An inciting incident is the key event that sets the story in motion. It should be dramatic, and you want it to capture your readers' attention from the very beginning of your book.
The goal of an inciting incident is to startle readers out of their comfort zone.
In this article, we'll go over some qualities that make a good inciting incident and how you can use them to create an engaging first act for your story. Read until the end to get some examples of my favorite inciting incidents from famous stories.
What is an inciting incident?
Inciting incident definition: the event that establishes the main character or characters on their path and takes them through the narrative.
The Inciting incident sets the tone and direction of a story, so it should be something surprising or unexpected for your audience. This plot point is what starts the story's conflict and forces your protagonist out of their comfort zone.
Different kinds of inciting incidents for different types of stories
Every story should have a different kind of inciting moment that works for their story type.
Inciting incidents for dramas and romances
For dramas and romances, the inciting incident should be something that puts your protagonist in an emotionally charged situation. It could be a death, a betrayal, or even just an unexpected event that throws their life off course.
The goal of this type of inciting incident is to get your readers invested in your characters' emotions right away. They should feel like they're living the story alongside your protagonist from the very beginning.
Inciting incidents for comedies
For comedies, the inciting incident should be something unexpected and humorous, like a misunderstanding or an unlikely set of circumstances that leads to an awkward situation for your character. This kind of inciting incident will get your readers laughing along with you right away.
Inciting incidents for thrillers and mysteries
For thrillers and mysteries, the inciting incident should be something that throws your protagonist into a dangerous situation. It could be anything from a crime to an unexpected discovery or even just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This type of inciting incident will keep readers on their toes and create suspense right away. They'll want to know what happens next and how your protagonist is going to get out of their predicament.
Inciting incidents for sci-fi and fantasy
For sci-fi and fantasy stories, the inciting incident should be something that thrusts your protagonist into a strange new world. It could be anything from a portal to another dimension to an alien invasion or even just discovering magical powers they never knew they had.
This type of inciting incident will get your audience excited about exploring this mysterious new world along with your protagonist. It should be intriguing enough that readers will want to keep turning the pages and see what happens next.
When should the inciting incident occur in the story?
Make your inciting incident occur in the first quarter of your story
A good way to write a strong inciting incident is by starting early. If your primary goal should be to avoid a bored audience skip all the backstory and get right into the action of the story. Start as soon as possible.
This will make you seem more engaging to readers by giving them something substantial right away instead of waiting until later in your story or novel before getting into any action at all.
The Call to Adventure in the Hero's Journey
The inciting incident can also be known as the "call to adventure" for the main character–the event that pushes the character out of their comfort zone. According to the Hero's Journey circle (first theorized by Joseph Campbell), the call to adventure is the first event of the story (after establishing the "Ordinary World") and thus the earlier it occurs, the sooner your story can begin.
You could even make the inciting incident the opening scene of your story. Doing this will give your readers a more intense sense of anticipation and throw them into the story from the get-go.
5 rules for writing an inciting incident
Once you've decided on the type of inciting incident that works best for your story, here are five rules to help you write an effective one:
1. Raise questions for your audience
A great inciting incident in a story is not only exciting and moves the story forward, but it should manifest questions for the audience to keep them engaged.
Some questions your story's inciting incident could raise:
- What really happened?
- Who committed this crime and why?
- Why is he/she in jail now for something they didn't do, or what will happen to them now?
Questions like these make good inciting incidents because then when you finally reveal who did it, later on, there's a sense of relief. You can use the inciting incident as an opportunity to pose some questions about your story without giving too much away right upfront.
But don't just rely on raising random questions! Make sure that everything you ask has relevance to other aspects of the story such as character motivation, theme, or plot twists near the end.
2. Set the tone for your story
The inciting incident should be the moment that sets the tone for the rest of your story. It's what will determine whether or not readers are interested in continuing on to see how everything plays out.
Your inciting incident should have a certain level of intensity that sets up expectations for what’s to come and gives a glimpse into where the plot is heading.
It should also provide context as to why your protagonist is on this journey, so make sure it has something specifically related to them and their own personal arc within the story.
3. Tie it to the themes of your story
Different types of stories have distinct values and the value of your story determines the inciting incident. A love story using the core scale of love vs. hatred will have an inciting event that looks very different than a fantasy-based adventure story. A thriller with a core value of life vs. a fate worse than death will certainly seem different from a love story.
A great inciting incident ties to one or more of the themes of the story.
Maybe a major theme of your story is "death is everywhere" so your inciting incident involves the protagonist's loved one dying unexpectedly. Or your story has a theme of "the excess of joy and pleasure" and the inciting incident occurs at a giant party that the protagonist attends.
Whatever themes you have in your story, make your inciting incident tied to the other components of it through the seems expressed.
4. Use your inciting incident to illustrate key aspects of the character(s)
An inciting event for a story is one of the most concise ways for an author to reveal crucial information about characters and their conflicts.
In fiction writing, an inciting incident is the pivotal moment that motivates a character to act. The way a character reacts to the inciting incident can reveal the character's personality, beliefs, and desires.
In a story with multiple characters, an inciting incident may involve one or more of these other characters in order to show how their reactions help reveal something about them. This is a good way to show each character's motivation for the story as the inciting incident launches all of them into action to begin the plot.
5. Create from your inciting incident some sense of urgency
A ticking clock set by the inciting incident can give the story a sense of urgency.
The protagonist is running out of time to solve this problem, and this will create tension that makes readers want to find out what happens next.
This can be done by using other short-term stakes like money or resources that are dwindling quickly as well as looming deadlines for getting on with life's plans when something disrupts them.
In some stories, such an event may not have even happened yet but it has already disrupted everything in their lives–this creates a foreboding feeling for the audience who knows consequences could come at any moment without warning if they don't take action soon.
Setting up these types of storylines helps the inciting incident become more effective because there's less need for creating higher stakes since there is a hard deadline for losing everything. Not only is the antagonist causing the conflict for the protagonist, but so is the element of time.
Inciting Incident Examples
Below are a few inciting incident examples from my favorite stories.
The Hunger Games - Katniss's sister's name is drawn to compete in the Hunger Games
The inciting incident for the first Hunger Games novel is the drawing of Katniss's sister's name to compete in the deadly Hunger Games which is essentially a death sentence for her.
It's very quick, but in this short scene we get a major character trait from Katniss–she loves her sister enough that she would die for her–and this spurs Katniss to take agency over the situation and volunteer herself to compete instead to save her sister.
This inciting incident is also the opening scene of the book, so it draws the reader in from the start and holds on to them throughout the story.
Another great thing about this inciting incident is that it involves one of the major themes of the story which is the power and oppression of the government of Panem over its districts. This inciting incident is the catalyst of the rest of the story (including the two sequels) as Katniss and her friends rebel against President Snow and his totalitarian regime.
The Matrix - Trinity makes contact with Neo
The inciting incident for Neo in the Matrix is when Trinity contacts Neo for the first time. The start of the story is marked by this event, which serves as the catalyst for Neo's entrance into a chain of events that will conclude with him being ejected from the Matrix.
This inciting develops a sense of urgency for Neo as he becomes tenser with Agents following him and he develops the need to escape their clutches and break free from this mental prison.
It is only through this inciting incident that Neo starts to become aware of his true reality which he has been living under for years. This whole first scene acts as an introduction to what kind of dystopian world they live in, but after watching even more scenes, viewers realize there's much more than meets the eye.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - Hagrid tells Harry he's a wizard
One of the most famous catalysts in literature is Hagrid telling Harry Potter he is a wizard. This is where Harry really starts his journey. This inciting incident fully completely absorbs the reader, sets the main plot in motion in action, and involves a relatively significant revelation for Harry.
The inciting incident radically upsets the protagonist's life and throws Harry into a new world–the wizarding world–where he is an outsider and has to think differently in order to survive. He now has to learn magic and watch out for a new enemy that is seeking revenge on Harry for something that happened in the past.
This scene also develops a sense of urgency in Harry as he has to enter the magic world by September 1st–the day he is supposed to set off for Hogwarts. He has to make a choice whether to stay in the Muggle world with the Dursleys which he is familiar (even though also miserable) or take the plunge into the magical world where he doesn't know anything and grow as a person.
The inciting incident is the event that pushes your protagonist into a new world and captures your reader's attention. It should raise questions for the audience, and set up the story’s themes. When writing your inciting incident, make sure it gives the protagonist a sense of urgency and also reveals something about who they really are.