In the Beginning

By Sandy Cody Sandy Cody

For me, the hardest part of writing a novel is the beginning. Let’s say the book I’ve been working on is finished – polished and tweaked until it shines and I can’t find one more thing to change. In reality, that never happens, but at some point I realize that I’m just tinkering: changing, but not improving this story.

It’s time to move on. So, I open a new file. I can’t think of a title. Not a problem. I’ll do that later. So … what do I type at the top of the page?

Sound familiar? What do you do? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are writers. Here’s what works for me:

Ask yourself some questions.

  • Who is the main actor?
  • What is the main actor’s goal or, put another way, what is the story question?
  • What is the inciting incident?

Ah … inciting incident … that’s where the story begins. Think of your favorite books, the ones you loved from the first paragraph. One that comes to my mind is Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck. I read this book years ago and recently re-read it for a book group. Here’s the inciting incident (using my own words):

It is the morning of Madame Wu’s fortieth birthday. She has decided it’s time for her husband to take a second wife. She wants some time for herself. It’s obvious this will bring about changes in her life. She thinks she knows what those changes will be and she welcomes them.

As a reader, I have my doubts and am immediately sucked into the story, intrigued by the situation Ms. Buck has set up. When I look at it with a writer’s eye, I realize how cleverly she has captured my attention. She doesn’t tell her husband of her decision in the first scene (curiously, he doesn’t seem to have a vote in the matter). She doesn’t show us Madame Wu in an agony of self-examination as she makes this decision.  When the book opens, it’s already made. All she has to do is carry it out. Here are the first two sentences in Ms. Bucks’s words:

“It was her fortieth birthday. Madame Wu sat before the tilted mirror of her toilet case and looked at her own calm face. In her mind she was comparing it with the face she had seen in the same mirror when she was sixteen.”

Madame Wu is remembering the morning after her marriage, important because it relates to the inciting incident (her decision to find a second wife for her husband of 24 years). There are a few more scenes with other members of the household. She tells her best friend, her first son, and her maid of her decision before she tells her husband.

We learn about the sons of Madame Wu and other members of the household. There’s a wonderful scene when she tells her maid and instructs her that it’s her job to make sure the new wife will be respected and treated well by the servants.

 All of these things lead irrevocably to the inciting incident. By the time she tells her husband, the reader can’t wait to see how he’s going to react.

You can do it this way or you can jump right in. Ms. Buck could have begun her novel with a scene between husband and wife wherein she tells him that it’s time for him to take a new wife and that she will choose an appropriate one for him. That also would have made an effective opening.

That’s one of the challenges of beginnings. There are so many choices. How can you be sure you’re making the right one? You can’t. That’s OK. This is your beginning, your first draft. Nothing is written in stone. You can change anything.

The important thing is to get something down – and figuring out your inciting incident is a good place to start. If your story needs other scenes to build suspense or to ground the reader as to time and place, you can add them later. First, though, figure out what sets the story in motion and let it flow from that.


7 thoughts on “In the Beginning

  1. Thanks for the clear explanation of inciting incident with examples from Pearl Buck’s novel. I wonder if she began her first draft with this incident or if it was a decision she made after writing a few pages she would discard. And if you ever change your inciting incident after you’ve written a few chapters.


  2. Good question, Linda. I think everything is open to change. Once you get into a story and get to understand your characters better, new possibilities are visible. Thanks for stopping by.


  3. Dear Sandra,
    Readers have claimed they couldn’t stop reading, (turning pages) once into my novel. The opening has always been the rub, and my last and greatest concern. The inciting incident treatment gives insight and a strong application technique to accomplish the task.
    I am more inclined now to ‘Get to It.’ One critic said my strengths are in dialogue and memories. Now I am coupling them in a quickened fashion with the inciting incident. Readers turning the first page seems a more doable goal.
    Move over Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner.


  4. Once when I was attending a large writer’s conference, an agent agreed to look at the first page of my book manuscript. I’d started it with a fast beginning. After reading only the first few sentences, she said, “Send it!” Her response confirmed my feeling that a quick start was the best beginning for my project.
    But I’m also intrigued how Pearl Buck started her novel with a more subtle hook which would indeed pull the reader in. So yes, there is more than one “right” beginning. Thanks for an interesting post, Sandy!


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