite a ways into the story. (This is the key incident for the external plot of the story, anyway.)
#3 - January 13, 2014, 01:45 PM
« Last Edit: January 13, 2014, 01:47 PM by Amanda Coppedge »
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The third chapter is not too late for an inciting incident. I've even had a critique with one editor who suggested I move my inciting incident in a particular story to chapter five! But you say your first chapter is action--that's fine, as long as that action bonds us to the main character.

I agree. I've found that people respond much better if they can relate to the main character and if that character is developed right off the bat. To start with action is fine, but make sure the reader doesn't get lost in it, and has someone to root for otherwise the action does no good. Once the reader is bonded to the MC they will pretty much follow them anywhere so if the inciting incident is put back in chapter 3, that's okay as long as the reader has something to latch onto and keep them interested.
#4 - January 14, 2014, 05:47 AM

I don't feel pressured to reveal all the world rules and quirks up front, but just enough to get the reader's feet on the ground. That said, I wouldn't put off the inciting incident until world building is complete. I also agree that empathy for the MC is vital. Sometimes the inciting incident can help generate that.

Great question. I suppose my answer is a resounding and forceful, "it depends." I don't think there is a hard and fast rule for this one, but rather a tendency to keep it near the front.
#5 - January 14, 2014, 03:34 PM
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Amanda Coppedge, would you say the Key Incident is what ends the first act of a story? That's what it sounds like to me, but I'm not sure if that's what you mean. I would say usually the first act ends at around page 50-60, and by then we should know where the story is going (the goal or the question) and at that point all of the characters and the story world should have been introduced.
#6 - January 14, 2014, 04:03 PM
« Last Edit: January 14, 2014, 10:17 PM by Whizbee »
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I wish I had the answer to this question! It's one of the things I struggle with the most. Personally, I love stories that start with character and a bit of backstory before diving into the adventure. But I seem to be in the minority with that... Or maybe I'm just not doing it very well. Because when I do start off right away with the inciting event, agents suggest I haven't given the reader enough to know and care about the main character. So it seems to be an elusive balance!

I do think what you're describing may not be the best approach. If you start with action right off the bat, and then slow down too much in that second chapter, the reader may expect something and then be turned off that you didn't follow through. How important is that action at the beginning? Does it lead to something important in the plot? Or is it just a hook to try and grab the reader? Because if it seems too detached from what follows after, that may be more of a problem than starting off more slowly but building up quickly to the inciting incident.

But do take my opinion with a large lump of salt! Like I said, I struggle with this myself.
#7 - January 14, 2014, 07:22 PM

Whizbee: yes, the key incident is the plot point that spins the story around in a different direction and ends Act I (as per Syd Field's method). I think the inciting incident can be pointing heavily to the key incident, but it's not necessary to put all the cards on the table right in chapter 1. The first act of the book should be about the reader connecting with the main character(s) and becoming immersed in their world.

AmandaSue, reading over your original post again, I think it would be specific comments on your particular manuscript that would be most helpful. Sometimes I start formulating ideas about what the story will be based on the opening chapters, and if the key incident/main plot do not seem organic to what I want to read I feel disappointed in the book. Or if your readers really start to like a side character only to discover they are quite incidental to the plot, they may feel cheated. In other words I think this is less an objective question of general technique and more a subjective question of: does it work for your particular manuscript?
#8 - January 15, 2014, 01:01 PM
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Thanks everyone for your comments. Actually, looking at it as inciting incidents and key incidents and my first act has really helped. I've realized that my first chapter needs to lead more organically to my inciting incident. I know what my key incident is, but it wasn't pointing to the rest of the book. This has really helped!
#9 - January 15, 2014, 03:02 PM
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I struggle with this too. I actually came here looking for tips for getting readers to connect with the protagonist and keeping the scene setting straight without slowing down the start of a story.


It's really hard in science fiction because every world is so different. In modern fiction, or even historical and fantasy, readers have expectations, but in stories set in other worlds and other cultures we have a lot more work to do.




#10 - January 17, 2014, 01:50 AM
« Last Edit: January 17, 2014, 01:59 AM by macdibble »

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I came across this article by Matt Forbeck on Mind Meld, a scifi blog, and thought this view summed up how a particular great opening unfolded: The Lord of the Rings.

"...the greatest epic fantasy of all time starts out with a birthday party in the quietest corner of the world. It shows the creeping edges of the shadow about to fall over this idyllic land, and then it reaches in with the Nazg?l and yanks the humblest of heroes right into the center of a staggering war between good and evil..."
#11 - January 17, 2014, 04:39 AM
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I came across this article by Matt Forbeck on Mind Meld, a scifi blog, and thought this view summed up how a particular great opening unfolded: The Lord of the Rings.

"...the greatest epic fantasy of all time starts out with a birthday party in the quietest corner of the world. It shows the creeping edges of the shadow about to fall over this idyllic land, and then it reaches in with the Nazg?l and yanks the humblest of heroes right into the center of a staggering war between good and evil..."


This is so helpful. Thank you, Vonna! :thankyou
#12 - January 17, 2014, 05:16 AM

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You're welcome! Glad it helped.
#13 - January 17, 2014, 05:26 AM
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That's fantastic, Vonna! I really do love fantasy stories that start small and grow bigger and bigger. It's a great way for readers to get to know the characters well first, too.

Does anyone have examples of fantasy and sci-fi that starts in medias res? I know some that get to the conflict pretty quickly but I'd say most start with at least a few pages of day-to-day life.
#14 - January 20, 2014, 08:57 AM
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In "Across the Universe" which has alternating protagonists, the first protag starts off at the moment of cryofreeze in prep for a trip but the second protag is right in the thick of things and we have to guess that the ship is a generations ship that is carry the first protag in storage. I suppose it's not really medias res because he starts out by complaining about his problems with Eldest, before they find the other problems. Likewise "The Knife of Never Letting Go" starts off with him complaining about his talking dog. "Feed" starts off with them complaining about how boring a trip to the moon is. I suppose it feels like it starts off quick because you're thrown somewhere unusual, but actually the crux of the problem is still a chapter away.


So, no, I can't think of one.  :whistle
#15 - January 21, 2014, 11:37 PM

Good examples, macdibble!
#16 - January 23, 2014, 05:36 AM
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Maze Runner starts off with action (Thomas in a hole and thrust into the crazy life of the Glade). I would throw Hunger Games in this category, although it does show some of Katniss' life briefly before the lottery changes everything. But I think starting with action versus character development would depend on the type of book you are writing. Maze Runner and Hunger Games have a faster pace, so it makes sense to start a thriller in the middle of action and move the inciting event closer to the beginning, compared to a contemporary, romance, or another genre where the story unfolds more slowly.
#17 - January 26, 2014, 10:46 AM
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Great discussion! I've been struggling with this in my own MG Fantasy. I've been going back and forth on whether I have my inciting incident in the right place several scenes in. I'm afraid I'm a waffler - should I? shouldn't I? Have I got it right? Have gotten conflicting feedback from critiques. I think balancing is the toughest part of writing - there isn't one right answer. This thread has given me hope that I've got it semi-right :-\  Still waffling, I guess.
#18 - January 26, 2014, 03:21 PM

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I've had the same issues with GERALD.

I entered competitions and recently made it through to the final 10 in Adventure In YA Publishing.

Throughout the competition I heard that there was too much world building in the first page, so I duly removed a paragraph which seemed to stall the action.  That removal managed to push my entry into the final 10 I believe.

When the agent round came I received feedback saying that there wasn't enough world building to allow them to connect with the MC.

So I am in the same dilemma.  I'm going to put Gerald away for a while and come back to it later (the roller coaster for him is getting tiring LOL).
#19 - March 17, 2014, 05:16 AM
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I've had the same issues with GERALD.

I entered competitions and recently made it through to the final 10 in Adventure In YA Publishing.

Throughout the competition I heard that there was too much world building in the first page, so I duly removed a paragraph which seemed to stall the action.  That removal managed to push my entry into the final 10 I believe.

When the agent round came I received feedback saying that there wasn't enough world building to allow them to connect with the MC.

So I am in the same dilemma.  I'm going to put Gerald away for a while and come back to it later (the roller coaster for him is getting tiring LOL).

I think this may have just been a subjectivity issue. I've been back and forth with this as well and I agree it can be difficult at times. Some agents will like the immediate action others will want to be grounded in the work first. You have to decide what's right for your story, have faith in it and stick with it. Otherwise you'll give yourself whiplash with the back and forth feedback.
#20 - March 17, 2014, 06:14 AM

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What Amanda said. The inciting incident and key incident (although I hadn't heard it put this way - thanks Amanda! helps me wth my WIP right now) are two different things. My inciting incident is actually implied with the first sentence. But the key incident doesn't happen until page 25 ish - five or so chapters in. I think it's important to set the emotional stage first - what the character will be facing on the inside - before the action story is set.
#21 - March 18, 2014, 12:45 PM

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I feel, if your speculative fiction tale is set in an unusual world then you can't start with the inciting incident and hope the reader to keep up.


What I feel works, is to show what is at stake for the protagonist though. Some scene ahead of the inciting incident that shows what the protagonist cares about, what he/she is about to lose, what she/he wants more than anything. I think you have to show what every day is for the protagonist before you whip the tablecloth out from under her/him.


For Katniss in Hunger Games, it started off showing her world and those she loved including her little sister and showed her hunter skills and slight rebellion and even hinted at the inciting incident. Then when her little sister is chosen, we already know that Katniss is the kind of girl who would step in and we know she has a chance.


In the Knife of Never Letting Go, Todd shows his relationship with his dog and the underlying fear of the other men and the fear at keeping the thoughts he hears secret. There is a simmering violent undercurrent in that community except with the men who raised him. He wants to keep them safe. They want to keep him safe. And we are not surprised to see it fall apart.
#22 - April 15, 2014, 05:20 AM

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 :nicethread:  I don't write sci fi/fantasy, but I just wanted to mention what a great discussion this is--very useful for all genres.
#23 - April 15, 2014, 06:20 AM
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I agree this is a great discussion for all genres. Trouble connecting with the main character is something I've heard often. This helps -- the issue is always that when you are submitting a new manuscript to an agent/editor you often get ten pages or 1 chapter. So --- if the problem starts in chapter 5??
#24 - April 15, 2014, 12:49 PM
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Not chapter five. That's too far in, I feel. You still have to introduce the inciting incident early. Second or third scene or end of the first chapter or start of the second.


That means your opening scene or two showing what the protagonist has at stake has to be amazing and with a very subtle hint that this state of normalcy is fragile.
#25 - April 26, 2014, 06:38 AM

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#26 - April 26, 2014, 01:42 PM


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This topic is a liiiittle bit old but I want to bop in to toss out a thought. If you're starting in media res with big action, you need to make sure the action isn't just something random that happens. It needs to demonstrate the character (what's important to him/her, and why we should care) AND do the worldbuilding. So you wouldn't put in a paragraph that explains how the world works in the midst of whatever's happening, but whatever's happening should demonstrate how your world works. So that way it's sneaky worldbuilding, hiding in the midst of your action.  :hiding3



#28 - June 29, 2014, 06:27 PM
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Yes, like Katnis, hunting.
#29 - September 11, 2014, 04:11 PM

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