Plotting a Novel: Part 4 - The Hook and Inciting Incident
Throughout 2023 writing instructor and pre-published author Tracey Kathryn (T.K.) Sheffield and I will be offering a blog series on plotting from the beginning developmental stage through the messy middle and all the way to the end, including editing advice on how to fix plot problems in a completed manuscript.
In Part 1, Tracey lists wonderful resources that are great for those that are new to writing or looking for a new approach to plotting in: "Plotting a Novel: Resources for Those Just Starting Out."
In Part 2, Tracey discusses how to use plotlines, tropes, and conflict to test your story ideas: "Testing Novel Ideas"
In Part 3, Tracey and I discuss the virtues of outlining your novel vs. pantsing (aka: writing by the seat of your pants.) Watch the video here.
Now, I’m tackling something that’s crucial to the beginning of any story – the hook and inciting incident. Often these two items are confused with each other, so let’s dive in.
The Hook is how you capture the readers’ attention in the first pages of a story. It’s the presentation of a story concept that keeps the reader turning the pages. There are many ways to craft this beginning that makes the book too interesting to put down. How you start is personal to you, the story you’re writing, and the style you write in. Do you prefer to begin with dramatic action, characters that are engaging, introduction of an appealing theme, or perhaps a suspenseful or mysterious setting. Whatever you choose for your beginning, your goal is the same . . . to set the hook so the reader must continue on.
James Scott Bell says, “The hook is the big idea, the reason a reader browsing in the bookstore would look at your cover copy and go, ‘Wow!’”
Within your first pages – where you’re hooking the reader – you will need to:
- Introduce your main character or characters.
- Provoke curiosity about where the story is going.
- Engage emotions that help the reader begin to identify with the characters.
- Set the tone (mood) of the story with your choice of language, imagery, setting, and more.
- Avoid being boring or cliched.
- And introduce the story’s problem or conflict with the inciting incident.
So, the inciting incident is PART of the HOOK, but the hook is MORE than the inciting incident.
The Inciting Incident
The Inciting Incident (also called the story problem, the inciting event or moment, the catalyst (from Dean Snyder’s Save the Cat), or the call to adventure (from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.)
The Inciting Incident must meet different criteria and depending on which plotting guru you’re reading, the definition of these is a little different, but they come down generally in these ways:
The inciting incident must be . . .
1) early in the story.
2) an interruption – positive or negative but always interrupting what the main character is doing.
3) out of the main character’s control.
4) life changing.
6) And is often something that puts the protagonist and antagonist add odds with each other.
This initial event that sets the story in motion can arrive in a number of forms.
► Often these follow set expectations of certain genres (tropes): Love stories utilize a meetcute (when the two love interests first meet each other). Action stories begin with a challenge or a mission. Crime stories kick off with the discovery of a body or the theft etc.
► Additionally, the event always knocks the main character’s world out of balance (following #s 2, 3, 4 above.)
► Usually, the complexity of the inciting incident is not fully understood by the main character—meaning they may underestimate the difficulty they will have in overcoming this challenge.
► Finally, it is essential that this incident connects to the end of the story. (That one seems obvious, right?)
Let’s look at some examples that help us see the difference between the hook and the inciting incident.
The Inciting Incident Sets up the Story's Main Problem or Conflict
All of these provide an essential element for satisfying stories with the inciting incident setting the story’s main problem or conflict. Often, the conflict is set around these core values:
Good vs. Evil
Life vs. Death
Love vs. Hate
Achievement vs. Failure
Wisdom/Maturity vs. Innocence (coming of age stories)
Or you might see conflict presented like this:
THE MAIN CHARACTER VS ...
Fate • Society • Another Character/Antagonist/Villain • Self (Internal conflict) • Technology • Nature • Supernatural Forces
Question to ask yourself:
Can you identify the hook and inciting incident in your current work in progress?
Is your hook (sotry concept) strong enough to entice the reader to keep turning the page?
What type of conflict does your inciting incident set up for your story?
Next up . . . T.K. Sheffield will discuss the “messy middle” in Part 5 in the series.
Happy writing! - Valerie
Submitted by Jill CampbellMason (not verified) on May 4, 2023 - 7:45am
I love how you go over the basics and then expand from there with the mini directions that rating can take. I think once all of the elements become a part of your psyche, writing flows and doesn’t necessarily follow every bit of the pattern. There are so many ways to write and solve each individual. has their own style and personality imbued into the work. It’s such an exciting endeavor.
I would like to start a blog, and that’s where I love to have examples.
Thanks for doing this
Submitted by valeriebiel on May 4, 2023 - 10:49am
Thanks, Jill! I completely agree that we take these structures/formats/rules and then decide your own writing path. And, for me, depending on the type of book I'm writing -- stylistically -- I do things different ways. Right now, I'm wrangling a suspense/murder mystery with three POVs and two timelines, which has been great fun and more difficult than anything I've done before.
Submitted by carmela (not verified) on May 5, 2023 - 7:12pm
Thanks, so helpful.
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