The Importance Of Inciting Moments

The Importance Of Inciting Moments


Generally, they have decided that it will be a prologue, usually a flashback that will show the reader something he or she needs to know in the future. Then they start at the beginning with backstory. They must because, ‘the reader won’t understand the story if I don’t show who the character is and where he comes from.’

Sound familiar? Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all start writing that way. We were taught exposition at school. We had to set up the story before we could begin. As a fiction writer you need to un-learn everything you were taught about story-telling as a child.

Why we need inciting moments

Adults want to read a book that begins with a bang. They want to land in the middle of the action, identify with the protagonist, and take a thrilling vicarious ride to a resolution.

We can learn how to do this. We don’t need to hang on to bad writing habits that bore readers. The backstory belongs in your character profiles, your timelines, and your first draft. After that, we have to get rid of most of it, and start where things change.

So what are the elements of a good hook?

  • Change is always a result of CONFLICT. Something happens that causes your protagonist to react. He or she is presented with a situation that can’t be ignored. You hook the reader with action and reaction. Leave out how you got there. You want to get the reader interested. You want to get the reader oriented. Where are we, what’s going on, who’s involved? Readers who feel confused go somewhere that’s more comfortable.
  • Begin in a moment of CRISIS, THREAT, or OPPORTUNITY. This creates a situation that has to be dealt with. It is exciting, stimulating, and absorbing – especially if it’s vicarious. This critical moment could be real or imagined, internal or external, negative or positive. However, it is easier for first time writers, if it is real, external, and negative. This gives your protagonist purpose, motivation, opposition, and a goal. It forces change.

As always, I believe that if you are a brilliant, gifted writer, you can write anything without help, but those writers wouldn’t even be reading this. That writer could get away with a prologue, or a flashback, or backstory as a beginning for a novel. If you’re the writer who wants to learn the craft, the first option is a better choice. You could also try a combination, such as an imagined negative threat.

Five Examples of Inciting Moments that Hook Readers

  1. In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel, who is dying of cancer, is sent to a support group by her mother because she believes Hazel is depressed. Hazel’s life changes because of the boy she meets there.
  2. In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Sylvie has a stillborn baby, and we go back to moments before the birth, again and again, until Ursula is born alive.
  3. In Night Film by Marisha Pessl, Scott McGrath is forced to confront his old obsession with the reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova, when the director’s daughter, Ashley, who seems to have been stalking him, commits suicide – or did she?
  4. In The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Theo Decker’s mother is killed in a bomb explosion in a museum. Everything changes for the worse in a moment.
  5. In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne disappears from her home. Her husband, Nick’s life is turned upside down.

Please note that I deliberately chose examples from recent novels. It does not help you to base the beginning of your book on a novel that was written 30 or 50 years ago. I would love it if you would add examples of your favourite inciting moments in the comments section below.

Look out for The Two Types Of Inciting Moments

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

© Amanda Patterson

This article has 24 comments

  1. Jess

    Sorry, but I couldn’t disagree with this more. I have written a book with a prologue (I’m not sure when we decided prologues were bad since books have had them for centuries) that is a flashback. It does start the book off with a bang, and I can’t tell you how many reviews and emails I’ve received from people telling me that the prologue hooked them and they had to buy it. It sells the book. I don’t buy into this whole ‘prologues are lazy writing’ argument. They’ve been around forever and it seems that only recently we’ve seen a backlash against them. I did have an editor tell me I had to take it out. My gut instinct told me no, and I’m so grateful I didn’t listen. I think you can do anything you want if you do it well enough.

  2. Writers Write

    Jess, If you read the complete post: ‘As always, I believe that if you are a brilliant, gifted writer, you can write anything without help, but those writers wouldn’t even be reading this. That writer could get away with a prologue, or a flashback, or backstory as a beginning for a novel.’
    Are you disagreeing with this as well?

  3. benjamin

    I wrote a novella involving a creature whose motivations and personality were revealed slowly through the book. The editor said that the character was too shallow and specifically suggested a prologue to introduce it a bit more. I am waiting to hear back to see if I hit the mark.

  4. Alex Tanner

    I think the big ‘infodump’ kind of backstory can be really, really boring (something many Fantasy/Sci-Fi writers are guilty of), but hey: anything done well can break rules 😉

  5. Rhiannon Holbrook

    I both agree and disagree with this. One of my favourite opens in a book is Derek Landy’s Skullduggery Pleasant, in which it opens with a death. The first line is something along the lines of ‘Gordon Edgely’s death came as a shock to everyone, not least himself.’ That immediately made me wanna read more. However, I don’t think writer’s should be constricted to writing things in a certain way, because “That’s what readers want.” Maybe people would tell me, well that’s just because you’ve just written a prologue and thinks it’s pretty good.’ Yes and no. I’m not writing a book based on what others want to read. I’m writing a book based on what I want to read. While I agree that ‘infodump’ backstory is boring, I also think that some people like back story. When I’m watching Naruto, which has a lot of episodes that are backstory, I never skip them, because I like seeing what happened to make the characters the way they are. And Naruto is so popular that I doubt I’m the only one who thinks that. I think that more writers should write with their gut instinct. If everyone follows rules like these, then reading will become very boring. I for one enjoy reading a book and suddenly going, oh right, that’s where the prologue’s from! But, this is just my opinion

  6. Vy

    I am constantly trying to write the perfect beginning. I don’t like info dumping and I want to be able to set up the conflict however the conflict doesn’t build right away and it isn’t as dramatic as an explosion. There’s tension that leads up to the conflict which makes it hard to write the “perfect hook.” When I see examples like the ones above I’m always discouraged because my novel is not action packed, has no looming death, no murder, nothing like that. One of my favorite openings is from Pride and Prejudice and that isn’t recent. The first chapter is brilliant. It sets up the whole story, has humor, and short enough that is doesn’t drag the reader on.

  7. Taren

    I have to disagree the viewpoint of opening with a bang and not having a prologue. Yes, you said that if done well enough then it can be successfully pulled off, but I don’t agree with that, either. It shouldn’t matter, what the readers want to read, so much that we forget the author’s intentions for the book, and how they are telling the story. A lot of good books don’t start off with a bang, and plenty start off with a prologue that adds nice background to the plot or characters. This is the author’s story, the characters in which they write being extensions of who they are, and so they’re manner of writing and formatting shouldn’t be advised against just because they don’t sell as well. (So long as the book in question is actually publishing worthy and not written like a damn 5 year old lol)

  8. Steph LJ

    I don’t agree with many things in this article. Backstory can be interesting. I don’t have to confuse the reader to grab their attention.

    And, what’s up with this line? “It does not help you to base the beginning of your book on a novel that was written 30 or 50 years ago.”

    Why wouldn’t it help to give examples of your findings from novels that are older? And who wants to base their book on any other novel? My stories are based on what I want to write. Basing your work on ANY other novels is wrong.

  9. Adam Bolander

    One of the best beginnings to a story I’ve read came from Brandon Sanderson’s novel, “Warbreaker.” It went something along the lines of “It’s amazing, Vasher thought, how many things begin by being thrown in prison.”

  10. R Trelfa

    If anything is done well, it works. And back story in some cases, is necessary. I find articles like this to be negative. A good writer can do it both ways–with or without–and know how to choose.

  11. Jeremiah G Link

    “Info dump” is the worse thing you can do to a reader; prologues are not be be confused with it.
    Most prologues info dump. Good prologues give you bits of information page by page.
    Game of thrones gave the reader location, event leading to a problem, and era– that’s all a reader needs.
    guineapig1016@hotmail.com

  12. Zubair Ali

    Dear sir, I always go through your emails and other notifications sent to
    me from time to time. But the guidance shared in this post regarding
    exciting negative sentiments for an attractive beginning has been really
    helpful. I do not claim to be at home in writing but I have some published
    pieces. Yet I feel to remain in need of a guide for style, coherence and
    finally a good composition.
    Therefore, I request you and your teame to please extend your guidance in
    the aforementioned genre…..
    Regards
    Zubair
    From Pakistan

  13. T. Austin

    As an avid reader of many different genres and a reviewer for a couple of book clubs, I would have to say that I have seen prologues confuse me and I’ve also experienced them encouraging me to plunge ahead and figure out where it will fit in. If you start with backstory right from the start it is a mistake. A prologue could help or hinder you. I’ve seen both but generally I prefer to not know in advance what is coming in the future. I’ve seen premature backstory ruin a book.

  14. Mimi DiFrancesca

    Agree and disagree with this new idea that prologue is somehow less desirable than jumping right into the meat locker. When a reader cracks open a new book they don’t know where they’re at anyway, so where ever you begin is the beginning. “If you don’t know where you’re going it doesn’t matter which road you take. ” If the writing is good then the prologue is good too. And personally, it annoys the hell out of me when an awkward insertion of back story gets scotch taped into the middle of a manuscript. A few details make me, as a reader, feel trusted with some bits of vital information to take along on the journey.

  15. Cara Katzbeck

    Like the others, I both agree and disagree. Some of my works have prologues and some do not. The ones that do have a tiny bit of backstory set in an action or dramatic setting. Prologues do not have to be long, drawn out narratives that bore the reader. They can be short, action or emotion packed snippets that draw the reader in.

    The other issue is genre writing. In some genres, prologues are common. For instance many novels I read in the romantic suspense genre have prologues, as do the sci fi/fantasy novels I read. Readers of those genres have come to expect them, or at least are not turned off by them.

  16. Jeff

    Well the experts tell you not to write screenplays with narrative voiceovers. Has anyone seen Shawshank Redemption or watched The Wonder Years? Narrative voiceover from beginning to end. My thought is that it has to do with competition. Give bad advice to beginning writers to keep them out of the pool because when they find out they’ve been misled, they will stop writing.

  17. Tali

    I know you said not to go back 40 or 50 years, but The Cat Who Walked Through Walls by Robert Heinlein had a great opening. The first line is: “We need you to kill a man.” You have no idea who is speaking or who the speaker is speaking to, but I sure wanted to find out what happens next.

  18. Tina

    I disagree that a prologue is undesirable, but agree that backstory can be sprinkled craftily throughout the piece. As was mentioned in comments, prologues have been a tool used by authors for many years. They don’t have to be info dumps, but can take readers to pivotal moments that took place prior to the story.

    Too often, we see where “experts” declare tried and true tools outdated, passe, unfashionable. For me, it’s time to say, “Whoa, there.”

    Authors should never write with the reader or reviewer in mind. If they do, they will not produce the story they intended to write. Only when an author pours their heart into their story, without regard of what others will think, will that story shine.

    All too often, we hear that authors should start with a big bang. I fear this is the result of short attention spans. Sometimes stories need to start slower and build to the conflict.

    Show don’t tell is a tenet I agree with, but not 100%. Sometimes showing is necessary and that decision is the author’s.

    Nothing in writing is absolute and to teach that prologues are bad is just wrong. Who made that “rule?” Yes, they need to be well done. No, they shouldn’t give away too much of the story. But absolutely, if an author feels their story benefits from a prologue, then they should write it. Do it well, but do it.

    I’m afraid this article misses the mark.

  19. Writers Write

    We often wonder if people actually read the post before they comment on it.

  20. Tina

    I did read it, three times.

  21. Pierre Vee

    Dear Writer’s write, it seems you are taking the comments rather harshly and/or negatively. But I think you have to accept that most people here seems to disagree with you a little in some form or another. Perhaps take it in your stride? I can assure you, the readers here have definitely read your post before commenting.

  22. Writers Write

    We are not taking it in any way other than bewilderment. We truly wonder if some of the people who are commenting are reading the same words we are.
    And…
    No, we’re confident with more than 1500 ‘likes’ that most people can see that we are offering sound advice.

    Quoted from the article: “As always, I believe that if you are a brilliant, gifted writer, you can write anything without help, but those writers wouldn’t even be reading this. That writer could get away with a prologue, or a flashback, or backstory as a beginning for a novel. If you’re the writer who wants to learn the craft, the first option is a better choice.”

    You can write any way you want to write, but we are trying to help people who are learning. After more than 12 years of teaching creative writing, we know that people struggle with good beginnings. We have seen thousands of bad beginnings – most of which consist of backstory, prologues and flashbacks. There are few writers who do this well.

  23. Carolyn

    I think that the line “As always, I believe that if you are a brilliant, gifted writer, you can write anything without help, but those writers wouldn’t even be reading this. That writer could get away with a prologue, or a flashback, or backstory as a beginning for a novel. If you’re the writer who wants to learn the craft, the first option is a better choice” was not stressed enough. This article is apparently saying that prologues can be damned, when, personally, I think it should be saying how to write a good prologue. As in:
    – No info dumps
    – Don’t overuse description
    – Etc.
    I know that, from reading through the comments, that this article was aimed at “beginners” but I think that telling beginning writers, or writers who are not yet comfortable or confident with writing, to not do something, is making writing seem as though it has rules, when it does not.

    I think that this article should be rewritten so that it doesn’t confuse “info dump” with “prologue”. A prologue is ‘a separate introductory section of a literary, dramatic, or musical work’. It can be exciting, it can be good. As long as you know how to write it well. Maybe add some tips how to write a good prologue, to calm and ease everyone who has taken the words of the article the wrong way? But that’s just my opinion… 😛 🙂

  24. HKSDK

    In my opinion Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is a great example of a great beginning! Read it!!!

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