I'm not talking about how to be inspired or how to stimulate your imagination—the universe has an infinite number of sources—but we are getting deeper into the nuts and bolts of the craft side of writing. So, lets get on with it...
If you think of your novel as dining out at a restaurant (an outing which you may or may not have planned), imagine you have eaten the apéritif (the hook) and you are about to dive into the main course. In terms of writing, you are about to embark on a journey of dramatic incidents that will escalate until you reach the climax and resolution of your book.
The plot is the backbone, the spine of your tale, and is made up of a chain of events, also known as plot points. There are plenty of events going on in a novel, although they are not all equal; some have more impact than others because they alter the forward movement of the narrative.
The first act has two happenings of note: the inciting incident and the first plot point (FPP). The FPP is the more important of the pair.
As you lead your characters through their difficulties and successes, bear in mind that drama comes in different guises: a disgusted look that leaves a woman wondering what she did to upset her lover can be as significant as someone finding out their best friend is having as affair with their wife or the first attack of an invading army.
In the fairy tale of Cinderella, the inciting incident is when the Prince sends every eligible young lady in the land an invitation to the ball as he is looking for a wife: everyone in the house, including Cinders, is excited. In The Hunger Games, it is when Katniss’s sister is chosen for the reaping. By the time the inciting incident takes place, we have already learned quite a bit about both these personalities, their background and the daily challenges they face.
The inciting incident has an impact on your character but doesn’t yet change their lives or set them on a fresh path. It’s advisable to give some space between the inciting incident and the FPP to allow both the principal character and the reader to absorb what is happening. People get caught up and wonder what comes next, so you have the opportunity to build on that expectation.
Some writers have the inciting incident happen before the book starts or leave very little space between it and the FPP. The rule for writing is do what works for you, although when you start out, it’s worthwhile to learn the rules before breaking them.
The FPP in Cinderella is when her step-mother tells her she can’t go to the ball. Cinders decides she wants to go more than anything she has ever wanted and must overcome a series of obstacles in order to succeed. In The Hunger Games, the FPP occurs when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place, changing her life and opening up the way to death or victory.
The FPP fulfils several functions apart from initiating a new direction for the protagonist: it introduces the major conflict, indicates the challenges, heightens the investment in winning and mentions the price of failure.
Note the word introduces, because you are showing reasons why people should continue reading by sketching out the general development of your story arc and offering views of challenges (internal and external) they will face. The audience understands and can identify with the central character’s goals and recognize there is a story to be told. As she/he commits to seeing through the challenge, so does the reader.
You can think of the inciting incident as an event that relates to the individual and the FPP as relating to the dramatic arc. The inciting incident touches your protagonist, but the FPP results in a shift from their life before and propels them toward an alternative course of action.
In fiction, action includes thoughts, emotions and observations as well as physical movement. It can be range from remembering something relevant to charging into battle, but it has to transform the status quo.
By now your character is living in your reader’s imagination and they’ll continue to read because, otherwise, they're quitting the table before the end of the meal; and who wants to miss out on dessert?
Exercise 2: Analyze the first act of your novel, scrutinize your inciting incident and FPP, see how you can improve on what you have written and make changes if you need to.
Stay well, stay safe and keep writing— no matter what!