Monday, January 16, 2017

Hook Readers with Strong Inciting Incident Openings


Janet here. We've heard and probably believe that readers of commercial fiction want the story to hook them quickly. So how do we writers do that? How do we start our stories?

We start with an inciting incident. An inciting incident is an event or situation in the story’s opening that brings change and spurs the character to action. The change should threaten the character or his goal or his self-concept or all three. The threat needs to be something readers can relate to, something that will make readers care and worry about the character.


There are endless possibilities for strong inciting incidents, but I'm only going to share three openings from the following romance novels that threaten the character and lead to action.

In my debut Courting Miss Adelaide, I open the story with milliner Adelaide Crum asking to rear one of the several orphans coming to town on the train. Since Adelaide is unmarried, the committee turns down her request, which hammers her self-concept and destroys what she sees as her last hope for motherhood. From that point on, Adelaide is a changed woman determined to take charge of her destiny. When she later suspects two orphans are being mistreated, she takes action, risking not only her livelihood, but also her life. 



Candice Sue Patterson opens her novel How to Charm a Beekeeper’s Heart with Huck Anderson aiming to evict single mom Arianne Winter's failing bridal boutique with her living quarters overhead. This event threatens Arianne and her daughter’s existence, Arianne’s self-concept, and her dream of designing bridal gowns. When a life-threatening injury derails Huck entirely, Arianne offers to aid in his lengthy recovery if he'll allow her to remain in his building, which sets Arianne and Huck on a challenging journey. 


Cathy Gohlke opens Band of Sisters with the burial of Maureen O’Reilly’s mother that results in a threat that forces Maureen and her sister to flee Ireland. In New York City, Maureen is suspicious when other female clerks mysteriously disappear from the department store where she works. Her stand for justice leads to a terrible secret that puts Maureen's life at risk. 

The opening events pull the rug out from under the character and produce change that is so upsetting, so threatening that the character takes action. 

Design your character to fit the inciting incident or the inciting incident to fit the character. If your character isn’t threatened by the change, then consider enlarging the inciting incident or changing your character. 

A fun example of an inciting incident fitting the character is in the first Shrek movie. The inciting incident occurs when all the fairy tale creatures invade Shrek’s swamp. Not every character would see that change as threatening. Some might even welcome their new neighbors, but not this ogre. From that inciting incident, Shrek goes to great lengths to get his swamp back. Like all good stories, the change changes Shrek, but that’s a topic for another day.  




Once we writers have an inciting incident in mind that will cause change that threatens the character in some way how do we get that opening event on the page? Where do we begin? How we get that inciting incident on the page matters. Some ways to get the openings on the page are more challenging than others but they're still doable if handled with care. Some openings are no-nos. By that I mean few editors or agents want to see a story start in this way.  
  • Avoid opening the story in the ordinary world: I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to open the story in the character’s ordinary world. But if the ordinary world is too ordinary, the opening may be boring, flat and not grab readers. I’m not saying it can’t be done and done effectively. If we do it, we need to add enough interesting or extraordinary elements to make the ordinary world grab readers. 
  • Avoid opening the story with a generic character: We want to give enough significant details about the character so that when the threat comes, readers will care and root for him. I’m not talking about his appearance unless those details pertain to a handicap or scar. I’m talking about details about the character that will grab readers’ interest. A few well-chosen paragraphs or sentences can bring the character to life and make readers relate to him. 
  • Avoid opening the story with long passages of introspection (character’s thoughts). Sometimes writers start the story in the point of view character’s thoughts in an attempt to share information they want readers to know. The problem is if we're not careful all this thinking slows the pace. If we opt to open our stories in the character’s thoughts, we might want those thoughts to be very funny or touching. We will also want to put our character in a setting that creates a mood and intersperse his thoughts with meaningful action or dialogue. 
         I open The Bounty Hunter’s Redemption in Carly Richards’s thoughts as she and her son Henry stand in the cemetery at her dead husband’s interment. The scene worked for my editor because I describe a setting that establishes mood and I sprinkled Carly’s thoughts in between the pastor’s words, neighbors’ mumbled condolences, Henry’s dialogue and actions and the gravedigger’s first shovelful of dirt. 


     In The Substitute Bride, I opened in Elizabeth Manning’s thoughts as she’s preparing to run before she’s married off to an old geezer who’d promised to pay her father’s gambling debts in exchange for her hand. Elizabeth’s thoughts are punctuated with packing, tying bed sheets into a rope, comforting a younger brother she’s forced to leave behind, a ticking clock as her father calls up the stairs, and her actual descent and escape.
  • Avoid opening with a back story dump (Thoughts about past events). Back story bogs down the pace and defuses readers anticipation of discovery. To keep readers turning pages, tease them with snippets of back story instead of laying out all the wounds of their past. If we opt to start the story with back story, we need to have a reason for revealing so much about the character’s past early on.
In Wanted: A Family pregnant widow Callie Mitchell’s rundown house triggers thoughts about her husband falling off the roof to his death. Her thoughts also reveal their marriage had issues. I interspersed her thoughts with actions and dialogue that make it clear she’s not up to fixing the house, even though its condition is putting her and the unwed mother living with her at risk. When stranger Jake Smith arrives asking to overhaul the house in exchange for room and board, Callie's decision to hire him makes sense and the possibility of a romance between them feels feasible.      
  • Avoid starting with “talking heads.” Surely starting with dialogue is okay. This is actually one of the no-nos, I mentioned earlier. We need to give a sense of setting (details of time and place that evoke mood and impact the character) or enough of the character’s introspection to provide a foundation for what’s going or enough movement to show those talking heads are attached to bodies. Without setting, introspection or movement, readers will likely find the dialogue confusing.    
  •  Avoid opening with action that puts the character in jeopardy, yet seems to come out of nowhere. Fast-paced action seems like a great way to start, but it can be a no-no, if we fail to give enough context through snippets of the character’s thoughts and details of the setting for readers to understand what's going on and care if he survives.
      When we create a strong inciting incident and put it on the page in ways that are interesting, don't slow the pace or confuse the reader, we'll grab readers and have the beginnings of a great story. 

What memorable inciting incidents from movies or books can you can share with us? Leave a comment for a chance to win one of the books I’ve mentioned in the post in eBook format. 

Then help yourself to breakfast! I brought Belgium waffles, sausage, fruit and whipped cream and syrup, along with lots of coffee and choices of tea. Grab a plate. 

Janet Dean grew up in a family who cherished the past and had a strong creative streak. Her father recounted fascinating stories, like his father before him. The tales they told instilled in Janet a love of history and the desire to write. Today Janet spins stories for Love Inspired Historical. She is a two-time Golden Heart finalist, a Genesis and a Carol finalist and a member of Romance Writers of America and American Christian Fiction Writers. Her novels are also Golden Quill, Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, Booksellers Best and Inspirational Readers Choice Award finalists. Visit Janet at her Website: www.janetdean.net


160 comments :

  1. Hi Janet:

    I'm surprised you didn't mention in your "Substitute Bride" about how the heroine trades places at the train station with a mail order bride who gets cold feet. This is a 'mail order bride' story on steroids! The heroine isn't even the real bride! She doesn't even have a preliminary relationship with the groom. How much farther can you get from marrying a complete stranger on the spot? Especially a groom the intended bride is now running from! Now that's one humdinger of an inciting incident!

    I think all your comments on the Inciting incident are essential. It's not so much that readers are so simple that they have to be hooked to get them to buy a book, it's more a case of readers not wanting to waste money on a book that didn't hold their interest. Marketers have long known that the fear of loss is a much stronger motivator than the desire for gain.

    For this reason I suggest that you place your inciting incident within a situtation which creates questions in the reader's mind that they just must have answered. This is James Patterson's theory. These questions could be about threats or anything else readers will turn pages to find the answer to. If this situation is complex enough with many possible outcomes, it makes it easier for a pantser, who is not sure how the story is going to work out, to not paint herself in a corner and to have a really good ending.

    BTW: I think you had the most honest depictions of homesteading life in your "Substitute Bride" that I ever read in a romance. Loved the cooking scenes. Really real.

    Vince

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    1. Vince, that's such a good point. That opening chapter should leave questions unanswered no matter what genre. Thanks for sharing that!

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    2. VINCE, I should've taken the inciting incidents I used as examples and run with them a bit to show that what kicked off the story had a domino effect/chain reaction that led the characters on a journey that kept readers guessing. I was more trying to show the importance of coming up with an inciting incident and getting it on the page in a way that will hook readers to read the book. Perhaps I should followup with another more complex post that will show how authors develop that incident.

      Thank you so much for your lovely praise of The Substitute Bride. The mail order bride switch was fun to write, especially with a "fish out of water" heroine.

      Janet

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    3. Vince, thanks for sharing this tidbit!

      Vince said: "Marketers have long known that the fear of loss is a much stronger motivator than the desire for gain. "

      That's so interesting! This could inform how we do all our book promotion.

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    4. Janet I loved The Substitute Bride but now I want to go re-read it to see what Vince is talking about with depictions of Homesteading.
      I probably absorbed it all anyway. :)
      Let's pretend that's true.

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    5. Hi Janet:

      You did perfectly fine with today's post. All I did was show where a second post could go by expanding on the idea of the inciting incident. A third part could go into how this can eliminate the problem of the 'sagging middle' as Patterson does by having the inciting incident go on until the book is over! And a fourth part could deal with how the right inciting incident can provide maximum options for having the best ending for the book. That's all. I'm looking forward to reading these in the future as well as part IV of 'Askend and Answered'.

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    6. Hi Mary:

      Janet hit the nail on the head when she wrote that the Substitute Bride was a fish out of water. It's one thing to be a pioneer woman or even a hardworking Eastern housewife and setting up on a homestead, BUT the Substitute Bride couldn't do anything! She is lucky to boil water. This lets the reader see all the action with all the horror of unknowing. This really showed how very primitive life homesteading was. This is the perfect romance: the same as in Mail order Bride, but different since she is a fake mail order bride and totally as unfit to be a pioneer wife that you could find!

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    7. Hi Missy:

      You know, I think your idea to apply the 'fear of loss' concept to other areas of the writing business is worthy of a good deal of thought. Let me explain how this is shown in class:

      If a salesman were to go out into the countryside or suburbs, knock on doors, and tell the homeowner he has a plan that can turn 100 dollars into 100,000 dollars, he would probably get the door slammed in his face.

      If that same salesman were to tell the homeowner, "Did you know that there are 8 perils that are not covered in the standard ho-2 homeowners policy, the exact policy you and your neighbors most like have, on which the insurance company will not pay and cause you to lose your entire home investment? That could be a 100,000 loss. But I have a ho-2 gap policy which for just $100 could save your home and your biggest investment. I sure own this policy myself." This salesman will have a great many more doors open to him. It's the fear of loss!

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    8. MARY, The Substitute Bride is a debutante turned farmer's wife with not a clue, so the frontier for her. :-)

      Janet

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    9. VINCE, the fear of loss is often the underlying threat in our stories, as in loss of life, love, shelter, job, dream, freedom. So for a character to risk loss, we need to make sure they're extremely motivated.

      Janet

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    10. VINCE, you've made me laugh out loud! I only need to write three more posts to get this inciting incident theme nailed. :-) I think #2 and #3 could be combined. I'm tempted to draw you in to write the post on providing the right inciting incident that gives maximum options for the best ending.

      Janet

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    11. Hi Janet:

      I did not mean by four parts that your post was inadequate, on the contrary, I meant the post was so rich it could support three more parts. In Hollywood they call that 'High Concept'. So brava!

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    12. VINCE, I didn't take your comment as an insult, more that I heard that cracking whip. :-) Seriously I love your ideas. Thanks for sharing!

      Janet

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  2. Janet, what a wonderful post on opening a book with strength. Editors and agents say one of the quickest rejections is a boring opening page.... If it doesn't grab hold, the rejection is already in the bag. Realizing that our fate may rest on a couple of paragraphs.... or a couple of pages.... should be enough for us to jump in and grab those critiques and get to work.

    Great post!

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    1. RUTHY, thanks! You're so right about the small amount of words an editor will read before rejecting a manuscript. Of course we've got to keep them reading so the entire story matters, but sometimes beginners don't realize the importance of starting the story quickly with a strong inciting incident.

      Janet

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    2. RUTHY, can you share an inciting incident that gripped you? One of your books perhaps or a movie?

      Janet

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  3. Hi Janet. I loved your post. I love it when a story begins in such a way that it grabs me and pulls me into the story right away. If a story doesn't do that, I usually find myself getting bored somewhere along the way within the first chapter.

    Have a blessed day!
    Cindy W.

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    1. CINDY, none of us want to read a boring opening. It's the job of the writer not to put boring on the page. We want to write the kind of books we want to read.

      Janet

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  4. Good morning, Janet! Thanks for these great tips.
    I recently read a story where the heroine is attacked in the second paragraph, and I cared, but not enough. I love that you suggest we give the reader just enough info to care.

    Thanks for the post and for breakfast! Have a great day!

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    1. JACKIE, thanks for sharing a real life example of the author not giving enough insight into the heroine to care what happens to her. The thing that might be happening--and I'm not sure of course--is that the heroine is a victim instead of driving an action that leads to the attack. If she were, then the author would give just enough info for readers to know what the risk was and why she was taking it. Readers would care and her attack would be upsetting.

      Janet

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  5. Thanks for this terrific post, Janet. With so many books in my TBR piles, if a story doesn't grab me from the start, I'll move on to another. Enjoy your day.

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    1. JILL, you're exactly right. Most of us are like editors in that we have so many books to read, we don't have the patience to read a story that doesn't grab us. Though the point needs to be made that what grabs many readers may not grab them all since readers bring an expectation to the experience. Still that's what we try to do--grab them all!

      Janet

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    2. Jill, I've done that more and more now that I'm reading mostly e-books!

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  6. Good morning, Janet! EXCELLENT POST! I'm working on the opening for a new book right now so this was a good "check" on how I'm doing. :) Thank you!

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    1. GLYNNA, thanks! I think readers expect different styles with sweet romances, tense suspense novels and rich historicals so those openings are in no way written the same. Which is why some readers prefer one genre over another. But all readers want to be roped in and quickly. I loved your one line of dialogue opening in the Pastor's Christmas Courtship with the heroine's immediate introspection and physical reaction.

      Janet

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  7. Hello Janet!
    For me, as long as the opening is interesting, I'm good. That doesn't mean I want to read two chapters of chores performed by the heroine because her younger sister snuck off to spend the morning w/her new beau. But like you said, I have to care about the character.
    I get bored really easily, but unless it's really awful, I usually make it to end of the first chapter. If I'm not invested by then, it's over.

    This is not a romance, but the opening of Lethal Weapon where Mel Gibson threatens to shoot himself hooked me. I had to see what would make a guy not care if he lived or died.
    That being said, I probably wouldn't be entertained by reading a whole book where someone was constantly considering ending their life. Unless it was The End w/Burt Reynolds and Don DeLuise.
    Oh never mind. I guess it's all in the execution.

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    1. LOL, yeah, Connie. All in the execution. :)

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  8. CONNIE, you make a huge point in your comment. It's all in the execution!! It's all about the author grabbing the reader.

    Thanks for mentioning Lethal Weapon's opening! You get a gold star! :-)

    Janet

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  9. Janet, these are some great reminders! Thanks for sharing your examples. They make me want to read your books again! And to read the other books you mentioned.

    I do like to read books that start with dialogue, as long as it doesn't confuse me. I agree that we have to anchor the scene.

    I've had fun trying to come up with catchy openings--especially with internal thoughts or a short snippet of dialogue.

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    1. MISSY, when I think of catchy opening lines, I think of the line you used when the hero smelled like Fort Knox. Hmm, I'll have to look it up and see what the inciting incident was in that story.

      Janet

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    2. Wasn't that a great opening line, Janet. One of my very favorites

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    3. Yes! Missy needs to take a bow!

      Janet

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  10. Great post, Janet! Thank you. :)

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    1. Thanks! I always hope my posts help in some way.

      Janet

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  11. Wonderful post, Janet! Thank you.

    Since I have very little time to read, I'm very picky about the books that I'll spend that time on. If they don't grab me in the first two or three pages, they'll be put back on my tbr pile, and I'll pick another one to read.

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    1. Rhonda, I've started doing that as well. Sometimes, when I come back to them, I read them just fine. I think it's just my mood at that moment. Other times I realize I'm just not going to care for the book. I like to download samples of books for just that reason!

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    2. If I decide to go back to them later, I make myself read the first three chapters. Sometimes, the book ends up being one I love, and sometimes, I end up never finishing it. Great tip about downloading samples! I need to start doing that!

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    3. I don't do this because these days I read almost exclusively by author. I try new stuff people recommend but as far as reading widely, well, sometimes I challenge myself to try someone new, but mostly it's those tried and true author...about 100 of them of course :)...so I trust them and stick with them through poor openings. And I've regretted that a few times.

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    4. RHONDA, you're proof that readers want a story that hooks them quickly. Missy's suggestion to read samples is an excellent one.

      Janet

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    5. MISSY, Do you find you want your mood to match the mood of the story? Or is it just the opposite and you need a story that takes you out of a mood?

      Janet

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    6. MARY, 100 authors is a big list! You must be a fast reader! Do you mainly read out of your genre or within it?

      Janet

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    7. I'm probably exaggerating with the 100. But it's a lot. I mostly read out of my own genre. I find it SERIOUSLY tempting to be derivative.

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    8. MARY, can't imagine you copying, but the variety of genres probably keeps your creative juices fresh and flowing.

      Janet

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  12. Thanks for sharing this, Janet. Its a fine line between wanting to grab the readers attention right away to keep them interested and overwhelming them with too much.

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    1. Mary, you're right that it is a balance. Another thing I've had a problem with is books that start out with this huge bang, and then the opening has absolutely nothing with the rest of the story! It's more just for the shock value.

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    2. Really good point, Mary.
      That BANG has to have something to do with the story that's coming, not just an explosion for the sake of a beginning hook.

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    3. This reminds me of the old MacGyver series. It used to begin with what the credits called an "opening gambit"--showing Mac doing some daring rescue or something, but then it had nothing to do with the actual episode. It was more of an attention-grabbing thing. I think they eventually stopped doing those.

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    4. MARY A, finding that balance is kind of like walking a tightrope. The secret must be to keep your eyes on the goal and never look down. :-)

      Janet

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    5. Sounds like we all mistrust an author who starts with a huge bang that goes no where. The inciting incident is supposed to trigger the story, not be a tease that fizzles.

      Janet

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  13. Excellent info and tips, Janet! Your point about not making the "ordinary world" too ordinary is giving me food for thought. We've got to make our characters interesting enough at the outset, or why will readers care?

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    1. You know, Myra, I've wondered about the ordinary world. I think we can do a bit of it (maybe it's just a sentence or two or a paragraph) before the big incident. I think it can be fun to show the supposed normal life before shaking that character's foundation.

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    2. I agree, 'Ordinary World' is mis-used or a bad theory maybe. Your 'Ordinary World' if you insist on it, can be two paragraphs tops.
      But I think you can weave OW into the inciting incident, you begin the book by jerking them OUT of OW right NOW. The doorbell rings. A shot rings out. The stagecoach runs away and crashes.

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    3. MYRA, if the ordinary world is too much like real life, we'll lose our readers. They want escape, interesting, exciting, a situation that threatens a character they care about. Still an author who realizes the risk can weave in tidbits of the ordinary world even as the inciting incident moves the character to action.

      Janet

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    4. MARY, you're adept at writing openings that threaten the character's life and force him to act. Readers of your westerns anticipate and love your openings. I know I do. But not every book can open with a shot or wreck--all threats to life and limb--but they can all start with a threat to the character's goal or/and his self-esteem.

      Janet

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    5. MISSY, it is fun to contrast the ordinary world with the extraordinary as long as we keep it brief.

      I think of It's a Wonderful Life when George Bailey is seeing what life would be like if he hadn't been born and he encounters Mary leaving the library with her tucked up hair and spectacles, all buttoned up in the stereotypical uptight image of a librarian. (Forgive me, Tina, as we know that's a faulty image.) George rushes up insisting she's his wife and she's terrified at his ravings, even faints. My point is the movie producer described Mary's ordinary world in just a few seconds, what we can do with just a few words. Then the inciting Incident, the George of our story, blows her out of her ordinary world.

      Janet

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    6. Oh come on, Janet. I could work a shooting into an Amish novel is I wanted to.
      :)
      Maybe I need to stick with my own genre. LOL

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    7. Great example, Janet.
      You know I kinda forced one of my daughters to watch It's a Wonderful Life. She finally watched it and phoned and said, "That's the most depressing movie ever."
      And I could only think, "I raised you all wrong. I'm a failure."

      Yes it's full of tough things, but George Bailey, regular guy who's childhood dreams didn't come true, is all of us. Everyone who watches that should think, "My Life is Wonderful."

      RIGHT?


      Clarence: [to George] Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?

      Clarence again: "Remember no man is a failure who has friends,"

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    8. Hi Mary:

      "It's a Wonderful Life" failed when it came out. In fact the studio didn't even renew the copyright which only cost about $30. TV came along and found out they could broadcast that movie, charge for commercials, and pay nothing for its use. This made it the most run movie on TV, ever.

      I think your daughter is just like most Americans who first saw that movie or were forced to watch it for their own good in the theater by their parents.

      But your comments made me think of this poem:

      "any man's death diminishes me,
      because I am involved in mankind.
      And therefore never send to know for whom
      the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. "

      Also, I think you are right and could start any book with a bullet or explosion. Consider "The Bossy Bridegroom" my favorite of your books:


      Jeanie Davidson believed in miracles because she believed God loved her.

      "Lord I need one now", she prayed as explosions and gunshots from her front yard rattled all the windows in her house! "This time I'm going to die, I just know it."

      She could smell the gunpowder coming from outside. Then it hit her!

      It's Michael getting my attention. Where does he get all those fireworks?

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    9. MARY, you probably could get by with opening an Amish story with gunfire. I've never written a historical that opened with violence/shooting, but a couple had a shooting or near shooting in the climax. Does that count?

      Janet

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  14. Fascinating post, Janet. I'm just reading Mary Connealy's Fire and Ice and she's a great one with starting her stories with a bang. Well, I. The case it's just the bullet spitting dirt into Gage's eyes.

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    1. Yes, Marianne, Mary is a master of this!

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    2. Hi Marianne, thank you.
      Nothing says True Love like the heroine shooting at the hero. :)

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    3. MARIANNE, Fire and Ice is one of my favorites of Mary's books. I love the opening and the twist. Such fun!

      Janet

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    4. "Nothing says True Love like the heroine shooting at the hero. :)"

      I don't know. How about the hero shooting and killing the heroine's husband? Janet did this!

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    5. VINCE, I just pretend to be a nice person. :-) That made for great conflict between the hero and heroine.

      Janet

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  15. I'm not sure why this opening came to mind but remember (if anyone saw it) the Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger?
    That movie starts with Stallone and the other male leader arguing because the Hal, his co-worker, wants to take his new girlfriend to some dangerous mountain top and she is a novice climber. Stallone says NO NO NO. But Hal insists and in a really terrible moment that is strung out and exciting and in an incredibly real sense, a Cliffhanger, the woman dies while Stallone is helping her.
    That inciting incident is so TENSE, so riveting that I felt that tension for the whole rest of the movie. It set the tone, the mood, brilliantly. Everything else that happens works partly because was are so tightly wound from that beginning.

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    1. Mary, I never saw that movie. Sounds gripping!

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    2. It really is, Missy. One we re-watch every now and then.

      PS Congrats on the Falcons!

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    3. MARY, thanks for sharing that tense inciting incident! Excellent example of setting the tone and spurring the character to action!

      Janet

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    4. Mary, thanks! We're really excited about the Falcons playoff win! Getting excited about the next game as well. :)

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  16. One of my favorite beginnings is the opening to Over the Edge. Callie Kincaid fighting a running gun battle with stage coach outlaws. With her son tucked between her feet.
    This was fun and revealed her character and of course at the end of the fight...too late to help...her runaway husband Seth Kincaid shows up.
    My regret about this opening is, I wanted it so badly and thought it worked, but those outlaws should have had a part in the book. A few should've escaped and want to get revenge or something. They should have mattered in more than just that one scene.
    But I just couldn't quite figure out how.
    Opening scenes need to do more that catch and hold the reader. They also need to start telling your story. And yes the character development is part of that. Everyone knows exactly who they're dealing with in Callie Kincaid from the very beginning. But it didn't exactly fit in with the story that was coming.

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    1. MARY, your editor didn't mind so perhaps you're too hard on yourself. Perhaps the opening is really a peek at the ordinary world of Callie and Seth's arrival is the inciting incident that is the threat for her. I'd have to read it again. What do you think?

      Janet

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  17. Someone once told me that my inciting incident in Petticoat Ranch lasted 80 pages. She could NOT put the book down for that long.
    I consider that an honor. And it also involved multiple scenes and chapter ending hooks. But it was all part of that original inciting incident where the hero, running from outlaws, goes over the edge of a deep creek bank and the heroine and her four daughters have to go down in the face of oncoming flood waters, and save him.

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    1. MARY, seems to me that the inciting incident was the hero's horse pounding through outside that alarms the women and leads to his rescue. That inciting incident triggers action and that action didn't let up. That's what good inciting incidents do. The action may not be life or death, but they must matter.

      Janet

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  18. I am thinking right now of an author I love--a really big time successful author--who opened her book with a really DRAGGY two chapter backstory dump, complete with a heroine thinking everything over.
    I kept reading because I knew and loved this author, but I was thinking, "Shame on you." You know better than to do this and no one would publish this book if it didn't have YOUR name on it.
    I learned a lesson from that. An authors work is all about THIS book. NOW. Don't get lazy.

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    1. Always, Mary. I agree. You are only as good as your last book.

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    2. MARY and TINA, this is a great reminder that big name authors' books are not always the books newbies should study.

      Janet

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    3. Hi Janet:

      I agree that new writers may not always benefit from reading the best selling authors. I've noticed that almost every author tends to do something better than other authors. What I like to do in my reviews is point out what that author does the best. Then I like to study the authors that do things best to learn how to do those same things. You are the best example for crystal clear prose, Sandra is the best for descriptions of the environment and landscapes especially the southwest.

      So I see it as: one read the best selling authors in the genre you wish to write in and then also read any authors in any genre that are the very best at doing something needed in the writing craft. Betty Neels was so good at writing interior descriptions of restaurants and grand houses that I called her a descriptionist.


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    4. VINCE, My problem with doing this is that I get up in the story and forget to study how the author handles craft.

      Janet

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  19. What a most excellent post. I have most of the other books so downloaded the Candice Patterson one. Thanks for introducing me to a new author!!

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    1. TINA, Candice is a Hoosier. I read about the release in the local ACFW newsletter. The title intrigued me so I read the blurb and downloaded her story on Amazon. I think you'll love her turn of phrase and the characters. And the nifty tidbits about bees.

      Janet

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    2. The story sounds wonderful, Janet! I believe one of the Craftie Ladies mentioned reading it as well.

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    3. Glad the word is getting out about this excellent book.

      Janet

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    4. You ladies sure know how to make a girl's day! Thank you so much. I'm currently reading Back in the Saddle by Ruth Logan Herne. And loving it!

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    5. Hi Candice! Thsnks for stopping in!

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    6. CANDICE, I'm eager to read Back in the Saddle. It's next! Thanks for the shout out for Ruthy's book.

      Janet

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  20. Janet, great blog post, as always. In suspense, the opening has to grab the reader...by the throat. But it's the same--and perhaps a bit more difficult--in a sweet romance. That conflict has to be front and center as well as the motivation. We have to feel for the hero and heroine and want them to succeed. Then we keep turning those pages to see how they achieve their goals and fall in love in the process, which you've explained so logically. You've also provided such excellent examples. Love the look back at your delightful stories. You're a gifted writer.

    Aren't stories interesting? Always fun to talk about the process and the final product!

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    1. DEBBY, you are excellent at putting your characters at risk, yet giving enough info about them and their ordinary world to make readers care about the threat to their lives. Do you have any tips you care to share on how you do this when readers of suspense want the danger ASAP?

      Janet

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    2. Thanks, Janet, for your kind words. I always think about teasing the reader into wanting to learn more. I need to allude to all the conflict--internal and external--but not necessarily spell out the entire problem at hand. The info will unfold along with the story. Hopefully! :)

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    3. DEBBY, sprinkle it in is pretty good advice in general.

      Janet

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  21. Great post, Janet. I will need to keep this in mind as I write. I would love to win Substitute Bride. Sounds like an intriguing plot.

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    1. SANDY, thanks! Vince did a great job promoting the story for me. :-)

      Janet

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  22. I've read many memorable beginnings (and watched them on TV) but some of the most memorable beginnings are the ones Rick Riordan has to his Heroes of Olympus series, in which he starts off his books with an absurd sentence (my favorite of which being: Even before he was electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day) which draws the reader's attention and then the rest of the beginning is Riordan explaining how the characters got into the absurd situation and how they are going to get out.

    This was a very timely post as I am trying to figure out how I am going to start off a book I am writing. I think the inciting incident is going to be the heroine finding out that her next-door-neighbor, the boy she has had a crush on for years, has gotten another girlfriend which leads to her leaving to walk off her being upset and there she gets superpowers.
    But I'm still not sure... it just doesn't seem inciting enough.

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  23. NICKY, thanks for the fantastic example of an opening that grabs readers yet triggers the story! I love that line!

    Can you twist the opening to make it a little more active? Perhaps the neighbor boyfriend is in her life now and she stumbles onto them together. Or what if he's hurt her (her ordinary world) but the inciting incident is encountering a threat to his life and she's the only one who can save him with those supernatural powers. Though she'd really like to see him suffer, she's good, so saves the jerk, which might make him turn his life around.

    Just some thoughts...

    Janet

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    1. Nicky, SUPERPOWERS????
      I already love this.
      The closest I get to giving my characters superpowers is like....they're a really good shot. NOT AS GOOD.

      Also I was just wondering how much money Superman would have made if he'd played for the NFL

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    2. I'd definitely put him in to block field goals and punts.

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    3. Yeah, she's got superpowers, but I don't think she would do very well in the NFL seeing as she is a tiny teenage girl, a clutz, and unfortunately does not get super strength. I was kind of going for regular girl/exact opposite of what a super hero would be. So no one would ever guess her secret identity and all that.

      I'm considering maybe a Janette Rallison style beginning. Going the way of the embarrassing inciting incident.

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  24. NICKY, an embarrassing inciting incident would threaten her self-image and sounds like a great opening to kick off the story!

    Janet

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  25. Thinking of the Hallmark movies I love to watch. Usually they have a scene in the heroine's POV that states her problem and then switch to the hero. Saturday at 9 PM, I watched a new one about a girl on vaca who falls in love with a guy who turns out to be a prince. A common hook but a sweet story. It had conflict and a ticking clock and ended with a happily ever after. :) Wish I could remember the title.

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    1. DEBBY, seems like I've either read the story or something similar. Maybe the heroine wasn't on vacation but the hero was a prince. That book's author could be Rachel Hauck.

      Janet

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    2. Debby, if you scroll up to your first comment, you'll see that I asked if you could share tips for putting the heroine in danger yet give enough about her and her real world to make the reader care.

      Janet

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    3. I didn't see anything on FB about Rachel having a Hallmark movie premier. She's so good about getting info out, I would think she would spread the news. Perhaps someone remembers the title.

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    4. DEBBY, I meant that one of Rachel's book was about a prince and commoner, but not someone on vacation.

      Janet

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  26. Definitely needed this post! Packed with great information. Will be printing this one! Thanks for the great examples, Janet!

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    1. SALLY, hope the post helps you create inciting incidents that threaten the character and carry the book.

      Janet

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    2. Yes, me too, Janet! Here's to hooking the reader and not letting them go!

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  27. Janet, love this post! Timely and well done! Thank you!
    I love the first lines of a non-fiction book--"the life-changing magic of tidying up"--(given to me by my daughter...LOL...I think she's hinting--really more of a shout than a whisper though!)

    When I tell people that my profession is teaching others how to tidy, I am usually met with looks of astonishment. "Can you actually make money doing that?" is their first question. This is almost always followed by, "Do people need lessons in tidying?"

    Her words are an intriguing arrow...and land right in the center of my heart!
    I have to read on. She's touched my ordinary world (chaos) and offered me a magical escape (tidying up). She must know something if people pay her to teach them how to become neat and tidy! LOL

    Thanks again for a thought-producing post...and I'd love to be entered in the drawing!

    Going for my third cuppa Pomegranate Black Tea!!

    Wishing all of you a tea-lightful day!

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    1. Looking around my office today makes me realize I could use your expertise, Kathryn! :)

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    2. KATHRYN, I'm sure lots of authors could use that book! LOL Those words grab you because the concept of neatness grabs you. A neat freak probably wouldn't find them as intriguing because tidy is their ordinary world. :-)

      You're entered in the drawing. Enjoy your tea! It's really foggy, drippy and dreary here. Thankfully too warm to freeze. Hope it stays that way.

      Janet

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    3. DEBBY, now that KATHRYN has the tips to eliminate chaos, we can all call on her. Poor thing!

      Janet

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    4. I love KATHRYN'S tea-lightful day!

      Janet

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  28. JANET, opening the story with a suspense line get me hooked every time. Thank you for the tea choices today! I enjoy a cuppa while reading.

    Please enter me in the drawing.

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    1. CARYL, you're in the drawing. No suspense books today. :-(

      Janet

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  29. Ordinary?

    Most everything is ordinary. Even wisdom is just common sense in an uncommon amount. Context. Dialogue is edited from how we really talk to straight talk without the hems and haws and repetitions. Ordinary is okay if it is interesting, asks questions, and holds our attention. There is no need in other words to jump into the paranormal. : )

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    1. VINCE, No jump to paranormal. :-) If not done skillfully, the ordinary world can be boring. The reason writers need to handle the character's ordinary world skillfully--as you say by making it interesting and creating questions that will hold readers attention. Still we need to get to the inciting incident and threaten the character so they'll get moving.

      Janet

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    2. Oh yes, and please try to also get the hero and heroine to interact in the first few pages.

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    3. VINCE, excellent point. LI editors not only want the hero and heroine to meet ASAP but also to have both point of views early on. Certainly in the first chapter.

      Janet

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  30. Great post! One of the most memorable openings I've ready is from Mary Connealy's The Husband Tree."Belle Tanner pitched dirt right on Anthony's handsome, worthless face." What a way to start a story...burying a no-good husband. Loved that book. :)

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    1. SHERRINDA, that was a fun book! I love the image of Belle's deadbeat husbands ringing the husband tree!

      Janet

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    2. Hi Sherrinda! Glad I came up with something memorable!!! :)

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  31. You warn about opening with backstory, but how about if that backstory is presented as happening in the story at present and you don't know it's backstory until it's over. For example, one of my Japan historicals opens with a mother about to give birth being rushed to a doctor as there are complications. The scene ends with the birth of a daughter. The next chapter opens up 18 years later with the daughter and samurai show up to arrest the father.

    Also, Janet, as I have all of your books, please don't enter me in the drawing.

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    1. WALT, that's not back story. That's action. But since the next scene is 18 years later, an editor might want you to write the first scene as a prologue. Or assuming the daughter and samurai coming to arrest the father is the inciting incident, you could open there unless there's a good reason why the birth scene is needed. For instance, does something happen that impacts the inciting incident? Ponder the possibilities. :-)

      There are a couple of books I mention in the post that I didn't write. Take a look. You might want to know more about these stories.

      Janet

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  32. Thanks for including my book in your post, Janet! The inciting incident is one of my favorite parts to brainstorm. However, that wasn't always the case. I learned the importance of the inciting incident through other authors--by reading and paying close attention to their books, as a student in their conference classes, and reading books on the craft. Thank you, ladies, for taking the time to share your knowledge. :)

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    1. CANDICE, welcome to Seekerville! Always fun to have a fellow Hoosier here! We love talking craft and seeing Villagers go on to be published authors!

      How to Charm the Beekeeper's Heart is a lovely story. You have a flair with words and writing great characters. Thanks for stopping in!

      Janet

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  33. Janet, you give me plenty to think about as I revise my story opening. Your advice helps! I've rewritten this beginning so many times, but each time I feel I'm a little closer to a good hook. Thank you for this excellent post! Now to ponder the perfect inciting incident.....

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    1. SHERIDA, wishing you all the best with writing your inciting incident. When you've figured it out, if you'd like another pair of eyes, send me the first five pages.

      Janet

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    2. That is so kind of you, Janet. Thank you!

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  34. Great post on openings. They are so critical. And I loved reading your examples because they brought to mind your wonderful novels. I really think you have a gift. smile
    In my current wip they are starting with a flashflood that brings big changes into the life of Geri (the heroine) --like the hero. smile

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    1. SANDRA, thanks! You made my day.

      I love when the inciting incident brings the hero on the scene. Not always with roses and sweet words. Sometimes they're a life saver or a troublemaker or... The possibilities are endless. :-)

      Janet

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  35. Loved this!! Thank you, JANET! I'm going back to check all my WIPs and make sure they start in just the right spot!

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    1. LAURA, I find it helps to step away from a story for a while to see the opening/inciting incident with fresh eyes. Wishing you all the best with the checkup.

      Janet

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  36. I'm sure I'll read this post many more times -- with each WIP and during editing. Maybe I'll just print it out so I can write on it and make notes each time.

    Thanks, Janet, for a wonderful teaching post!

    Nancy C

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    1. NANCY C, I go through my WIP with a craft checklist. We writers may know something but with all we need to do to get the story on the page, we're bound to forget something important.

      Janet

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  37. Thanks, Janet! I'll bypass the waffles, but will take you up on a little bit of that fruit with coffee. I've been battling the flu for too long and am hoping my energy and motivation will return soon. I need to rid my mind of its fuzziness and get back to work. Such great tips to put into practice. :)

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    1. CAROL G, I'm sorry the flu has taken you down for the count. Know you'll spring back but until then, baby yourself!

      Hugs, Janet

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  38. Hi Janet, what a great post! You made me think about my own opening scene for the book I'm working on. The inciting incident isn't on the first page, but the romantic inciting incident is (the meet-cute).

    As for movies that start with action/inciting incident, I thought of Les Miserables, the Liam Neeson version. You feel the tension in the opening scene, and within a few minutes, you get to his in sting incident.

    There have been a couple movies that don't have the inciting incident in the very opening, but it comes within a few minutes.

    Please put me in the drawing. :)

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  39. JEANNE, for the sake of those who don't know the term meet cute, I'll define it as the first time the hero and heroine meet. The meeting can be humorous, hostile, embarrassing or serious, anything we want the first encounter to be. Have you ever seen the meet cute used as the inciting incident that threatens the character and drives her to action?

    Janet

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  40. TINA, I got your book today!! Can't wait to read it! Oh, and the novella I just downloaded. You gals are keeping me busy!

    Janet

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  41. Hi Janet:

    In all this excitement I forgot to mention that I'd like to be entered in the drawing for a kindle copy of Candice Sue Patterson's "How to Charm a Beekeeper’s Heart". I really like the cover art and it offers the possibility of learning about being a beekeeper. The beekeeping theme is what I call a marketing vitamin in that it brings in buyers who would love to learn about beekeeping or just learn something new and interesting so they can beat their husband when watching Jeopardy.

    Here the author gets the romance fans for the theme of the romance and other romance fans along with beekeeping fans which helps marketing sell the book. Of course, the beekeeping has to appear on the cover art or the marketing power is lost.

    If you've watched the very successful BBC program, "Midsomer Mysteries", now in its 19th season, a show I love, each episode seems to happen along with an event held in the general area of the show. Sometimes it's hobbies, sometimes history, sometimes science, but almost always something is going on which is an added bonus to please many viewers.

    I hope I can use this Beekeeper romance as an example in the future.

    Vince

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    1. VINCE, you're in the drawing. I loved the snippets about bees at the end of each chapter and the peek at the job of a beekeeper.

      The BBC program sounds interesting!

      Janet

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  42. Janet you gave me so much fruit for thought! I read this at lunch and you really helped me brain storm what I am working on right now. In fact, last night I was going to shelve an idea and your post spurred me on. :)

    I especially liked this: "If your character isn’t threatened by the change, then consider enlarging the inciting incident or changing your character."

    Pure gold. :)

    Thank you so much!

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    1. KELLY, I'm tickled the post helped you brainstorm! Wishing you all the best with this story.

      Janet

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  43. Janet, thanks for the info on the opening scene as I'll be rewriting an opening scene later this week. I'm a classic movie fan so I often think of classic movies for great openings. One of my favorite is when Preston Sturges starts off with a twin kidnapping a twin and another twin kidnapping another twin before a wedding, and well, being Preston Sturges, he did it so much better than I'm describing it in The Palm Beach Story. Also the first couple of minutes of It Happened One Night when Ellie Andrews jumps off a boat. That grabbed my attention. Thank you for making me think about movies I love to try to make my openings more exciting.

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    1. TANYA, thanks for sharing examples of great inciting incident openings. When you're thinking about your own openings, it's important that the events aren't there just to be exciting but that they drive the character, which drives the story.

      Janet

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  44. BACKSTORY
    can be good, too.

    The need for a hook can differ greatly depending on the author and is not always the same. There is a lot to be said for backstory. I read one best selling author who said he wrote two chapters of backstory because he wanted his readers to be 'fully invested' in his characters and story as soon as possible. He said he was a good enough writer to keep them turning the pages without the need to dribble out backstory like they were bread crumbs attracting hungry crows. (I loved this because I agree with him!)

    If an author has thousands of loyal readers, she does not need a hook to get those readers to buy her books or order them from the library. I'm going to read the next Jack Reacher book, the next John Puller book, and the next J. A. Jance book no matter how slowly it opens.

    If you are a new writer, then hooks may mean life and death of your career. In other words, there are no simple answers.


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    1. VINCE, so true! Beginners, even published authors with several books on the shelves need to please an editor. The famous, big-name authors can please themselves. :-)

      Janet

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  45. The opening can often be the hardest. Balancing all the elements to hook the reader without them realizing it. I love examples for clarification. You did a great job. I am busy working on my third novel and these reminders are always welcome.

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    1. JUBILEEWRITER, congratulations on working on your third novel! Wishing you the best with your career. Seekerville's archives are full of reminders on every topic, a wealth of information at our fingertips.

      Janet

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  46. Hi Janet:

    After going over all these comments again this morning, I've come to believe that your topic itself was an 'inciting incident' which generated many interesting comments that went off in many directions. I've read that 'the medium is the message' and likewise it seems your topic demonstrated its own fulfillment.

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  47. Hi Janet. Thanks so much for posting this topic. You gave me lots of reminders and food for thought. We're experiencing an ice storm in Wisconsin and I just bought a treat for myself...a latte...ginger cinnamon spice. Wish I could share it with everyone! (Hmm...I could envision this scene in a story...)

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    1. Oops...I meant...graham cinnamon spice. Big difference!

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  48. VINCE, thanks! I so appreciate Villagers jumping in with comments that stimulate discussion and fuel ideas.

    Janet

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  49. Hi Janet
    a day late to the post because I was away from town and no internet. I love this post. I really enjoyed all your examples (would love a shot at the Beekeeper book, btw). I think all the Seekers do a whiz bang job with inciting incidents and capturing my attention.

    When I think of inciting incidents, I usually think of the opening gambits of the Indiana Jones movies, but those aren't really THE inciting incidents, are they? I do happen to like the whole little kid ventures into monster world, scaring them instead of other way around in Monsters, Inc.

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    1. DEBH, you're in on the drawing. I agree with your sweet words, my Seeker sisters know how to rock the openings of their stories!

      Thanks for sharing some exciting and fun movies!

      Janet

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    2. WHEW!!! You had me worried, girlfriend! Definitely reathing a lot easier now that I know I'm not on the wrong track because yes, my confidence IS that shaky!

      Hugs,
      Julie

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  50. Janet, PLEASE forgive my tardiness!! For some reason I am always late on Mondays, and I'm not sure why, but ask Mary. She has a LOT of Mondays, and it just seems like Tuesday is my Monday, meaning the first day of the work week. Maybe that comes from living on a lake -- I don't want the weekend to end ... ;)

    EXCELLENT post, my friend, although I did get a wee bit worried when I read dialogue was a "no-no" since my last book started with dialogue. I was just grateful you didn't list "short" introspection since every single one of the rest of my books start with a one-line thought on the part of the heroine. :)

    DEBBY, the Hallmark movie you are referring to is A Royal Winter, and it wasn't by Rachel Hauck. Keith and I liked it too, although we almost didn't watch it since there are so many "royal" love stories that I got sick of them.

    Hugs!!
    Julie

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    1. JULIE, the no-no is not starting with dialogue. The no-no is starting with talking heads, which means no introspection, no actions, just words, back and forth. Without context the dialogue is confusing. And I know you don't do talking heads.

      Janet

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  51. This is a very interesting post and I had never thought about so many different ways an author uses to get our attempt and keep us wanting to read more.
    Connie
    cps1950(at)gmail(dot)com

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