Writers in the Storm

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Ignite Your Reader’s Imagination with the Inciting Incident

By Lynette M. Burrows

Photo of a stop sign and markings on the road at a forced turn, two-way crossroad in a rural countryside scene. Symbolic of the forced turn your protagonist takes in the inciting incident.

How do you, as a writer, capture your readers’ hearts and minds? With a spark that grabs the reader. No, that spark is not the first sentence, though it is important. The spark that grabs the reader is an inciting incident that ignites the reader’s imagination. Crafting the right inciting incident is crucial to laying the foundation for a can’t-stop-reading story. To create the best one for your story, you must understand what it is, why it’s a powerful piece of your story, and how to create one.

What is an Inciting Incident?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to incite means to move to action,stir up,spur on,urge on. So far, so good. But there’s more to what an inciting incident is. 

Let’s look at what some writing experts say the inciting incident is. 

Kathryn Craft at Writer Unboxed says: “A story exists because something happens in a character’s life—the inciting incident—that upsets her equilibrium and arouses her desire to restore balance.”

According to Sara Letourneau on DIYMFA it’s “the launching pad that thrusts a character into the conflict.”

Janice Hardy on Fiction University says, “The inciting event is the moment when something changes for the protagonist that draws them onto the path that is, or will become, the novel’s plot. If this moment didn’t happen, the story would not have happened.”

No matter which genre of fiction you write, it is a pivotal moment. It is when the protagonist is at the t-junction of her life. There is no continuing on the path she’s been on, at least in her mind there isn’t. She must turn onto an unfamiliar path. If she does not turn onto this path, the rest of the story either doesn’t happen or makes little sense.

Why it’s Important

The inciting incident often focuses on a smaller issue related to the big conflict of the story. This leads some writers to believe that the inciting incident is minor. 

It is not a minor event. 

I think Janice Hardy says it best, “If this moment didn’t happen, the story would not have happened.” The right inciting incident deepens the questions in your readers’ minds. It hints at problems to come. Often the protagonist misunderstands the meaning of the moment. Sometimes the reader also misunderstands. Sometimes the reader knows more than the protagonist. Either way, the reader wants to keep reading.

Photo of a young woman reading under the covers.


In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker is a young man living with his aunt and uncle on their farm. He dreams of a life of adventure, but accepts his uncle’s words that he must work another year on the farm first. 

While cleaning a droid his uncle bought, Luke discovers a message from a princess to an Obi Wan Kenobi. It sounds desperately important. So Luke must deliver the message. He leaves the farm in search of Obi Wan. 

It is that decision, that search, that takes Luke away from the farm at a crucial moment. It introduces Luke and the viewer to Obi Wan and the Force and the Rebellion. And it makes the viewer understand his choice when Luke returns to the farm and discovers his aunt and uncle are dead. By that time, the viewer must know what happens next. 

Note, if Luke hadn’t gone to find Obi Wan, he would have died too. Or Luke could have been in the field and escaped death, but he would never have learned about the Force and the Rebellion. Either way, the rest of the story wouldn’t happen.

Characteristics of an Effective Inciting Incident

  1. Story Specific: Link your inciting incident to your specific story problem. Let’s look at Star Wars: A New Hope again. If we had seen Luke working on the farm without a goal, he wouldn’t have wished for an adventure. And the viewer would not have linked the droid’s message to Luke’s need or desire for adventure. 
  2. Happens On the Page: The inciting incident must happen on the page, not in-between pages or in the past. The reader needs to experience the moment with the character. 
  3. Relevance, Impact, and Commitment: The inciting incident should directly affect the protagonist. It should also lead to the story’s central conflict. The impact on the protagonist should reveal an obstacle strong enough to create some level of commitment by the protagonist to resolve the issue.  
  4. Emotional Resonance: The inciting incident should evoke emotions within the protagonist and the reader. It could be a moment of joy, sorrow, anger, or fear, as long as it creates a strong emotional connection. The best inciting incident connects the reader to the protagonist and the protagonist’s problem.
  5. Introduce the Catalyst: Introduce the inciting incident in a way that disrupts the protagonist’s life. It can be a shocking event, a surprising revelation, or an unexpected encounter. The event should change the status quo such that the protagonist must make a change.
  6. Raise Questions: Your inciting incident should raise questions that need answers. Create a sense of intrigue or curiosity, a mystery, a conflict, or a problem the protagonist needs to overcome.
  7. A Logical Goal or Motivation: The incident should provide the protagonist with a logical goal or motivation. To accomplish this, make your protagonist’s goals, inner conflicts and external conflicts related and actionable. 
  8. Convey the Stakes: The stakes of the inciting incident won’t be the same as the stakes for the central story problem. Nonetheless, the consequences and urgency of the problem if the protagonist does not solve it should propel her forward.
  9. Ignite Action: Like the forced turn in the photograph at the top of this post, that goal or motivation propels them into action. It should give them a reason to overcome obstacles and drive the story forward. 
  10. Misunderstanding: There must be something that the protagonist doesn’t understand. (If your readers understand, they feel smart. If they also misunderstand, their sense of suspense grows.) The protagonist may think she knows what’s going on, but she doesn’t have the full picture. Often, the protagonist’s false belief leads to that misunderstanding. Moving through the story, the protagonist and the reader uncover the truth. That helps them learn about and resolve the story’s central story problem. 
  11. Mirroring or Foreshadowing: The strongest inciting incident mirrors the end of the story. Sometimes the easiest way to find this reflection is by writing the ending. Then you can go back and tweak the inciting incident so it shows an emotion or action that is an opposite of the ending. For example: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope isn’t a perfect example, but there is foreshadowing going on. The inciting incident shows us that Luke takes on the small adventure of finding Obi Wan. The ending shows he’s fully embraced the adventure of being a fighter pilot for the rebels. 

Where Does the Inciting Incident Go?

An inciting incident usually falls about halfway (10-15%) through the beginning. In a novel that would about the middle of the first act. Why not precisely halfway? It’s important not to force it. For pacing, it needs to fall close to that perfect halfway point. Yet, if the writer forces it, she may skip or cut important reader-character bonding moments. 

It takes a lot of skill and the right story for the inciting incident to begin a successful story. This doubles and triples the work your inciting incident must accomplish. Placed in the very first sentences of the story, it also becomes the hook. Hooking a reader isn’t simply a matter of writing a clever sentence or scene. A strong beginning introduces the setting, the main characters, the stakes, and a reason for your reader to relate to your protagonist and her goals. 

Placing the inciting incident midway through the beginning is important. That placement gives the writer time to make enough introductions that the reader isn’t confused and can’t stop turning pages. 

Should You Plot or Discover the Inciting Incident?

It doesn’t matter whether you plot the perfect inciting incident before writing or you discover it in one of your re-writes of the story. The best inciting incident is the one that fits your character and your story no matter when you create it. 

Need More Help?

Photo of a young man at a desk in a library, his laptop is open and the desk is cluttered with crumpled papers. He has his glasses resting on the laptop keyboard and is holding his head in his hands.
Young book writer writing in library

It may take a little study for you to understand the inciting incident well enough to create the best one for your story. How do you study it? By taking other stories apart. Take a movie or book that you love and divide it by time or by pages into sixths. (I suggest movies because typically they follow structure more rigorously. They also require a shorter time commitment than novels.) 

Re-read, or re-watch, the first one or two-sixths and the final one or two-sixths. Look specifically for an inciting incident and how it mirrors the ending. Pretty soon you’ll start noticing inciting incidents in all the movies you watch and books you read and especially the ones you write.

Final Words

The inciting incident’s job is to be the bridge between the opening scene and the core conflict of the novel. It transitions the protagonist into the main plot by giving them an interesting problem that leads to the bigger issues and themes of the novel.

Most readers don’t know what the parts of a story are. They don’t care about the names we give those parts. But readers are familiar with story structure because it is in nearly every successful story ever written. They expect to come across most, if not all, the parts we writers talk about in the same order that most stories follow. Why? Because they care about story. Just like you. 

What are your favorite your movie or book inciting incident? 

About Lynette

Lynette M. Burrows is an author, blogger, creativity advocate, and Yorkie wrangler. She survived moving seventeen times between kindergarten and her high school graduation. This alone makes her uniquely qualified to write an adventure or two.

Her Fellowship Dystopia series takes place in 1961 Fellowship America where autogyros fly and following the rules isn’t optional. It’s a captivating story exploring the power of choice, identity, transformation, and unimagined heroism. Books one and two, My Soul to Keep, and  If I Should Die, are available everywhere books are sold online. Book three, And When I Wake, is scheduled to be published in 2024.

Lynette lives in the land of OZ and is a certifiable chocoholic and coffee lover. When she’s not blogging or writing or researching her next book, she avoids housework and plays with her two Yorkshire terriers. You can find Lynette online on Facebook, or Twitter @LynetteMBurrows or on her website.

Image Credits

All images purchased from depositphotos

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9 Magic Ways Collaborative Storytellers Empower Writing

by Lisa Norman

Close-up image of a red 20-sided role-playing gaming die on a character sheet. Within the background magic potions

A few years back, I found an online streaming group called the Streampunks. Much like the folks at Critical Role, these are a group of friends broadcasting their role-playing games live in real time (also available via replay on YouTube). This form of collaborative storytelling fascinated me immediately.

Imagine writing in front of a crowd and keeping the action moving. Imagine a writer improvising in front of an audience. Now imagine that the main characters are all actors with their own agency and agendas, assistant storytellers who occasionally go rogue, all in the name of creating a more interesting story. Eric Campbell, Game Master (GM) for the Streampunks, is a stunning storyteller.

Start with a genre.

Why did I fall in love with the Streampunks instead of Critical Role? It was all about the genre they played in. Mostly science fiction with the occasional cyberpunk story. They told stories I couldn't resist.

Each season, they pick a game setting to play in and create a world for the story. Often these are niche fandoms like Dr. Who and Star Trek. They know exactly what their fans love, and they create in these spaces.

Decide on a set of rules.

Each game has a set of rules. Story mechanics like talents, weaknesses, superpowers, and, in some ways, pacing are driven by the rules and processes designed by game designers.

Does magic exist?

What is the cost of using a superpower?

They set and clarify the rules at the beginning of each game. Some games have elaborate rule books. When I hear writers talk about a story bible, I think about how visually beautiful some of these rule books are.

It is not unheard of for the game to stop, the actors to pull out the rule books, and then for our GM to decide how those rules will drive the story. Example: Yes, your character can fly, but you’re in space and you can’t breathe there. Also, you are floating. So unless you put on a space suit, you’re not going anywhere.

Build meaningful characters.

Each of the players creates a character at the beginning of the season. The GM also creates several random extra non-player characters (NPCs) that he can pull out as needed. Some of these will be villains, mighty opponents that they must defeat.

One of my favorite things about Eric’s extra characters is the diversity and respect he puts into even the most minor of characters. His villains are so nuanced that both the audience and some of the actors have become enamored with them. One of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen was after two deeply damaged characters were defeated, the crew then rescued them and rehabilitated them. They became heroes in their own side stories with depth and joy.

Each character has strengths and weaknesses, superpowers and fatal flaws. They are careful that no character is so over-powered (OP) they'll steal the story.

Respect your characters.

Each individual player has a list of things they will not do. Some like in-game romance. Some want to avoid it. Some have had traumatic events in real life (IRL) that they don’t want to explore in a game.

The storyteller (GM) moderates and protects the players to avoid putting those actors in those scenarios. Occasionally if a scene will have an issue, he’ll offer a trigger warning and protect the actors who have that trigger. (Cover your ears until I tell you it’s safe again!)

Push the limits.

Everything else is fair game. Pushing the characters to deal with life situations that are challenging is considered game enhancing. It is beyond cathartic for the actors and for the audience.

Watching them deal with real emotions in the game world enhances the audience's involvement.

You see, these games are played with a live audience texting the characters and chatting throughout the entire game. More on that in a moment.

Don't be afraid to go in unplanned directions.

As one of the main characters once said, "Always do the bad thing." If there is a way to make the story more dire, a way to raise the stakes, that is the way that actor will choose to go. Why? Because it makes for much more interesting stories!

These games are played with dice and allow characters to make decisions the GM doesn't plan on ahead of time.

One time our intrepid GM accidentally killed a main character. The audience panicked. The other characters freaked out. We had to wait a week for the next episode to see if they could resuscitate her. That entire week, social media for the group was boiling with ideas.

Another time, the group rolled so high trying something silly that they succeeded. Suddenly, the entire plot of the story had to change. I think it is a mark of a pro that the GM took a breath and laughed it off. And then created a new plot spontaneously. And made it look easy.

Sometimes my characters go off the rails, too. But there's no space for writer’s block when hundreds of fans are waiting to see what you do next.

Pay attention to the audience.

Which brings me back to that audience and something I think writers miss out on too often. These games are played with the audience in a live chat room.

The audience tries to guess what each character will do next. They talk about the emotions that come up. And they'll often be huddled together (virtually) hanging on every word, in fear for their favorite characters. Our storytellers have instant feedback from the fans.

Fans of the Streampunks call themselves the Aux Crew and are occasionally written into the stories. Those of us who pay money (Patreon subscribers) can create our own character and the GM may include them as an NPC to provide ambiance. Fans can also invest money to request special scenes. One time they included a requested wedding in the story to delight the audience.

There is nothing like the joy of a fan squealing "That's me!" in the chat.  A lot of people give money to keep the Streampunks on the air. And we won't even talk about the $11 million that Critical Role raised in a Kickstarter.

These fans are literally invested.

Bring the feels.

Why are people so involved? Because the stories are packed with emotions. Powerful, heartwarming, visceral emotions that bring the stories and characters to life.

Fans care deeply about these characters and their life experiences. Often the fans write fan fiction or draw fan art and share them on social media. The actors and the GM will comment, share them around, and bring attention to these beautiful creations.

They even have a special area where fans can tell their own collaborative stories in their worlds whenever they want.

Feelings power these interactions.

Feelings in the stories, and the feelings that the characters and the fans share.

Cliffhangers are powerful.

Eric Campbell is known for his masterful Campbell Cliffhangers. As it gets to be time for the session to end, chat gets nervous. Surely, he won’t do it to us again. The story arc is almost complete, right? But then he'll improvise the most amazing cliffhangers. I’m not talking about cliffhangers that feel fake or tacked on. They feel like this was the point the story was building to all along.

But now we must wait a week to find out what will happen! Argh! There will be panic in chat.

And then we'll head over to social media and private forums to debate what comes next.

As writers, I think we can learn a lot from these folks.

Have you ever played an RPG (role playing game)? Have you watched someone improvise a story like this in front of an audience? What can we as writers learn from this transmedia example? Do you think writers can find this same connection with their true fans? How?

About Lisa

head shot of smiling Lisa Norman

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, LLC, an indie publishing firm.

Interested in learning more from Lisa? Sign up for her newsletter to be the first to see her new classes! (And she's got some fun things she'll be sending to her subscribers over the next few months!)


Top Image by EstherDerksen via Deposit Photos.

Gif animation of Aliza Pearl from the Streampunks.

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Being Respectful When Writing About Others, Part 2

by Amy Winters-Voss

Last time, we chatted about how to recognize issues and how we can be more sensitive when writing about people in a group we aren’t a part of, whether it be avoiding cultural appropriation, hurtful stereotypes, or misrepresentation. Man, that article was hard to write! In part because I felt I had to triple check my upcoming book, but it also made me look hard at my own biases. Everyone has them. But facing them can feel like a brick to the forehead until they’re dealt with.

This month’s article should be gentler as we talk about how to avoid such issues.


Showing cultural diversity or inclusion is more than just throwing a character in from a collection of cultures or under-represented groups.

In his stream on the World Anvil Twitch channel, Using other Cultures in Worldbuilding , Chris Lontok talked about how representing groups and cultures has changed over time. I highly recommend checking out the video.

Chris mentioned when he was younger, he was super excited to see Asian representation in the D&D Oriental Adventures book. Back then, Filipino representation was nonexistent. Today, everything’s different. I love this quote from him.

“We were happy to be included. But the time for tokenism is done now.”

Avoid Cultural Appropriation.

Let’s review one of the definitions from last month’s article via the Florida Seminole Tourism site.

“Cultural appropriation is commonly used to identify when the imagery, fashion, practices, music, or artifacts of a culture are removed from their original context. The significance is ignored and they are taken and used by someone else.”

Using traditional dress as a costume for Halloween in your writing would likely be appropriation. Do an internet search and ask people from the culture group for their perspective. Native Americans have often spoken about how they feel it’s disrespectful. Some groups are more lenient.

Here’s a few more examples. Let’s say your character travels to South America and is inspired by the textiles there to make a fashion line. Did they give credit and perhaps work with the people who created the originals, or did they just copy the traditional designs to make a quick buck?

Are you pulling just one small piece of a culture’s folklore or mythology such as the Thunderbird from the Lakota, Algonquin or Haida people and running wild with it? This could turn the Thunderbird into something the culture it came from never meant it to be. Or have you taken say samurai and katana use and thrown it into your world and called it Japan, when those are the only two recognizable Japanese cultural aspects? It’s better to share the culture as a whole.

Always verify before using traditions, myths, and folklore. Where does this lead us?

Learn about the culture or under-represented group!

Let the learning required be an excuse to dig into and enjoy researching. Take your time to investigate and chat with people of that heritage or group. When you approach someone, do it respectfully by asking if they are ok with questions and if they have time.

Consider learning the language. It’s a window into the culture’s thoughts and values. (I won't tell you how long I've been trying to learn Japanese, because I wish I could speak it better than I do. I find it particularly difficult because the sentence order throws me even after years of trying. But with every word and phrase, I learn a bit more and get hints into the hearts and minds of the Japanese people. I won't give up!)

Research the hurtful and harmful stereotypes and tropes so you can avoid them. TvTropes.org and Google are places to start. Ensure underrepresented people don't feel helpless or unvalued. One group these issues often hit are the physically disabled and mentally ill. Yet, they can lead good, productive lives just like everyone else.

Above, I mentioned chatting with people from the group you’re writing about. Don’t be afraid to reach out. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend. Ask about everything - meanings, symbols, cultural dress, celebrations, dos and don’ts, values, beliefs, important sayings, the food, challenges, stereotypes, you name it. And always remember to thank the person for their time. Consider bringing a gift or treating them to a meal to show your gratitude.

Share culture with food.

Food is always a great way to share about a culture, whether in your writing or in person. It’s an excellent excuse to entice a reader into wanting to learn more! With food, come the customs associated with cuisine, eating, drinking, and sharing a meal.

Think about questions you might have.

  • Do they give thanks for the meal?
  • Which utensils do they use, if any?
  • What values do they place on preparing food?
  • What are the regional favorites?

Also, check out what a country thinks of tourists visiting for big clues into their values. For non-racial groups, what assumptions bother them?

Examples from Japan

Let’s look at Japan, since I’m more familiar with it and just got back from a trip this spring.

Things Japanese people complain about tourists doing include: 

  • Not wearing a mask. Even after the law said we didn’t have to wear one outside, everyone did. It’s a collectivist society, so we didn’t want to stick out or be rude. The pressure to keep wearing one was real.
  • Not showing proper respect at temples and shrines. They are popular tourist destinations, but many tourists don’t educate themselves on the differences in customs when visiting each. At a shrine, one purifies themselves by rinsing their hands and mouth, but at a Temple a visitor may light some incense if it’s available. Praying at each is also a little different. So, educate yourself on this for a visit and for writing stories with Japanese characters.

Much of this comes down to “mimic what others are doing.” Even if you’re not in the country or region, you can get a gist from documentaries and vloggers who live in the area. (Try to pick film creators or vloggers from the culture.)

What do I need to be careful about when writing for my own novels? Several people have told me to ensure I get Japanese history correct.

More areas to research

Remember to take care in your descriptions of people. “Almond eyes” for East Asians isn’t acceptable anymore. How about using the phrase “hooded eyes” instead? And I’ve seen so many people of color complaining about their skin pigment being compared to foods. If you’re writing a bedroom scene, this may be applicable for the characters. Otherwise, a food comparison may give unwanted connotations for your character. Colors and other natural materials such as copper, ebony, etc. are generally welcomed. 

I’ve chatted quite a bit about regional cultures because it’s the most common one for my books. But what about other under-represented groups? Again, we can learn.

Don’t make assumptions. 

If your character is legally blind, remember it doesn’t necessarily mean they see nothing. Find out how a blind person might navigate a cell phone. If your character is poor, is it obvious? It may not be. For trans characters, being called by their deadname (the old name they had before deciding on one that suits them now) can be a constant source of hurt and frustration.

“But I talked with someone from that group and they’re thrilled to see representation!” Great. Don’t let them down. A friend in Japan feels that we Americans may be entirely too picky about this. Perhaps we are sometimes. But I also know America hasn’t been good to minorities over the centuries—Japanese-American citizens being forced into internment camps and losing their rights and property, the forced relocation of native peoples under horrible conditions, brutal slavery and segregation of people just because they had black skin, to name a few injustices.

Ensure you’ve done your due diligence when it comes to research. Use solid sources. Anime, Wikipedia, and movies are usually not. They can, however, help you figure out questions to look into more deeply. I’ll recommend documentaries, biographies, interviews, scholarly papers, and again talk to those of the culture or group. Good research will help you and your editors.

Sensitivity Readers

They are some of the most important editors you can hire when writing about a demographic you are not a part of.

“A sensitivity reader is someone who reads for offensive content, misrepresentation, stereotypes, bias, lack of understanding, etc. They create a report for an author and/or publisher outlining the problems that they find in a piece of work and offer solutions in how to fix them. By doing this, the literary quality of a work is substantially improved.” from the University of Alberta

Sometimes it's hard to vet their expertise. They don’t list books they’ve worked on. Reviews will be your big key here. On the minus side, evidently some contracts won’t let you mention the sensitivity reader without their permission. It can be tricky to find readers for some groups too.

Please understand, sensitivity reading can be painful. As a reader, they have to face the hurtful and heavy topics such as "an autistic girl who spent her time hating herself and being a burden to her family”. They truly are often the brave, unsung heroes in the publishing world. Go through your work again if a sensitivity reader rejects it. They might not have wanted to touch the manuscript because a specific topic hurts too much.

Can sensitivity edits go too far?

I think so. There was an absurd example about acne at the end of the article “Why the use of sensitivity readers is causing such a stir in the publishing world.” Also, we need to recognize where we are as a modern culture and that views have changed drastically when investigating works from previous decades and centuries. 

A good sensitivity reader will share their view on issues and give you guidance on how to better represent a group. But you make the final call. So, take a deep breath and be open to the report you receive—prepared to make changes and adapt. It’s better to deal with issues early in the manuscript process, instead of after publication.

What if I make a mistake?

We will from time to time. Be humble, even when it hurts to hear your work was offensive or had cultural mistakes in it. Acknowledge the issues and correct them. Granted, there will always be someone who won’t accept the apology, but you will have done what you can to make it right.

Just before the release of my first book, I had to scramble to correct a few cultural mistakes and I lost a reader I respected. Talk about panic! Though, she was kind and looked over a chapter for me after corrections. The changes improved my story, so it was worth the effort!

In conclusion

As authors and creators, we’re pushed to get work out there. But taking your time to research, thinking it through, and getting it checked by multiple people can help you avoid hurting or offending the demographics you’re writing about. Respect is king. The diversity of people in our world is amazing. Let me challenge you to bring a little peace into the world and build bridges with your work.

So, what’s your favorite source for learning about demographics and cultures?

* * * * * *

About Amy

Amy Winters-Voss

Amy is the author of the Liminal Chronicles series, a mythological/urban fantasy set in small town Japan that focuses on social redemption and found family.

She runs the vssCollab very short story challenge on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumbler and publishes the best of the entries in the online zine--'In Threads'. Additionally, she founded the Anvilite Streamers Corps and streams her writing and crafts on Twitch.

Top Image by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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