Many writers dream of becoming authors their whole life. When they complete their first manuscript the usual question is “Now what?” The traditional path to publication is arduous and involves query letters, agents, editors, and submissions. The self-publishing route can be even harder. But no matter which option a writer chooses, the first ten pages of a novel better be perfect, because they might be the only words an audience reads.
The most important element a story needs is a gripping inciting incident. That’s the technical term for what kicks off the plot. In the old days it was okay for a book to have a luxuriously slow beginning, but nowadays readers are used to instant gratification. Another title competing for their attention is only a finger click away. It’s essential for the first chapter to hook readers so they are dying to find out what happens next.
Here are what the inciting incidents look like in some popular YA titles:
In The Maze Runner by James Dashner, the inciting incident is when Thomas arrives in the Glade and has lost a gigantic chunk of his memory. How did that happen? What’s going on? Readers are desperate to figure the mystery out.
Fire in the Woods by Jennifer M. Eaton, is about a teenager named Jess Martinez who has photography on the brain. The inciting incident is when a mysterious explosion happens practically in her backyard. Her father orders her to stay locked up inside the house while he reports to his military base, but Jess isn’t about to let the photo shoot of the century escape her lens. Boom! Readers are hooked in two ways, what was the explosion, and what will happen to Jess when her dad finds out she disobeys?
In Compulsion (Heirs of Watson Island) by Martina Boone, the inciting incident is when an orphan named Barrie arrives in South Carolina and nobody is there to pick her up from the airport. That’s when readers first discover there’s something odd about Barrie’s new situation. Even though her Aunt Pru loves Barrie deeply, Watson Landing—with its mysterious Gothic undertones—is dangerous.
The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong by L. Tam Holland, features a main character named Vee who is half Texan, half Chinese. The inciting incident is when Vee’s history teacher makes the class write a five-page paper about their ancestry and Vee makes a bunch of stuff up. The tension about what will happen when those lies are revealed, drives the entire plot.
Aspiring authors take heart! It took a lot of passion and a ton of late nights for you to complete a manuscript. You deserve every congratulations. Taking something as ethereal as “a concept” and turning it into the printed page is a big deal. The first few chapters especially tug at your heart, because they were often the first words written. But are those chapters your book’s true beginning?
If you can look in the first ten pages of your manuscript and circle the inciting incident in a fat black marker, your book could very well be off to a fantastic start.
Go ahead. Hook us!