Inventing Reality: A Guide to Writing Science Fiction

Inciting incident

A vital part of your story is the opening lines, also known as the inciting incident. In this section of your story, we learn who the main character is, the central problem facing him and a little about the setting.

For example, in the “Star Trek: The Original Series” episode “The Doomsday Machine” (written by Norman Spinrad), the opening section reveals that Captain Kirk (the main character) is trying to determine what destroyed another starship, which in turn likely poses a threat to his own ship (the central problem), while in deep space, specifically near solar system L-374 (setting).

If the inciting incident fails to be interesting, the audience almost certainly will stop reading or watching. Some writers pay so much attention to this section of the story that it’s far more interesting than the rest of the story – yet despite diminishing returns, readers or television viewers keep on with the tale just because the opening was so gripping.

When writing the opening of your story, follow these guidelines:
n Start the story in media res, or “in the middle” - “The Doomsday Machine” doesn’t start with the starship Kirk is looking for engaged in the battle that results in its destruction. That would delay us from being the main character and result in less dramatic tension. Dispensing with the story’s background and starting “in the middle” has been a time-honored way of telling stories since Homer’s “The Iliad”.
n Introduce a crisis that affects the main character - This jolt sets the story in motion. For readers, finding out how this problem will be resolved is the reason to keep turning the page. In “The Doomsday Machine,” Kirk’s capable friend is in charge of the destroyed starship; if something can destroy his friend’s ship, then he knows he’s also in trouble.
n Present a “challenge of the unknown” - That your main character facing something thought impossible is fundamental in science fiction plots. The exoticness of an alien locale or an extrapolation of known science is part of what brings many people to this genre. In “The Doomsday Machine”, this exotic unknown is some force that can wreak havoc upon starships, the very device our future Earth depends upon to protect it.

You Do It
Page through the previous pieces you’ve written for these exercises. From them, draw an idea for a story. Now write the opening 100-150 words of the piece. Make sure you’ve introduced the main character, the central problem he faces and the setting in those first 100 words.