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How to start a story after the inciting incident?

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My novel starts with the three heroes joining a cattle drive. When they talk among themselves, it's obvious that they have some kind of hidden agenda. We'll learn more about thier secret mission over time.

In this story, the inciting incident, refusal of the call, and start of the quest are all backstory. I probably shouldn't be trying to break the rules this soon in my writing career, but I'm sure I've seen stories that start with the hero's mission in progress.

What's the best way to pull that off?

(This is similar to Is starting In Media Res compatible with a Three-Act Structure?, but even that author is willing to put the inciting incident at the start of the story).

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In this story, the inciting incident, refusal of the call, and start of the quest are all backstory.

Are you sure? You say they are heroes. They have set out on a secret mission. But is that a departure from their normal world? Or is that what these heros do for a living. Perhaps going on secret missions while posing as cowboys is the normal life for these characters, which is why it seems right to you to start your story there. Maybe it is the thing that happens next that makes them say, Oh oh! This is not an ordinary secret mission disguised as cattle drive. Something is different this time.

The inciting incident of a story is the thing that sets the protagonist on a course for a conflict of values which, in the mirror moment, in the inmost cave, they are finally going to have to face and make a great life-altering decision. The inciting incident, the call to adventure, matters because it prefigures that great life-altering decision. We need it because we need to know what is a stake -- what values are in the balance.

But that moment does not necessarily correspond with the start of the the protagonist's journey. Taking the journey may be very much a normal world thing for the protagonist -- not something that prefigures a great life-altering decision. Those moments can also happen in the middle of a journey. The inciting incident in the life of St. Paul did not happen in Jerusalem but on the road to Damascus.

I'm not saying that a story can't start after the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, and the crossing of the first threshold, though those things will need to be filled in if it does. But don't assume either that a story that begins in the middle of a journey must be beginning after the crossing of the threshold. That event might still be down the road.

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I highly recomend reading the novel "Holes" (the 2003 film is probably the only film to break the "book was better" rule, being 99% faithful, but I still recommend a read through). Long story short, the novel basically has three stories running through out, and the first starts in media res and the "inciting incident" of that first story is told concurrently with the present day first story and flashback second story. Later a 3rd entirely seperate flashback story expands upon a minor plot point mentioned in the begining.

With In Media Res stories, your "Inciting Incident" is not going to be the backstory, but the events that happen as a result of the heroes meeting up. Consider Star Wars (A New Hope) which opens with Vader's ship attacking Leia. The inciting incident isn't "Leia has the Death Star plans" and we don't get to see that story for nearly 40 years. Rather it's Luke receiving her "Help Me Obi-Wan Kenobi" while repairing R2-D2 (and they are focused on so heavily because at the time, George Lucas was homaging the Japanese film "Hidden Fortress" which is an epic Jidi Geki (lit. Period Piece, basically a Samurai Film. Also the origin of the word "Jedi") told from the point of view of the comic relief duo.).

Another film you should look for inspiration is Rashamon (also a Japanese film, but I you've probably seen the basic plot... Hollywood loved this film). Here, the story starts almost at the end, with a priest and a wood carver, reflecting on a disturbing series of events that took place. A samurai was recently murdered and at the trial, three separate witnesses tell an incompatible tale of events leading up to the murder. Not unusual accept each witness confesses that they and they alone killed the samurai (and one witness is supposedly the spirit of the samurai himself!).

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ANSWER:

Best way to pull off an unusual structure is with literary writing, or with developing characters who are compelling on their own.

  1. In Lolita, the seminal events are backstory. We open in the story at the trial of a child-molester, the protagonist. Why does it work? Because he is fascinating! Write fascinating characters, and you can mix up the structure and the rules in general.

  2. Literary novels tend to have more voice, and they also do not adhere to the typical structures. If you want to play outside of structure, you can develop your literary voice. See, for example, 1984. Less about a hero journey and more about life under a repressive regime and the breaking of a soul.

So, you have a couple choices. But, there's a reason the three act structure is used--it's fairly easy to follow, and as a result we know where we are as the story proceeds. If you decide to go a different route, you'll need to develop other skills in your story telling toolkit. Like voice and character development.

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