Knowing where to start your novel is crucial. It’s also difficult. New writers often make the mistake of beginning with description – pages, even chapters, describing characters, backstory, setting – before the story gets rolling. The trouble is, readers can’t feel involved with characters until they see them in action.

Start at the Beginning? Never

Aristotle said a play should begin “in media res,” Latin for “in the middle of things.” Two thousand years later that’s still good advice. Whether you’re writing a mystery, a romance, a thriller, or a literary novel, introduce your protagonist when something vital is already at stake.

There’s a Bruce Springsteen song with the line, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” For the writer of fiction this means an event that incites your protagonist to take action. This is called the “inciting incident.”

Tipping the Balance

Definition: The inciting incident is the event that throws your protagonist’s world out of balance. What they do to try to regain that balance forms the story.

A person’s life can be horribly upset by a murder, or a call to war, or by getting fired. But the event doesn’t have to be negative. The balance of anyone’s life can be upset by winning the lottery, or getting married, or having a child.

The Bard Knew Best

Shakespeare’s most powerful plays start with an inciting incident that seriously upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life.

In “Macbeth,” his medieval thriller, Macbeth has just won a battle for the king when the three witches tell him that one day he will be king. Their prophecy upsets the balance of Macbeth’s life by inciting his ambition. How he forces the prophecy to become reality is what the play is about.

In “Hamlet” the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle. This utterly upsets the balance of Hamlet’s life, inciting his desire to avenge his father. His quest for vengeance is what the play is about.

High Stakes: a Kingdom

“King Lear” opens with Lear announcing to his court that he’s stepping down and will divide his kingdom evenly between his three daughters. All they have to do is declare how much they love him.

His two older daughters praise him lavishly, saying he’s the best father in the world and they love him more than life itself. Satisfied, Lear turns to his youngest, Cordelia, his favourite. But she finds the exercise ridiculous, saying, “I love your majesty according to my bond, nor more nor less … Why have my sisters husbands if they say they love you all?”

This enrages Lear: that Cordelia would talk back to him in front of everyone. He disowns her on the spot and banishes her. Her refusal upsets the balance in Lear’s life, inciting his fury, and from that moment the play hurtles toward its tragic conclusion where Lear finally sees how wrong he’s been about everyone.

Inciting the Inevitable

Put your inciting incident as near your novel’s opening as possible, but don’t rush it; it needn’t be on page one. The important thing is to know what the incident is and how it upsets the balance of your protagonist’s life.

Write a powerful inciting incident and “it must follow as the night the day” that your characters will lead you headlong onto their conflict, into their world, and into a compelling story.

This article is condensed from Barbara Kyle’s online workshops, “Writing Fiction That Sells.”
Watch a clip.