The Inciting Incident: 5 Tips For Starting Your Story With a Bang
An inciting incident is the key event that sets the story or novel 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.
Inciting incidents set the tone and direction of a story, so they should be something surprising or unexpected for your reader. 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.
For example, in your main character (protagonist) is confronted with an inciting incident that forces them to make a big decision. This would be the perfect inciting incident for any kind of story involving romance or drama because it creates tension between two characters and propels the protagonist into action.
Another good example of an inciting incident is when your main character (protagonist) experiences something out of their ordinary routine that makes them think differently about what they want from life. This type of inciting incident could work well within many different genres including mystery novels, thrillers, or crime stories.
Novels can have more time to develop plot points - which means you can use multiple types of incidents as you would have if writing a short story. An inciting incident occurs when the protagonist is introduced to something completely new and exciting, along with another form of provoking event such as when your character encounters a tragedy that forces them to reconsider their life goals and reasons for living in general.
5 Tips on how to write an inciting incident
1. 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 bored readers skip all the backstory and get right into the action of the novel. Start as soon as possible–within the first few pages to keep your reader's attention.
The first quarter of your story should include this scene, or it could even begin 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 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 Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey circle, 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.
2. Raise questions for your reader from the inciting incident
A great inciting incident in a story is not only exciting and moves the story forward, but it should manifest questions for the reader to keep on reading. Raised questions in a story from the inciting incident are one of the major things that keeps readers from putting it down.
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 (more on those below).
3. Make the inciting incident tied 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.
Example: In Star Wars: A New Hope, the inciting incident is R2-D2 receiving the Death Star plans from Princess Leia as their ship is invaded by Imperial Stormtroopers and Darth Vader. One of the major themes of the original trilogy of Star Wars is fighting against a totalitarian and oppressive regime of government (the Empire). The inciting incident shows the massive threat of the Empire by showcasing the mighty Star Destroyer ship chasing after the rebellion's tiny Corellian vessel, the Stormtroopers demolishing the rebellion fighters in the ship, and the narrow escape of C-3PO and R2-D2 at the end.
4. Use your inciting incident to illustrate key aspects of the character(s)
An inciting event in a novel 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 event 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.
The reader must understand how this conflict will affect not only the protagonist but other characters in order to become hooked on reading further. This includes understanding both sides of any dilemma presented by the story as well as showing empathy for all involved parties so that readers themselves want to take action against injustice displayed by having read it.
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 readers who know 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. It should raise questions for readers, 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. What is your favorite inciting incident from a story?