Just make sure it's not a waste, mmkay?
Unless you're writing middle grade, your novel won't be done at 50K. And if you're writing adult SF/F, that could quite realistically be less than half your project. But these first 50K, although they don't bring you to the finish line, are SO important. Unfortunately, many writers (even those of us who have been doing this for a while) don't write chapter one where it should actually start. We might even get fifty or a hundred pages into a story before we realize OOPS I STARTED IN THE WRONG PLACE. Again. *le sigh*
Sound familiar? You're not alone. But there is a way you can better your chances of nailing it on the first try with just a bit of pre-planning -- knowing the difference between your inciting incident and your catalyst.
I've seen far too many aspiring authors interchange these terms as if they are the same thing. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING. Just like a query letter is not a synopsis, the inciting incident is not the catalyst.
The inciting incident is your opening. It introduces the reader to your characters and their world, and while doing so, something big happens. Not always big in a physical sense, but to the viewpoint character, something relatively big has happened in his/her life by the end of chapter one. This event is related to the catalyst (and to the plot in general) but it is NOT the same thing.
It varies depending on the length of your novel, but in general, the catalyst appears somewhere between pages 25 and 50. In my latest finished novel, Summer Hoax (which is YA with a word count around 75K), the catalyst has done its damage by page 31, at the end of chapter four.
Not chapter one. Chapter four. So what happened in between all that?
Chapter one: Inciting incident: On the last day of school, junior year, Ben tells Diana he is gay and that he needs her help with something. The lives of both Diana and Ben have changed at this point, no matter what happens next. Diana cannot unlearn what Ben has revealed to her, Ben cannot untell her his secret, and it is not a small thing. Your opening shows the point of change. Always.
Chapter two: Set-up: We learn some details about Diana that clue us in as to why Ben might be interested in seeking her help specifically, even if she herself doesn't quite see it yet. Then his "something" is revealed--he wants Diana to act as his fake girlfriend. She says no.
(Side point: Don't cringe at the term "set-up." I know many writers out there would like you to believe that anything related to the phrase "set-up" is a bad thing, worthy only of the delete key. It's only bad if you do it wrong. I'll explain this more in a future post.)
It wouldn't be much of a story if Diana said yes right away, but that is not the sole reason for her negative response. Diana acting as Ben's fake girlfriend is the main idea of the plot. If she said yes to it in chapter two, even if they argued for a bit first and then she agreed to it, there would be no room for a catalyst.
So what exactly is the catalyst? At the time Diana tells him no in chapter two, she thoroughly believes she is done with Ben and his ridiculous scheme. She has the rest of the summer now to do what she wants, not concerning herself with him and his problem ever again.
Insert catalyst here. Without the catalyst, the plot would fail. This is what pushes the main character full-throttle into a serious decision-making process. That next step in the story is called "the debate", and it can't happen without the thrust of the catalyst.
Chapter three: Catalyst: Diana's parents inform her that they've bought her a car, BUT she can't have it until the end of summer, AFTER she has proven she can earn a steady paycheck. Now she needs a job -- one she can reasonably walk to until she gets her car -- and it turns out the best thing available is the same place where Ben works.
Coincidence? Not at all. As the creator of the story, I totally did that on purpose, but for Diana, this is basically Hell. She can't just ignore Ben and his issue anymore, and he's not going to pass up the opportunity to show her why it would be beneficial for her to go along with his idea. Once Diana and Ben are working together she is forced to make a real decision, not just a gut reaction like we saw in chapter two.
The catalyst has done its job by page 31 (after she is hired in chapter four), clearly seen by the final paragraph:
No problem there, I almost said, then silently repeated I need this job, I need this job, I need this job, until the fact that I would be working alongside Ben all summer, after thinking I'd get a break from him, faded into the backdrop.
And then we move on to the debate. Etc, etc, etc, the end.
Before clarifying the point of this post with a well-known example, I'd like to mention a few things about structure and how it relates to querying agents.
Knowing your inciting incident, your catalyst, your midpoint, and your "all is lost" moment is key to writing a query letter that feels like it flows naturally from one plot point to the next. And your inciting incident MUST be clearly presented by the end of chapter one. Why? Because many agents ask for your first chapter as "sample pages" along with your query letter. If it doesn't show them how the viewpoint character's life has changed, there really isn't much reason to keep reading. The same is true for your general reading audience, who are even less patient/ understanding than agents.
If your catalyst is clear in the 25 - 50-page zone, somewhere around chapter three, then you're giving yourself yet another leg-up. When an agent asks for a partial manuscript, it is (usually) either the first 30 pages, the first 50 pages, or the first three chapters. If you're serious about getting your work published, do yourself a favor and keep to a structure that caters to your audience, the first members of which are the agents you query.
Also, writing a logline before you start writing your novel will help you stay focused on what the main point of the story is, which will in turn help you figure out what your inciting incident and catalyst should be.
Movie time! Why do I use movies as examples so much? Easy. Hollywood has a much better handle on all of this than the literary world. Screenwriters understand the importance of structure in storytelling, and I'm really not sure why novelists fight it so much. A story is a story is a story. Make your story a good one by using a structure that has been proven effective in the most challenging industry there is -- film.
Logline: A computer hacker discovers the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.
Inciting incident/opening: Trinity's in trouble. Whoa, what? Trinity isn't the main character. Why are we focused on her in the beginning? Well, it's not really her that's important (yet), it's what she does and says. Neo and his role are heavily hinted at in dialogue both at the very beginning of the scene and the very end -- he is important, and now the bad guys are after him. So it's not Trinity's life that has penultimately changed in the inciting incident, but Neo's. Even though we don't officially meet him until the set-up.
Catalyst: Neo receives a package from Morpheus, the man who will give him answers to all his questions. He is informed of Morpheus' role by Trinity in the set-up, but not yet given a thrust until he is on the phone with him during the catalyst. He screws up (of course) and then the agents plant a bug in him... he can't deny this situation any longer; he's either in or out. But not before learning a bit more about what's really going on.
The debate comes next, which ends with the famous "red pill or blue pill" decision.
(Side point: The debate is ALWAYS going to end with the MC's decision to go forward with something that they'd been... well, debating. Heh. But just because the audience already knows it's going to happen doesn't mean that this "should I, shouldn't I?" period of the story is boring. In fact, this is one of the most exciting parts -- we know the really juicy stuff is right around the corner, and now that we also know the risks involved, we are foaming at the mouth in anticipation.)
Notice how both the inciting incident and the catalyst are related to the main point of the plot (as phrased in the logline), yet they both have different roles in the overall story.
The inciting incident is the MC's point of change, but they still have a chance to back out. The catalyst thrusts him/her into making one of the most important decisions of the entire story. No turning back after that. It's on.
So what are you waiting for? Get to writing that killer first chapter. But don't confuse your inciting incident with your catalyst and start the story too soon, and don't confuse your catalyst with your inciting incident and start the story too late. Make it just right, Baby Bear. Goldilocks will thank you for it.
If you're participating in NaNoWriMo this month (or even if you're not) and you found this post helpful, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!