The Inciting Incident

character creation honing the craft plotting revision tips and tricks Aug 09, 2021

Post written by Katie Wall.

The phrase “inciting incident” is thrown around a lot in the writing world. But what actually is the inciting incident? And why is it important?

The inciting incident is the scene that is where/when something changes that sets off the cascade of the story.

In other words, the inciting incident is a turning point that forces the protagonist out of the status quo and propels them into their adventure.

So what do you need to know about writing a solid inciting incident?

Placement of the Inciting Incident

While in the past it was acceptable for the inciting incident to take place after pages and pages of a novel, today’s readers expect to be thrown into the action much more quickly. This means that your inciting incident needs to happen closer to the beginning of the book than it would have fifty years ago or you risk potential readers closing your book and picking up something else that starts more quickly.

You could think of your book like a line of dominoes. The story’s opening pages should give the reader a glimpse of the dominoes and then the inciting incident is that first domino falling over and starting this chain reaction—with growing tension!—that culminates in the final domino toppling over (the resolution).

Just like you have to make sure to line the dominoes up well to achieve the desired outcome, the elements of your story must be orchestrated so that your story is cohesive and compelling.

And just like if that first domino doesn’t fall right, if your inciting incident doesn’t hit the key elements it needs then you’ve already undermined how compelling your story can be.

Six Key Elements to Include

There are six key elements that you as the writer need to understand about your story so that you can make sure to weave them in for your reader. These elements are:

  1. What the story is about.
  2. Who the main characters are.
  3. Why the reader should care about the characters.
  4. What the point of the story is.
  5. Where the story is set.
  6. What the timeframe is for the story.

I talk a bit more about the importance of these elements in another blog post, but for this post I’d like to focus specifically on how they influence your inciting incident.

Writers often instinctively know that they need to introduce their main character(s) as well as the setting and the timeframe of the story. Less intuitive, it seems, is ensuring a solid understanding of the other three elements: what the story is about, why the reader should care about the characters, and what the point of the story is.

If you as a writer don’t know what message you are trying to convey through your story (the story guiding principle, or theme), then you will not be able to shape your story to actually communicate a clear and compelling message through the story.

Likewise, if you don’t invest time and energy into considering your protagonist’s motivations and how they will change over the course of the novel, you can’t expect that your reader will care about them. Readers are looking for characters they can identify with, and it’s highly unlikely that they will identify with someone who hasn’t been fully developed and who is passive instead of actively striving toward a goal.

Developing these six aspects of story and weaving them together in your first pages and inciting incident will make your story much more compelling.

Content of the Inciting Incident

How, then, do you know what the right content is for the inciting incident?

If you know the message you want to convey through the story, the goal your protagonist is striving for and why, and the overall emotional-level arc you want your protagonist to experience (meaning how they change over the course of the novel, not the plot events), then you can use that information to figure out where things irrevocably change.

Let’s take The Hunger Games as an example. Katniss’s goal is to keep her family safe. This has been her goal for a long time, and in the first pages Suzanne Collins gives us a clear picture of this goal and how Katniss has already made sacrifices and taken risks in order to accomplish it. When a new threat emerges in the form of her younger sister being selected as a tribute, Katniss’s action of volunteering in Prim’s place is an inevitable moment of change that comes organically out of the protagonist Collins introduced us to. This is such a compelling inciting incident because all six of those elements are strongly present.

For your novel's inciting incident, you need to figure out where that first domino in the chain of the story should be placed. The best content for an inciting incident captures that moment.

Conclusion

The inciting incident is a point of no return for your protagonist in that they are forced to take action that alters their life forever and catapults them into the action of the story. In order to write a compelling inciting incident, then, you need to develop the six key elements I listed above, so that you can use that knowledge to pick the right moment for your inciting incident and weave the elements together for your reader.

In a later blog post I will further discuss starting your story in the right place, so stay tuned for that!

Not sure if your inciting incident is cutting it? Sign up for my First Pages Evaluation service or join our First Pages Group Coaching Program and I’ll give you objective feedback as well as a solid plan for how to improve your pages. Want help developing the core elements of your story? Work with me in my Planning Help package.

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