Here you are, living your typical work-a-day life. You follow a routine. You know what to expect. Things are comfortable. Then down swings that celestial hammer and knocks you off your path. You get fired. Open a magic door. Let a stranger into your car. Suddenly you stagger forward from your backstory and into your adventure.
In fiction, inciting incidents are the events that disrupt the normal existence of your protagonist and sets them on their quest. They create urgency and raise questions. They grab our attention and make us want to see what happens next.
Thank goodness Bilbo ran after the Dwarves and Lucy explored that wardrobe. Otherwise, we would spend hundreds of pages just watching Bilbo eat and some bored kids waiting out WWII in the countryside.
Inciting incidents don’t have to be the first scene of your story, but they should happen early. Some say they should occur within the first ten pages of the book. Others say within the first quarter. The longer you take, the more you risk your reader losing interest and setting down your story before it gets good.
Inciting Incidents Can Be:
- Positive or negative events
- The outcome of a character’s actions (choice)
- Caused by chance
- Unclear whether something happened by choice or chance
Inciting Incident Multitasking
Why not get as much value from this scene as possible? With some planning, your inciting incident can:
- Create the core problem the story needs to resolve
- Spark the conflict between your antagonist and protagonist
- Reveal essential facets of your main character
- Set your readers’ expectations for the story
- Provide character motivation
- Crank up the tension and urgency
- Exploit your protagonist’s inner conflicts
- Raise questions
- Stimulate character growth/change that will last throughout the story
- Set the tone of the tale
Inciting Incident Pointers
- Should be life-changing events
(Picking up that hitchhiker and dropping her off at the bus station and continuing on your way to work isn’t a strong inciting incident. If the hitchhiker compels you to run away and join her doomsday cult... well, what happens next??)
- Often are a result of external forces
- Should set the stage for a believable (but not obvious) story ending
This was just a brief overview of a much-discussed topic. For further reading, check out K.M. Weiland’s blog post, Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is.