By Lynette M. Burrows
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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?
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.
All images purchased from depositphotos.