Hook and Inciting Incident: The Power Couple of the “Must Read Now”

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

When I set out to write a “body of work,” I didn’t intend a “string of failed proposals” to define its completion. I had hoped to leave a legacy of, well, you know. Actual written novels.

Yet it was time to try again. From a fresh page, my cursor blinked at me; I cursed and blinked right back. Where to go from here?

My attention strayed to my bookcases—in particular, the way I’d organized them. The one on the left holds a couple hundred new and used novels that piqued my interest. I plan to read them someday.

The bookcase on the right holds a couple hundred new and used books that piqued my interest and which I’d promptly read.

It seemed worth my time to determine what made the books on the right “must-read-nows.” I don’t want one of my titles to languish on someone’s left-hand bookcase, where more urgent reads will find a way to slip ahead in line, and where the sum total of the sale is the $1.15 that was banked toward earning out my advance. A great read is certainly great whenever it is read, but “someday” may be dangerously close to “out of print,” a time when discussion, review, or word-of-mouth recommendation can no longer help drive sales.

It is important to be read. I want my novels to be in the right bookcase. How about you?

I assessed the books I’d gobbled as if choosing them for the first time: reading the back-cover copy, where I could find the inciting incident that would suggest the type of story, and then opening lines, where the prose had a chance to set its hook. Some results from my “right bookcase study” are below. Red type signifies what about each of them said I have to read this now.

For this exercise, I set aside one hook that can be particularly compelling—buzz—since it did not emanate from the work itself. The following examples hooked me all on their own, whether through opening lines that begged my continued interest, an inciting incident from the back-cover copy that raised a question to which I needed the answer—or, in some cases, both. I dove right in because I was hooked.

These examples will address a question from WU commenter Cheryl O’Donovan on my last post, “Identifying and Crafting Your Inciting Incident”, who asked whether hook and inciting incident are the same thing. The answer: sometimes. More on that at the end of the post.

More often they’re a power couple that can work to hook readers and keep their eyes trained on your pages. As with any relationship, it can succeed in a number of ways. Here is personal proof from my right bookshelf.


The couple that stands united

In these first examples, the thematic tie between opening hook and inciting incident is so strong that one reinforces and magnifies the effect of the other. The opening lines provide a teaser for the questions that the inciting incident will later pose.

1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

[This opening is from chapter one, after a prologue which begins, “It was predictable, in hindsight…”]

On December 7, 2059, Emilio Sandoz was released from the isolation ward of Salvator Mundi Hospital in the middle of the night and transported in a bread van to the Jesuit Residence at Number 5 Borgo Santo Spirito, a few minutes’ walk across St. Pete’s Square from the Vatican. The next day, ignoring shouted questions and howls of journalist outrage as he read, a Jesuit spokesman issued a short statement to the frustrated and angry media mob that had gathered outside Number 5’s massive front door.

“To the best of our knowledge, Father Emilio Sandoz is the sole survivor of the Jesuit mission to Rakhat. Once again, we extend our thanks to the U.N., to the Contact Consortium and to the Asteroid Mining Division of OhBayashi Corporation for making the return of Father Sandoz possible. We have no additional information regarding the fate of the Contact Consortiums’s crew members; they are in our prayers. Father Sandoz is too ill to question at this time and his recovery is expected to take months. Until then, there can be no further comment on the Jesuit mission or on the Contact Consortium’s allegation regarding Father Sandoz’s conduct on Rakhat.”

This was simply to buy time.

Honestly, I hate to cut off this opening, even here. The next paragraph is a doozy, and every single paragraph thereafter draws you deeper into this story’s frame. What continues to unfold on the page and the promise of what is to come create a winch that even while re-reading draws me in with renewed appreciation.

Opening hook: unique perspective, escalating intrigue, extreme personal and public stakes suggested, strong Q: What happened?

When a motley crew of agnostics, true believers, and misfits becomes the first to explore the Alpha Centauri world of Rakhat, their challenges lead to disastrous results, leaving only one survivor—and he, in the story’s opening frame, is too traumatized to tell the tale.

Inciting Incident hook: Just as strong for me, in all the same ways.


2. The Girls by Lori Lansens

I have never looked into my sister’s eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved. And, if such things were to be, I’d live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially.

Opening hook: Unusual perspective through deep point of view, engaging character, voice.

Approaching their 30th birthday, sisters, best friends, and confidantes Rose and Ruby Darlen are the oldest living craniopagus twins. When Rose, the bookish sister, sets out to write her autobiography, it inevitably becomes the story of her short but extraordinary life with Ruby, the beautiful one—from obstacles they had no choice but to face together, to fundamental joys, to a deep and abiding love.

Inciting incident hook: Promises the same.


3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Opening hook: Powerful question raised, unusual perspective. 

In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls’ school in Grosse Pointe, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry blond clasmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them—along with Callie’s failure to develop—leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, she is not really a girl at all.

Inciting incident hook: Same, and somehow written so it made me suck in a breath.


The couple that supplements each other

In marriage as in life, an even stronger relationship can be built when each part of the power couple contributes something different to the whole. In these examples, opening lines and inciting incident hook differently, by raising their own yet equally compelling questions.

4. Lottery, Patricia Wood

My name is Perry L. Crandall and I am not retarded.

Gram always told me the L stood for Lucky.

“Mister Perry Lucky Crandall, quit your bellyaching!” she would scold. “You got two good eyes, two good legs, and you’re honest as the day is long.” She always called me lucky and honest.

Being honest means you don’t know any better.

Opening hook: Two engaging characters, voice.

After Gram dies, Perry L. Crandall, IQ 76, is left orphaned and bereft at the age of thirty-one. But when his weekly Washington State Lottery ticket wins him 12 million dollars, he suddenly finds he has more family than he knows what to do with.

Inciting incident hook: Unique perspective, strong story challenge for a (potentially) disadvantaged character.


5. The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley

Late that night—on our last night—we lay in awe, mesmerized again by the Perseid meteor showers as they transformed stardust into streamers of light. They were an anniversary of sorts for us, a summertime event Elle and I both cherished, and we fell asleep on the widow’s walk of our old house, my beautiful wife curled up beside me, her head resting in the crook of my arm.

If only I’d stayed home in the morning—if only I’d looked over at Elle and realized nothing I could or would ever do was more important than keeping her safe. If only—Jesus—

Opening hook: Impending doom for lovers, that tortured “Jesus” in the second paragraph.

When a tragic accident leaves Elle brain-dead, Matt is devastated. Though he cannot bear losing her, he knows his wife, a thoughtful and adventurous scientist, feared only one thing—a slow death. Just before Matt agrees to remove Elle from life support, the doctors discover she is pregnant. Matt’s clear-cut decision becomes an impossible choice.

Inciting incident hook: Ripped-from-the-headlines relevance, life-or-death stakes, a quandary I must watch play out.


6. My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

In my first memory, I am three years old and I am trying to kill my sister.

Opening hook: Unusual perspective.

Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood, a role she has never challenged…until now.

Inciting incident hook: A character’s deep desire to live on her own terms, raises strong question, ripped-from-the-headlines relevance.


The couple that compensates for one another

This power couple intuitively makes up for each other’s weaknesses. I found it interesting to note how powerful the hook and the inciting incident could be in their own right. In this first example, the inciting incident is fine, but does not necessarily promise a riveting read. The prose, on the other hand, is entertaining enough to make up for it.

Girls’ Poker Night by Jill A. Davis

Happy endings aren’t for cowards. I’ve been alive for how many years, and I’ve just figured that one out.

Opening hook: Voice. I want to hang out with this character.

When irreverent lifestyle columnist Ruby Capote falls for her boss, and he wants her to stop being quippy and clever and become the writer and the woman he knows she can be, Ruby turns to the support of her poker night friends.

Inciting incident: This one fell flat for me, having failed to raise a gripping question, but the opening lines were so inviting that I hopped aboard and read it through.


Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon

My name is Simon Connolly. You may have heard of my son, Jake. Most people have, but they don’t know him. Not really.

As for me, they don’t know me, either. I’m not even sure why I’m still here. I can barely stand up, let alone venture beyond the front door. If I let such a simple effort beat me, I’m not sure what’s left.

This opening, from the prologue, is lukewarm for me. If I had read this opening alone, I probably wouldn’t have purchased the book. But wait till you read the inciting incident:

When stay-at-home dad Simon Connolly receives a text saying there has been a shooting at the high school, he is forced to wait at the rendezvous point with scores of other anxious parents as, one by one, they are reunited with their children. Their numbers dwindle until Simon sits alone. His son is the only child missing, inspiring Simon’s obsessive search for his son and deep introspection about this worthiness as a parent.

Inciting incident hook: Immediacy, relevance, life-or-death stakes, parent’s worst nightmare

This inciting incident was enough to span the lukewarm prologue and the backstory first chapter, which takes place eight months before Jake’s birth. Why? Because I. Had. To. Know. The readers who put it on the New York Times bestseller list seem to agree with me.


Cheryl, here’s your answer

To answer Cheryl’s question, are the inciting incident and the hook the same thing? If you’re talking about a query letter, probably, because within its limited word count, and if positioned first, the inciting incident will raise the story question that hooks an agent’s interest. Make sure to carefully craft your inciting incident so that it raises a powerful question.

But take equal care with the opening lines of your manuscript, as their ability to lure the reader ever deeper will likely lead to an immediate desire to read.

In regard to your typical reader’s experience, though, the answer is no, they are not the same thing. The hook is what invites the reader into the story in the opening lines, and then keeps them reading until the inciting incident unfolds. That event will inspire the protagonist to set a goal, and the associated story question will take over, keeping the reader hooked until that question is addressed at the end of the story.

Like all things literary, hook is subjective, so I want to hear from you! Setting buzz aside, share one of your must-read-nows. Was it the inciting incident promised by the back-cover copy, the hook of the opening lines, or both that inspired you to dive right in?

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About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads writing workshops and retreats, and is a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. Learn more on Kathryn's website.