Writing the Inciting Incident

1.1K 35 6


I've mentioned this before in a couple of other chapters, but I thought I'd go a bit more in depth about the details of it.

The inciting incident. In case you haven't heard of this previously, this is what you use to start off your novel. It's there to get the ball rolling and get the audience hooked! Let's take a look at the inciting incident of these two popular books...

~Hunger games: The book starts with Reaping day! Not a week before, not with pages of backstory, but with the day that changes Katniss's life.

~Divergent: It starts with the testing! Also the day that will change Tris's life!

^^Both of these have ceremonies or whole days that alter their lives, but that's not always the case. It could start off with a person, such as a wizard showing up at your door and asking if you would like to go on an adventure. It could start with an object, such as finding a dragon egg deep in the forest or receiving your Hogwarts acceptance letter. It could start with action, like getting kidnapped by terrorists or waking up in a maze with no memories! It could have to do with nature, such as getting swept up in a tornado and being sent off to Oz! Your character could be presented with a problem, and the story then is about them trying to fix it!

There are so many different ways to do this, as you can see above! With the list compiled, here's what I've got:

-Ceremonies/Traditions (Usually not in the protagonist's favor)
-People (People come into our lives and change them all the time)
-...More? (There's bound to be more. These are just the examples I thought up!)

Now these pointers may have gotten your mind running with ideas of possible incidents for your story. I just want to take a little time to explain the do's and don'ts of inciting incidents. Of course, there are always exceptions and times to break the rules in writing, but hopefully this chapter can be a good guide for your novel.

1 - The inciting incident changes everything.
For good or for bad! In case you hadn't picked up on this already, whatever the inciting incident is will get the plot rolling. It's what sets off the whole journey. Eragon finding that egg in the forest was the inciting incident, and it was what caused the rest of story to even happen! It forces our characters to act, even if they don't want to. It's something out of the normal, daily life. Even if this is a real-life y/a story, your inciting incident can be meeting someone who will change their lives, or moving to a new school, or discovering a secret.
Like I said, it can be for good or for bad also. The protagonist can accept it happily or fight against it.

2 - It doesn't have to be crazy.
The inciting incident doesn't have to blow our minds or explain everything right away. We're not going to know right away what this is going to lead up to. Not all inciting incidents are as big as waking up without memories inside of a maze! Sometimes it's simply making eye contact with a stranger on the street. That stranger could turn out to be a part of the story later because of that eye contact, thus making that incident what changed the protagonist's life!

Note: The size of the inciting incident will depend largely on genre too! Fantasy and action-packed novels will have a larger, more rocky incident, whereas lighter humor or romance novels will begin with the introduction of a new character or place!

3 - It needs to lead into something bigger.
Let's say the inciting incident in Eragon was him finding the dragon egg, but then he just sold it off and the plot wasn't even about that egg? How pointless would that have been?
This incident is the start of the rising action until we get to the climax! The plot should continue to escalate from here, not suddenly get dull after the inciting incident.

4 - Motivation and goals!
The inciting incident will give your character a new purpose! They may have had goals before, but more often than not, the incident will alter their worldview or priorities in some way. The egg changed Eragon's goals, Gandalf changed Bilbo's goals, Tris finding out about her divergence changed her perspective, etc. Even if they're dreading their goal and can't stand it, this incident will force them to act or change generally.
This incident will change their norm! Their daily life shouldn't be the same any more.

Also: The character doesn't have to change their life immediately after the inciting incident is introduced! Let's say they find the ring of power. Are they going to immediately know what it is and how to use it? Probably not! So they stick it in their pocket and forget about it. The readers, however, don't forget about it, and that little ring sitting in their pocket tickles our mind because we know there has to be something more to it! Eventually, yes, the character should react and change according to whatever their inciting incident it, but it doesn't have to be immediately drastic.

5 - Don't put it off!
I'm not sure I said this clearly already, but this is at the beginning of your story, preferably in the first chapter. A common amateur mistake is to put it off and start with chapters of the character's regular life or backstory. This may seem interesting to you, but it's not much of a hook. You need the inciting incident there in the beginning to make your story interesting and give it purpose! We want to see the character's life, yes, but not chapters upon chapters of it.

6 - Wait a little.
I just said to write it early on in the book, and now I'm telling you to wait? Yeah. There's such a thing as doing the inciting incident too soon. I mean, can you imagine the opening line of Eragon being: "Eragon bent over to pick up the strange stone that had appeared in front of him"? What if The Hunger Games started with the moment her name was drawn? Or what if Divergent had started with the line: "You're divergent." It's too sudden and confusing.
All these things are very important to have early on in the book, but they don't make for great openers! You need your audience to get a slight grasp at the situation and setting before throwing a twist in. We need to know their normal life just a little before we can realize this inciting incident has changed it!


To recap:

...as Mary Kole puts it in "Writing Irresistible Kidlit", it is “the event that takes your character from his sense of normal (life and business as usual) and launches him into the main conflict of your story.”

So basically, that's what I've got for now. I may add more on later, but if you have any questions, ask away!

Jessie's Tips for Better WritingRead this story for FREE!