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Plotting a Novel: Scarlett O’Hara and the Inciting Incident

Scarlett O'Hara and the Inciting IncidentA vase crashes against the mantel.

A man, lying down and hidden by the back of the davenport, sits up.

The southern belle who threw the vase in a fit of temper blushes, aware he overheard every word of the mortifying scene just past.

“Sir, you are no gentleman!” she accuses.

“And you, Miss, are no lady,” he responds.

You might recognize the southern belle in this scene as Scarlett O’Hara. Here’s the clip:

Every book needs an excellent inciting incident like this one from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. What is an inciting incident? A turning point that clues the reader in to the nature of the story and sends it in a specific direction.

While the passages that precede this one serve up an evocative slice of Scarlett’s life, the story kicks into high gear with this first sizzling encounter between Scarlett and Rhett Butler. Until this scene, we don’t really know what to make of spoiled Scarlett as a heroine. Her high spirits take on a new light, however, when contrasted against Rhett’s boldness. We understand, on a visceral level, that Scarlett and Rhett belong together. We also know from their initial clash that any romance between them will be rocky but passionate.

Where should the inciting incident come in your story? As soon as possible. Your genre, the incident in question and your preferences all weigh into the decision. Generally speaking, historical fiction and fantasy require a certain amount of world building to immerse the reader in the main character’s world or “normal life.” Suspense novels, mysteries, and other books with tight pacing often begin with the inciting incident and fill in details of the main character’s normal life in small ways as the story unfolds. It’s not a perfect science, though, and there’s room for interpretation. Bear in mind that all the action in the world won’t make the reader care about a character they haven’t met, but neither will readers stay with a story that takes too long to go anywhere.

Action Step

Decide on an inciting incident and where you will place it in your novel. Write the first draft of your main character’s “normal life” passages (if any) and the inciting incident.

Do you have anything to add to help others write a great inciting incident?

Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

© Janalyn Voigt
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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

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