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I know a lot of books do it (Harry Potter, LOTR, Wheel of Time). It's even part of the "Hero's Journey". However, my book starts with the "inciting incidient" i.e. my main charatcer begins her first day at school. Part of the reason I did this was to subvert the expectation that a book has to start with the "normal world". Lately, however, I have considered sticking in an extra chapter or two in the beginning as a way to slowly introduce my reader to my world.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of staring a novel with the "normal world"?

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    "Best" is opinion-based. But you can ask about advantages and disadvantages, for example. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 15 at 7:47
  • edited my question – klippy Aug 15 at 8:04
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    Are you sure the first school day is your inciting incident? It might just be the beginning of the story's “normal world”. – celtschk Aug 15 at 8:08
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    Possible duplicate of Help, I cannot decide when to start the story – NofP Aug 15 at 9:45
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    @NofP I disagree: this question deals with the "established wisdom" that you should start with the character's normal world. The other question doesn't deal with "normal" at all, but with story and backstory. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 15 at 10:14

11 Answers 11

22

In a story that isn't set in our normal here-and-now, be it fantasy, science fiction, historic fiction, or something else, you need to establish what's normal for your setting, and what isn't. As an example: aliens land in the local spaceport - is it an "inciting incident", or are they just regular traders? Or is landing of aliens in general commonplace, but those particular aliens are a surprise?

For your reader to understand what's "out of the ordinary", they need to understand what is "ordinary".

In the absence of evidence to the contrary, readers will assume "our normal world". @MatthewBrown mentions Hamlet as an example: indeed, we know what court is, and what court politics are. Thus, the opening scene quickly establishes "we are at court", and moves on with the story. Ghosts, we are told, are not normal. But the inciting incident is not "the ghost appearing", but "the ghost talking to Hamlet", which doesn't happen until we've been introduced to Hamlet's "normal" at Claudius's court.

Game of Thrones starts in a similar manner: in a quick prologue it is established both that the Wall is normal, and that the Others are not. (Note that in this case, this is not the inciting incident - the inciting incident is King Robert coming to Winterfell.)

The more your setting differs from our "normal", the more you would have to establish right from the start. But then, the very fact that it is all different makes the reading interesting (providing your writing isn't boring). You thus have some leeway for a longer "beginning". As an example, nothing much happens in the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings - "The Long-Expected Party". But there are hobbits, and there's Gandalf, and there are hints of other things, so that makes it interesting enough.


All the same, starting with "normal" doesn't necessarily mean starting with boring getting-up, brushing-teeth. As an example, Jim Butcher's sixth novel of the Dresden Files series, called Blood Rites starts

The building was on fire, and it wasn't my fault.
My boots slipped and slid on the tile floor as I sprinted around a corner and toward the exit doors to the abandoned school building on the southwest edge of Chicagoland. Distant streetlights provided the only light in the dusty hall, and left huge swaths of blackness crouching in the old classroom doors.
[...]
I checked behind me.
The guardian demons looked like demented purple chimpanzees, except for the raven-black wings sprouting from their shoulders. There were three of them that had escaped my carefully crafted paralysis spell, and they were hot on my tail, bounding down the halls in long leaps assisted by their black feathered wings.

In this case, the fast-paced chase scene establishes the "normal": the location is urban-fantasy Chicago, the protagonist can cast spells, and monkey-demons throwing flaming poop are not a surprise for him.


For your setting, what is normal, and what isn't? Your character is going to school - that, supposedly, is normal? Or is it that for some reason your character wasn't expecting to be going to school?

Buffy starts with Buffy going to school (actually it starts with establishing the existing of vampires preying on students, but then it starts with Buffy going to school). Then there's a vampire-eaten corpse in a locker. There's a clear delineation: there's "normal", there's "weird for most of the world, normal for Buffy", and there's "so weird, it's weird even for Buffy".

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    I really love the opening of Blood Rites - it's got to be a contender for my favorite Dresden opening. But I digress - what I wanted to say is that it's worth pointing out that as Blood Rites is Book 6 of the series a certain level of familiarity with the Dresden-verse is to be expected, which is partly how Butcher can get away with opening with so much action + disparity from the "real world" (not to mention a great in-joke) – motosubatsu Aug 15 at 16:38
  • The opening sentence in Blood Rites also directly refers to events in previous books, where various house burnings could be considered Harry's fault. – chepner Aug 16 at 16:09
  • @motosubatsu You can, I think, start reading from book 6. The crucial bits you need to know - Butcher gives the information in each book. It's better, of course, to read from the start, but if someone started from the middle of the series, they wouldn't be lost. At least, until Changes. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 16 at 16:26
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    I've never touched a copy of Dresden Files (This is probably the first time I've read text from any DF book) and the posted snippet was comprehensible to me, and Galastel's following analysis matched my understanding. The point that it's book 6 of course stands, but I think it still works as an example of how you can introduce your setting during an interesting sequence. – Adonalsium Aug 16 at 17:09
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Yes, please start in the MC's Normal World.

The point of beginning in The Normal World is directly related to the inciting incident: Namely, the inciting incident has the potential to change the character's life. For good or evil. Whether they like it or not. It may change it immediately, or it may grow to to change it. In all these cases, the inciting incident is going to take the MC out of their Normal World to deal with it, and learn from it, be abused by it, and eventually solve it.

After that, they will return to some Normal: Sometimes their previous Normal world (e.g. the villain is no longer a threat) or more often to a New Normal World (It is new because they have changed, sometimes become a better person, taken responsibility, or become more aware of the World or more Adult and decided their old Normal is too small, or they have a higher purpose, etc).

In order to make the Inciting Incident matter to the reader, the reader should already know the MC, sympathize with the MC, and understand what the MC is facing when their Normal World is disrupted. If they don't know the MC,* then by definition the MC is a stranger and you have something happening to a stranger they don't know and don't care about. They expect heroes and villains, they don't know which they are looking at. It doesn't seem like a person to them. They don't have any sympathy, yet, they don't know if they like her.

Further, the second reason for starting in the normal world is that in the first pages of a book, readers expect and forgive a little world building, that authors will be more careful to include setting details and the rules of the world (like whether magic works, like whether we are on Earth, like what time-period we are living in, from cave-dwellers to far future, like cultural details, even whether we have mobile phones and the Internet or not).

Those details need to be incorporated to orient the reader's expectations, but they will also get in the way of dramatic scenes, reducing the impact of them. Even if your setting is entirely modern present-day Earth, your MC has a local culture, attitudes, and permissiveness that readers need to know about. A reader living San Francisco California has a much different "Normal World" and expectations than a reader living in Laredo Texas, or one living in New York City.

They are all flexible, they read for entertainment because they LIKE other worlds, but you need to SET their expectations for YOUR story.

Typically, instead of the Inciting Incident, I open the story with the MC in their normal world but with a normal world PROBLEM, something minor that isn't life-threatening or life-changing, just some issue to deal with like we all encounter in normal life. Something breaks or doesn't work, or we run out of something, whatever.

As I've said in other answers: We wake up late because there was a power failure while we slept, and our alarm failed to go off. Or there's no hot water to take a shower. Or we usually have a bowl of cereal for breakfast, but when we pour milk on it, the milk glops out: It has gone sour. Or we have pop-tarts, but the toaster is broken. Our shoe breaks, or shoelace breaks, we have to improvise. Our car won't start; the battery isn't dead, and that is the full extent of our knowledge about trouble-shooting cars.

A small low-stakes problem gives the reader something interesting to follow, to see how the MC behaves in her normal world, how she thinks, if she is creative, etc. We are able to introduce the setting, because the stakes aren't high, and the danger is not life-threatening; it doesn't feel like we are pressing pause on a life-and-death action scene to explain how a light-saber works, or that Luke thinks Darth Vader killed his father.

In most novels the Normal World is the first half of the first Act, which amounts to 10% to 15% of the story. It can be shorter, but without it, stories generally flop, because the reader doesn't know the character, doesn't get what's wrong, doesn't see the Inciting Incident as a change from Normal, and when you try to justify the MC's feelings and actions you inevitably stall the story with backstory.

Readers aren't stupid, they are flexible and ready for anything when the book opens, they are expecting you to set the stage and introduce an MC (or more than one) and supporting characters and culture. If you don't give it to them, they will not find your story Exciting because you jumped right into the action, the will find it confusing and flat, because they don't care about the characters involved.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss is introduced in her weird Normal World, shown to be an expert huntress, shown to love her sister, be afraid of the drones, etc. The Inciting Incident (foreshadowed by nightmares of her sister) is her sister being chosen for the Games; the only way to save her is for Katniss to volunteer in her place. The equivalent of a mother sacrificing herself to save her child.

In Die Hard, John McClane's Normal World is visiting his estranged wife and daughter and trying ineptly to repair his marriage. The Inciting Incident is his family being held hostage, and it is 100% action from there: But we did not OPEN with that, and have to explain "By the Way, his wife and children happen to be hostages too! And he loves them so much, he will run barefoot over broken glass to save them!"

The Normal World introduces the MC, introduces the World and Setting of the story as they know it, and introduces the stakes for the MC.

Don't skip it. Don't think you are starting at the exciting part. That is not what In Media Res means, it means don't start the story with a lot of factoids and exposition about the history of the world so far; it means start in the middle of things, start with characters doing things, start with some sort of activity, but it doesn't have to be a battle, or the inciting incident. Start with the MC(s) doing things that show us the setting and other supporting characters and the stakes that will be threatened. The Normal World.

  • I think, with this answer, I finally understand why I always found getting into the Harry Potter books so difficult. I know the story is enjoyable, but after a full chapter establishing normality, I'd lost interest. I'll hopefully write this up into an answer with some examples of books that don't do (much) introduction later, but it's something that can happen more quickly than in the examples mentioned by OP – Roland Heath Aug 16 at 7:36
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    This is probably the best explanation I've seen about how to start of a story that keeps the reader engaged but not confused! – Frauke Aug 16 at 9:21
  • @RolandHeath Harry Potter, being written for children, doesn't have much "stakes" for Harry, I'd call that a child's wish fulfillment story, the bullied non-favorite kid ends up being (all along) the most powerful kid at the center of the action, a hero that graciously saves everyone. Rowling wrote for her own kids, and understood their limited levels of understanding of the world, and naive limits of understanding of more adult themes, losses and dangers. We don't write a children's story about Mommy getting addicted to opioids after breaking her foot and then hooking to support her habit. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 16 at 10:01
  • @Amadeus no, of course not. The length of the introduction needs to be relative to the complexity and abnormality of the setting. I agree with your suggestions on how to introduce a setting, but they made it clear to me why I find it so difficult to engage with certain stories (that do things differently). – Roland Heath Aug 16 at 13:28
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You do need to establish your character's "normal" -- but you almost certainly don't need to do it in a lump at the beginning of the book.

The Hobbit doesn't start with a long chapter about daily life in The Shire; it starts with Gandalf showing up after only a few paragraphs describing the physical setting. The deep description of The Shire is doled out in dribs and drabs leading up to the visit of the dwarves, and even moreso put off until the first few chapters of The Fellowhip of the Ring -- roughly seventy years after the events of The Hobbit.

Nine Princes in Amber doesn't start off with a description of Corwin's "normal" -- either the one he'd established on Earth, or before then, back home in Amber; it starts with Corwin waking up in a hospital bed, with amnesia. It takes five books to get a reasonably complete description of Amber, and of course no deep description was needed of ca. 1975 Earth, because readers lived there.

In short, many very good books fold the "establishing shots" into the story, because this draws the reader in much more effectively than starting with "I got up and made coffee" (although in fact the first book of the second Amber series, Trumps of Doom, did start with that, by way of explanation about what was special about that particular day).

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    +1 for giving examples that aren't an exposition dump – awsirkis Aug 15 at 22:43
  • +1 for the Amber reference, because that is one of the finest examples of not following the recipe (it also doesn't follow the Heroe's Journey in many other aspects). – Tom Aug 16 at 9:12
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    @Tom I spent most of my life wanting to "grow up to be" Roger Zelazny. Almost everything he did was excellent (a couple collaborations came down a little, but they were late in his life or, in one case, after his death -- not his mistakes, and yet Lord Demon is one of his best). – Zeiss Ikon Aug 16 at 11:04
  • @ZeissIkon I need to read his other stuff. I know most of the Amber series more or less by heart (I think I could re-tell it without preparation and wouldn't leave out anything major). I also love the roleplaying game they made about it. I own a set of Trump cards. :-) – Tom Aug 16 at 12:35
  • The only books with his name that I wouldn't reread every few years are the collaborations -- and Lord Demon is the exception. – Zeiss Ikon Aug 16 at 12:42
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I would strongly advise against adding chapters into the beginning. Of course, it has to be said, I am not you and you are the artist. However, let me explain why I would not do that.

It is often said that a story should start in medias res (in the middle of the action). By starting in the action, you begin where the story is most interesting. This can be an amazing way to hook a reader and keep them interested. If backstory is later important, you can drip it in as and when. Take Hamlet, for example, we start the play with his father already murdered and his mother having remarried (to the murderer).

As you ask about the advantages and disadvantages of starting before the inciting incident I will try to list them:

Advantages

  • You can dump in a lot of backstories
  • You can show the reader what the protagonist has to lose
  • There is an opportunity to give the inciting incident more emotional weight
  • You get to fill the reader in on stuff they "need to know"
  • You can show a lot more of the "before".

The reason Harry Potter starts in the mundane is that this is where we live. We then get to follow Harry from the normal into the fantastical. He takes us with him for that adventure. We need to find out about the Wizarding world and can do that with Harry. We understand how motivated Harry is to leave behind his crummy life - something that is key to his journey in the first book.

Disadvantages

  • Very easy to bore the socks off your readers
  • You have to find a reason to make all the "before" interesting
  • There is a risk of unexciting early chapters full of info-dumps
  • The reader has to wade through all that to get to the "exciting bit".
  • Your story can become more about "normality" than the adventure.
  • If you screw it up, there is a chance no one will read long enough to find out why the middle is so good.

In Hamlet, we already know what murder and politics are like. This is a story of someone contemplating revenge, so we start with them there. We pick up the details of the murder as Hamlet sets about proving to himself that he should take revenge. Had we started a year earlier, there would have been a lot of stuff happening none of it relevant to Hamlet's revelation at the start of the play.

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    I will disagree, as I say in my answer, "in media res" does mean "in the middle of things", but it refers primarily to NOT starting with a long info dump on characters, setting, and history of the world. That stuff is boring, because nothing is happening, and it just becomes a giant memory task for the reader. In Media Res means starting with activity, things going on, but it doesn't mean starting with the Inciting Incident. The reader won't care about the MC(s) if we start there, because they are strangers to the reader. They expect to know about MC(s), setting, and NW first. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 15 at 11:14
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    An interesting example that supports what @Amadeus is saying in an unexpected way is Nine Princes of Amber. It starts with the MC waking up in a hospital with no memory of anything before. So there's no "normal". It's very much "in medias res". But his quest to regain his memory is not the main story - it is a tool to introduce us gradually to the "normal" of Amber, and is, in fact, the "low-stakes conflict". "Normal" doesn't equal "boring". – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Aug 15 at 11:31
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A critical point that other answers skip over is: Where you start writing and where the finished story begins aren't all that related.

Pick a point within your storyline, and being testing the story. Read it to yourself. Have others read it. Have others read it to you if you can.

Then keep asking if the story works. And it really doesn't matter if this is done with 'final draft' quality writing, or just napkin scribbles of ideas for a story outline. But I will say that the earlier you start getting into this kind of mindset, the easier it is to spot and correct problems.

While not the easiest 'answer' to a question, the honest truth is that you answer this question by testing against your story, and you can't effectively answer it by polling random strangers for highly out of context opinions. Answers here can give you a lot to think about and consider, but ultimately it will come down to what works for your story, and its style, feel, and flow.


  • Does the reader know enough about the characters and the world at any given time? If not, look at how to address that.
  • Does the reader get bored with info dump and excessively mundane content? A chapter about a Main Character sitting on the toilet dreading the upcoming work week [Possibly followed by a few more chapters about said work week] might work for one story, but utterly fail for another. Advise that is 'true in general' may not be true in a specific case.
  • Does the book as a whole actually work at all? The greatest beginning to a story won't help it if the thing as a whole just falls apart into a useless mess.

Your readers should have an understanding of normal for your world, but how you introduce that will depend on your story, pacing, and characters.

Starting with some normal is typically a safe point to begin, but it doesn't need to be dragged out to excess, however it is not a strict rule written in stone. [But still be prepared for things to 'not work'.]

  • Characters can reflect on normal or otherwise reference normal through dialog.

  • Flashbacks to normal can be used to "fill a reader in" mid way through the story as needed. [But this can be difficult to do well without descending into a tangled mess.]

In short, you can 'establish normal' in far more ways than "starting off the book with how dull and boring things are before suddenly getting exciting" if it works for your story.


The key takeaway is to be wary of judging too much of a book before it is written, and be careful with writing to excess before you start evaluating it. While that sounds like a conflicting message, it is really mostly about aiming for a balance.

And remember that it is often easier to decide a beginning 'needs more' than it is to acknowledge that the opening needs aggressive trimming.

  • Frame up the beginning of your story, but don't finish it till you're finishing the whole story.

[It is far easier to let go of bad ideas if you haven't invested too much time in polishing them before you're in a position to judge how bad they really are...]

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Many books do not start in the normal world. There are even books that start by showing the end and then narrating how that end came about.

What you need, though, is to understand what effect beginning at a certain point in the narrative has on your readers and consciously decide on that beginning.

  1. Most action or suspense focussed stories begin in medias res.

    This appears to be what you plan to do. These stories usually begin in a world and setting that is either familiar to the reader (i.e. our own) or conventional (e.g. a typical Science Fiction battlefield in outer space). While you may not notice, these setting are in fact introduced, but only minimally, by using certain keywords or brief descriptions embedded in the action (e.g. "John pulled out his laser gun and fired at the space ship visible outside the breach in the hull.").

  2. Most epic tales and every Bildungsroman – that is, every narrative that focusses on he psychological and moral growth of the protagonist – begins with a slower setup against which the changes can be contrasted. The description of the normal world serves as a 'baseline', so to speak, against which the changes become visible and meaningful.

  3. Stories whose main plotline is the solving of a riddle, such as certain crime fiction, sometimes begins with an event before the protagonist becomes involved in the story (e.g. we see the murder taking place in a prologue) or with the final outcome of events (and the path to the end becomes the surprise).

There are many other possible options and effects. Think about what kind of story you have, and what drives its plot.

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I realize I'm quite late to the discussion, but why not:

Maybe you and many of the answers (even when some of them are still really good) look at the problem from the wrong angle, as I believe figuring out your plots concept or focus or theme is much more important right now - and it also tells you how to start your book.

So - what is your story about?

You're probably out to prove some concept of sorts, like 'This detective is the greatest mind in the history of great detectives and super interesting to boot'. In this case, I'd say starting off a bit more tame might do wonders. As your whole work revolves around said detective, it's important to know a lot about him.

However. If your plot is more focused on the murder mysteries (like most of em are) - why not start with a murder mystery? Yes the detective is important and the main character and probably the best character in the world, but your focus and the whole plot still revolves around the murders, not the detective. So let the first murder occur as soon as possible.

Reading is like swimming in an ocean. We're trying to grab onto something before we end up drowning and we hope its something that carries us along the ride. We will feel confused (not good in survival) if it doesn't. - me, right now

Following that train of thought, if we start with the detective having lunch, next it's about his living conditions and his wife and kids and his friends and then eventually he stumbles into a murder, I expect the plot to be focused on the detective. You've just shown me how interesting he is, after all. The murder excites me, but at this point I'm led to believe that the detective and his life is still what it's all about.

If the story ends just after the murder happened, with his personal issues left unresolved - I feel betrayed. Even when the work otherwise is great, it will feel off. It's like one of those amazing stories where lots of people leave mid-through, because the plot evolves in ways they weren't expecting before. It's all about the infamous 'promise' you make at the beginning.

Harry Potter is about Harry Potter. It's not about Hogwarts (though thats important too). Thats why we start with Harry Potters backstory and not immediately in Hogwarts. Thats why the plot ends once Potters problems are solved. Thats why Potters problems are connected to every other problem.

If Hogwarts was the the plot's center, it might make sense to start with Potter and his friends arriving there and end with them graduating. Them graduating would have more weight than Harry defeating Voldemort. Potters problems would still be huge, but there would likely be lots of problems he isn't part of. Hogwarts and its inhabitants would be the focus. Issues would only be of importance when they're related to Hogwarts.

The problem is not about 'the heroes journey' or 'in media res' or what technique is better than the other. They're all great, but they serve different purposes. Thats why I'd advice strongly against going for a checklist of which better fits your tastes, instead try to figure out your central theme.

You will ideally have to start and end with this theme, so it will solve decision for you.

Example (because examples are always cool and I enjoy boring people):

In my own work, the core theme is about 'friendship' or 'trust in your friends', cliched that may be.

My opening chapter starts 'in media res', right in the action, to show a couple of amazing friends working together for their goal. It might be exciting, but thats not my primary goal. I start with the action because I want to show an amazing group of friends, everything else is secondary (still important!, but you know). I could've also started with them becoming friends (which would've been a much slower start), but my plot is more about trust and being friends instead of making/finding them, so I decided against it when I had to chose between those options. If there were more characters joining this group of friends later on, I'd have definitely chosen the slower start as I would need to make sure to understand why these characters are friends to begin with. In my current work, thats not the most important thing for the reader to get. Understanding they are friends is more important than understanding why they are. That's why I start with them being friends.

My story ends with the main character betraying his friends to further his own goal and failing, while his (former distrusting and egomaniac) nemesis triumphs, as she surprises him by putting all of her faith into her allies (which she was never able to do before), putting literally her life in the hands of others.

It's not the most brilliant idea, but I hope the reasoning behind choosing the beginning and the end of the work is understandable. Once you realize what your plot is really about, finding your start and end is the easiest and most natural thing, no checklist needed.

3

Start with a wind blowing through the normal world

As others have stated, you need to start in the normal world because we need to understand who the main character is, how they live, what they love, what they are capable of, etc. in order to understand what is at stake as the story unfolds.

At the same time, the reader is not going to sit still for scenes of the hero brushing their teeth and reading the newspaper.

So you start with a wind blowing through the normal world, a hint that there is a disturbance coming. In The Grapes of Wrath we start with people going about their normal business, but with a wind (literally) blowing fine dust around that coats everything. At the same time we learn what normal life is like and we see that there is a disruption of normal life coming.

In A Long Expected Party, which others have cited, there is a lot of description of the shire and its life, but it is suffused with a gentle sense of unease -- something is in the wind.

The notions of starting in the normal world and starting in medias res are often seen as in opposition to each other, but if you start with a wind blowing through the normal world, you do both.

Fiction essentially runs on promise: the promise that something interesting is going to happen soon. You don't have to start with an immediate action scene -- one in which we don't know who is fighting who or why or what is at stake -- you can start in the middle of that first hint of disturbance in the normal life of character and their community.

How long you have to spend there, though, varies greatly from story to story. In some cases, you can establish the normal world in a few paragraphs, because it is a normal world we have all seen before. Genre fiction is essentially fiction in which several aspects of the story are predetermined by the genre definition. This allows the storyteller to get on with the story quicker. Part of each genre and subgenre is a base definition of normal world which your story then only needs to invoke and modify for your needs. Got a knights and damsels story to tell? Start off with a tournament. We instantly know the location and the rules of the game. Introduce the unknown knight with the blank shield. A wind is blowing through the normal world.

But whether it takes a paragraph or fifty pages, starting with a wind blowing through the normal world and you will provide both the promise of excitement to come and the necessary background that the reader needs to understand the story when it gets going.

2

Every recipe has a reason.

The Heroe's Journey and the starting in the ordinary world has a very simple reason: It works.

Notice how it is especially used in fiction and SciFi, because the gombdoggle exchange blaster showacks with the Truklacks in a huge Kugla ship at the edge of the Irofan space is completely incomprehensible unless you've introduced these elements first.

The ordinary world helps the reader to orient himself, to understand who the hero and a few other characters are, where the story is set, what the environment and the rules of your world are.

It also makes the reader relate to the protagonist and to understand why the extraordinary that your story is about affects him so deeply. You need to somehow take the reader on the journey, and easing them into it is the most reliable way to do so.

0

I'm going to suggest folding in "normal" over the course of the story, not doing a big info dump. I would also warn against, when incorporating it, doing something like "When little Susie was younger, bigger kids seemed nicer, but not now!", since it doesn't feel as organic.

If you want a good example, Log Horizon is a story where people are transported to a fantasy world based on an MMO, perhaps the biggest possible "inciting incident," since it is the biggest change possible (their bodies, world, and economy have suddenly changed). What sets it apart from it's contemporaries is that it starts off with an action scene in the middle of the first arc that hints at the inciting incident, then reintroduces us to the new setting with some off-hand remarks about how this is "slightly different" than what they were expecting since it was originally a game world to them (i.e., thinking of skills instead of clicking on them) with only one mention of an incident, then using real-world holidays and brief mentions of "the incident" as the only real mention of the normal world until that outside world becomes relevant to the story, when we get a few discussions and a dream sequence.

A New Hope has a much shorter establishment, also not in the beginning of the story, that establishes Luke's normal life as a farm boy after the main conflict has already been introduced.

Many detective novels start with the main character hanging in their office, then getting a call or a letter or a visitor that kickstarts the mystery. Since you have a more grounded story, a good way to establish the MC's normal in an organic and chronologic way (if you're into that) is to start off the morning of or at most the day before the first day of school. You can use this time to lay the groundwork of who the character is, what they want, and foreshadow the eventual conflict.

0

Not an answer here, but a point--the inciting incident is what starts the protagonist on a journey. It can mark the ActI/ActII boundary in screenwriting.

It does not need to be the first plot point in the story. There can be over a dozen plot 'points' that are named and recognized--the hook is one of the early ones and happens before the inciting incident.

I think many of us as we begin writing confuse the hook with the inciting incident. they are not the same.

One other structure not mentioned--the structure of starting with 'the previous crisis' ala James Bond. Each movie opens in media res with the last mission, the climax of Bond's last case, and him succeeding.

That is a contract and a prologue and a hook and a normal world all in one.

Bond then goes to meet M and Q and get his next assignment. The inciting incident is the bad thing that the villain did, which Bond responds to on his next journey.

This approach isn't used in fantasy, but it does help a person think about these plot points a little more broadly.

  • Being a spy is Bond's normal world. That is what those opening sequences are telling us. Being a spy is what he does, who he is. His call to adventure -- every single bloody time -- is when he starts to fall for the bimbo he is bedding and has to rescue her from the bad guy. – user16226 Sep 16 at 17:43
  • @MarkBaker :) I think I said that? (Minus the bimbo.) See third-to-last paragraph. The distinction with Bond (a spy thriller) is we start at the climax of 'the last mission' to introduce the world. – DPT Sep 16 at 17:50
  • Yeah I think you're right right here. I was confusing my hook with my inciting incident. In my world, the school is normal. Where as the inciting incident (where something abnormal is introduced in the plot) actually does happen later – klippy Sep 17 at 7:41

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