[This article first appeared in Night Owl Reviews]
Maybe I’ve been cursed by the book gods and need to sacrifice another virgin at the secret blood altar they keep in my local library’s basement (all the best libraries have one), but I’ve had crap luck with books lately. I’ve DNF’d the last four out of five books I’ve read, primarily for story mechanics issues. They’ve either dragged or didn’t establish a solid foundation before jumping into the action, or just weren’t very compelling stories. I’m a slow-as-shit reader, so slogging through a book I’m not that into can take weeks to reach the payoff of a “meh” experience. If a book doesn’t hook me within the first ~30%, I peace out and move on.
Now I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend lately for books to skip the inciting incident of their stories. The inciting incident, you may recall from my previous article on the basic ingredients of every story, is the event toward the beginning of the story that upends the status quo and forces the protagonist to act. If you’re a writer and you’re reading this article, you’ve probably had it drilled into your head that readers are fickle creatures with undiagnosed ADD who will drop your book like a flaming turd and spill some virgin blood if they’re not totally engrossed by the VERY FIRST SENTENCE. As a result, it may be tempting to skip over this event and go straight to the “good stuff,” where the protagonist is reeling and everything is up in the air and exciting.
Don’t do it! Danger, Will Robinson, danger! Skipping the inciting incident will just make things worse, and here’s why:
1. You’ll fail to build the foundation of your story—world, characters, and stakes.
Every single story since the beginning of time starts with a series of four questions, in this order: “Who are these people?” “Where are these people?” “Why should I care about these people?” “What is happening to these people?”
The inciting incident happens between the third and fourth question. You have a bunch of (hopefully interesting) people hanging around, minding their own business, and on the precipice of change.
The world is balanced but unstable, like the intro to a great song—“Bohemian Rhapsody” for instance—composed of notes of anticipation and melancholy, setting the stage and pulling us in so we’re primed and desperate to know what’ll happen next (“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”…). The inciting incident is when the beat drops (“Mama, just killed a man”…). Imagine if the song started with “Mama, just killed a man”… You: “What? When? Why? I thought this was about a fat bottom girl…” Your readers will spend a good portion of the first act too confused about what happened in the past to pay attention to what’s happening in the present.
2. You’ll need exposition dumps to explain what the hell is going on.
If you think it’s okay to skip to the good stuff because you can just go back and explain the backstory later, you are WRONG. So, so wrong. This isn’t to say you need to explain EVERYTHING in the beginning via big exposition dumps, but you must do the minimum to answer the first three questions. If you don’t, then your attempt to skip to the good stuff will actually backfire, and you’ll end up constantly having to stop the action you took such pains to skip to in order to explain the who, what, where, and why we should care in awkward info dumps. This is where you’ll lose your readers. Look no further than 2016’s Suicide Squad movie for an example of a botched beginning. That movie has many, MANY flaws, but one of the biggest was its constant pausing of the plot to explain the circumstances and characters because it didn’t bother doing it up front (at least not in the theatrical cut). The result was that we were STILL getting this introductory info nearly halfway through the movie, which is ridiculously bad storytelling. Don’t do that.
3. You’ll fail to make the reader care.
In the end, all of this comes down to making the reader care about the story. If they don’t care, they’re not going to keep reading…unless they’re one of those completist types who must finish everything they start because their mom threatened to drown their goldfish if they didn’t eat all their vegetables or whatever. I’m not one of those people—the completist or the mean mom—but I know they exist, and I feel sad for them. Every second of your reader’s life that ticks by is a second they’ll never get back, so don’t waste it “skipping to the good stuff” only to be forced to backtrack, delaying the answer to the critical “Why should I care?” question. The Grim Reaper waits for no one, no matter how many virgins you sacrifice (I know this from experience). So make your reader care by the inciting incident, or your book will be the latest on their DNF pile.