Story Structure – Part 1: Beginnings
Now that I’ve spent several weeks discussing protagonists, heroes, antagonists, and villains, let’s start putting those great characters to use. But first, there’s all that worldbuilding to be done—creatures to describe, magic to define, political structures to develop…And surely, your audience will need to know all of that for context, right?
Yes and no. Yes, your audience will need context. No, don’t do a gigantic infodump at the beginning of your story.
I think the fantasy author’s love for worldbuilding can lead to trouble. Please don’t misunderstand—one of the reasons I adore fantasy is because of the worldbuilding! But some authors spend the first several chapters of a book doing a slow build with a lot of exposition instead of giving us something to latch onto right away—some action, a character, something.
The CSI: Principle: Start With The Body
I love television crime dramas. The good ones can teach writers a lot about good dramatic structure. Shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, or NCIS boil a mystery down into an hour-long plot with easy breaks where we can see the flow of the dramatic structure. Think about it:
First five minutes: We’re presented with the mystery, dead body, or crime.
First segment: Clues are gathered, suspects discussed, theories posited. Ends with a significant break or a new clue.
Second segment: The mystery deepens. Maybe there’s a chase, a dead end, some kind of reversal that shakes the cops up a bit.
Third segment: Things really ramp up to the conclusion—there’s intense debate, a court order, a big breakthrough. There might be a cliffhanger at the end of this segment, or the climax might come here.
Final five minutes: The climax is brought to a close, and the show winds down with a satisfying (happy or not) denouement.
This is a really standard story structure—inciting incident, three plot points, climax, denouement. The reason TV dramas use it is because it’s predictable for the audience—they know what to expect from the structure—but the combinations within it are endless.
The CSI: Principle says you “start with the body.” I like this structure. It hooks the reader right away and gets the action rolling.
Incite the Action
I learned about inciting incidents in my college Shakespeare classes, which is sad because I’m not sure they were ever mentioned in my writing or other literature courses.
The inciting incident of a story is the thing that rocks the protagonist’s world somehow. It’s the moment that sets the story in motion—the thing that triggers everything that comes after, the catalyst or choice or event that sets everything else in motion. It can be the “hook,” but it doesn’t have to be. It can be small or large. It can be an action by the protagonist, the antagonist, or some other force. But without it, the story wouldn’t happen.
In the Furies of Calderon, it’s the moment when Tavi decides to pick flowers for a serving girl instead of tend his sheep. In Macbeth, it’s the moment when Macbeth meets the three hags and hears their prophecy about him. In A Game of Thrones…Well, there are a couple of candidates, and it depends on who you believe is the protagonist. My own opinion is that the hook is the opening scene beyond the Wall, and the inciting incident is when Robert Baratheon asks Ned Stark to be his Hand. But good cases can be made for any number of other events.
Most Readers Aren’t—Squirrel!
Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering, has some great resources about story structure on his website. He suggests that many authors think the inciting incident and the first plot point have to be one and the same. He says that they can be the same, but they don’t have to be. If they are different, he says the inciting incident should come in the first 10-15% of the story.
Brooks knows far more about structure than I do, but I have to respectfully disagree with his assertion that the inciting incident and first plot point can effectively be the same thing. If the first plot point doesn’t come till 20-25% of the way into the story, that’s a lot of information for the reader to go through waiting for both an inciting incident and a plot point. In a doorstopper fantasy novel, that could easily mean 150-200 pages of information before we get to an inciting incident or plot point. That’s a lot to expect. (I agree with pretty much everything else he says about inciting incidents, though.)
I’m not saying it’s not possible. George R. R. Martin writes compelling enough stories that I’d stick with him that long. But I’ve said before that if I’m not hooked by 75-100 pages in, even in a long novel, I give up. And I think most readers aren’t even that generous. In the era of ebooks, remember that many readers will download samples—often the first 10% of the book—to decide whether to purchase the whole thing. I think the inciting incident should be in that 10% to help ensure the reader wants to see what happens next.
The choice that I think has the best chance of hooking readers and keeping them interested is to put the inciting incident very early—definitely within the first 10% or even 5% of the book. Then, drop back and use some other techniques to give exposition and do some worldbuilding.
One other note: When we talk about beginnings, especially in fantasy, the topic of prologues inevitably comes up. I’m not a prologue hater—I think some prologues are done really well. I also think fantasy readers are unique in that they will usually read a prologue, whereas readers of other genres often see “prologue” as code for “this part isn’t important.” But instead of yammering on about prologues here, I’ll just point you to this recent guest post I wrote about them.
So by all means—build your world, set up your political systems, and design your magic. Those are all things that make your story rich, lively, and interesting. But when it comes to telling the story, drop your readers right into it and keep them wanting more.