My novel technically has two inciting incidents: One in the first chapter, and another five chapters later. The later incident really kicks off the story. What can I do to make sure that everything that happens before this, the first five chapters, are interesting enough to keep the reader going until he/she gets properly established in the story?
Inciting incident is a term for one of the bones of a story, the thing that give it shape. But while a story needs shape, shape alone is not enough. The basic story shapes are well enough known and not particularly complicated. Anyone who does a little elementary research should be able to write a story that follows correct story shape.
But while shape is important, it is not where the money is. You have to put flesh on the bones. What the reader encounters when they read is not the bones but the flesh. Without good bones the flesh will seem deformed. But beyond freedom from basic deformities, it is the flesh that attracts us, creates our interest, and holds it.
What does the flesh consist of? Its fundamental attractions are sensual. A good story engages us at the sensual level. I don't mean sexual here, though it can certainly be that, I mean it creates an experience for the senses. It creates a world that has depth and grit and light and texture peopled by people who feel real and animated and particular.
None of this is in the structure. It is in the telling. It begins with observation and sympathy and love and proceeds through care and craft and a sensitive gift for language and the images and experiences it evokes. The way you hold the reader's interest up to the inciting incident is simple, and yet the hardest part of writing: you make it real.
And until you make it real, the inciting incident is for nothing. It incites nothing unless we are first made to care, unless we are made to feel that this is a real thing happening to real people in a real world.
Anyone can assemble the bones. The diagrams are in all the books. Assembling the bones of a story is no more complex than assembling an Ikea bookcase. If the bones of a story end up misshapen it is either because the writer paid no attention to them at all, or because when the writer attempted to apply flesh to the bones they could not get the muscle and sinew right and it pulled the bones out of shape.
There are very obvious and teachable techniques for the bones. The technique for the flesh is mastery of observation and language. That's the hard part. It is why so many aspiring writers will never achieve their aims. There is no formula for it. If it is not simply inspired, it is learned by osmosis from living, reading, and writing.
Just because your inciting incident hasn't occured, it doesn't mean what happens has to be boring. To take Mark Baker's meat-on-the-bones metaphor a little further (some might say "too far"), consider that there are plenty of novels that pride themselves on being invertabrates (Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch" comes to mind), wherein the skeleton is absent or obscured. The reader reads such things for the meat alone.
Now, the very fact that you're asking this question suggests to me that this isn't the sort of thing you're trying to write, but they help to remind us that there are plenty of things besides plot that make a story interesting.
- The language itself can be beautiful.
- The content can be though provoking, thematically compelling, or intriguingly disorientating.
- The scenes themselves can be captivating (in the way a good short story is) while having little to do with the main plot.
- The characters can be sufficiently interesting that we want to find out more about them (regardless of their goals, or what they're actually doing in the context of the story).
- You can hint (or, if your narrative style permits, outright tell the reader) that things are going to go wrong soon, and the reader (if you do it right) will be watching closely for signs that this is about to happen. If you keep tricking them into thinking it's just around the corner, you may be able to keep them reading for longer than they otherwise would.
- You can exploit the reader's understanding of narrative conventions, such that they know where things are heading even though there are no in-universe signs. (Things being "too perfect" is a good example of this, though it's a difficult trick to pull off.)
- You can set up another conflict for your characters, and allow the reader to temporarily invest in this while you lay the groundwork for the real conflict (i.e. a MacGuffin).
I think it's good to bear in mind that the only real duty you have to your reader is to not waste their time. If your main plot doesn't start until chapter six or seven, that's perfectly fine, just as long as the reader has a good time getting there, and - having arrived - doesn't feel like that time was wasted. My advice is to worry a little less about your main plot (it seems like you already have that part covered), and just make them good. How you do that, exactly, is up to you.
I'm going to use the example of one of my all-time favourite anime, Steins;Gate, which also has two inciting incidents.
The first is Okabe accidentally inventing the time machine and shifting himself into a parallel World Line. This occurs midway through Episode 1, though he and the audience don't realize that's what's happened until about Episode 3.
The second inciting incident occurs at the end of Episode 12, and I won't spoil what it is because it's such a WHAM moment and sets up the entire second half of the storyline. It's worth noting, however, that it's actually a direct consequence of the first incident.
The episodes in between those events serve several purposes:
- To introduce the main characters in detail, and help us get to know them and sympathize with them, in a fun and entertaining manner
- To provide important exposition (in this case, about the mechanics of time travel) so that once the main plot kicks in, the boring bits are out of the way and we can just get on with the main story
- To hint at future plot developments
The section between your two inciting incidents needs to try and hit those points as well.
The first moments of a story should introduce the setting and the characters. Reader / viewer should understand who are the characters, what is their world, how this world works, and so on. I believe this is a very important part of a story, sometimes more than the incident itself: we would not understand the gravity of the incident, if it wouldn't happen to a clearly built character. Of course you can start in medias res, but if it's a long story I would spend some time in building the world.
My novel technically has two inciting incidents: One in the first chapter, and another five chapters later. The later incident really kicks off the story.
So... that makes me think that the first incident kicks off a subplot that allows the world and the characters to be set. Then there's a second incident that kicks off the main plot.
I see nothing wrong with it. In fact, I've just been tutoring a kid (highschool level Portuguese literature) where he's studying a novel that has that exact structure. Subplot with a tragic family story that sets up the stage for the main plot, where the main character, while showing himself superior to his tragic family member, ends up in a greater tragedy.
All you have to make sure is that the initial subplot is important to the setting and has an interesting arc of itself. Imagine you're writing a short-story that is composed solely of that initial subplot: would it make an interesting read? If not, either cut it out or make it interesting per se. How? Ignore the fact that this is supposed to be the setting for something greater and treat it as a story per se: make sure that there's a goal driving the main character(s) and that the characters are interesting.