Don’t rush to the inciting incident

From Nathan Bransford:

 Time for the Page Critique. First I’ll present the page without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to bankoferin, whose page is below:

Title: Proof of Love
Genre: Literary Fiction/Women’s Fiction

As Eliza entered her apartment, her phone buzzed impatiently in her back pocket. She pulled it out and glanced at the screen as she stepped out of her shoes. One new voicemail. She must have missed the call when she was underground in the subway, journeying back from a late dinner in Manhattan with Jackie and her new girlfriend. Eliza debated even listening to it; she was exhausted from uncomfortably witnessing a strange woman dote upon her friend. Not her friend. Her sponsor. Had she been jealous, of someone diverting attention normally reserved for her? Or of two people finding connection with each other?

She played the message on speaker while she undressed. With one leg out of her jeans, she froze when she heard an unmistakable voice, slow, soft, and strong. The voice of a ghost, from a life she no longer had.

“Eliza, hi, this is Owen. It’s Tuesday night, eight o’clock out here. I’m sorry I haven’t called sooner, we were hoping… well.” A deep breath crackled the line. “Your dad had a stroke. And he’d like to see you. Call me back anytime.”

Eliza slowly pulled her other leg out of her pants and circled slowly around the apartment, trying to breathe. She counted her inhale, one-two-three, and her exhale, one-two-three-four, like she was supposed to do when she wanted a drink. But instead of calming down, she felt dizzy and dashed to the bathroom to crouch over the toilet.

A lot of the pages I read in the course of my editing life feel like they’re the end result of misapplied feedback.

If I had to bet, the writer initially started the novel in a different place, but they either heard some writing advice that you have to grab the reader right away or received feedback that the opening was too slow. Eliza finding out her father had a stroke is the inciting incident where the plot kicks off, so the writer decided get there as fast as humanly possible with only some meager references to a dinner with Eliza’s sponsor to ham-handedly establish that Eliza is a) an alcoholic and b) single.

There’s no physical description to help us understand what her apartment is like (is she in a cramped three bedroom with five roommates in the Bronx or is she in a palatial Manhattan penthouse?), we don’t have any hints of what else might be going on in her life beyond alcoholism and singledom, and the news is followed by a cliched gesture explosion that doesn’t help us understand how specifically she’s thinking through this news or who Owen is.

If the previous opening was slow, the right solution was not to move the inciting incident to paragraph three. The author just needed a better mini-quest to show the protagonist in her element before the main plot kicks off. In other words, if there was a different opening before that didn’t work well, the right solution wasn’t to eliminate it, it was to fix the old opening to make it more interesting.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford