Identifying Inciting Incidents (And Why Your Plot Needs One)

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penOne of the most essential elements of plot is often referred to as the inciting incident (or inciting event). This moment is absolutely crucial for your plot, yet I’m surprised by how many submissions I read where the inciting incident is completely absent. When that happens, I often reach 50 page mark in a story and am still wondering, “When is the story going to start?”

So what is an inciting incident? Simply put, it’s the moment that starts your story. It’s the event that changes everything for your protagonist and causes all that happens next. If we think of a plot like a chain of dominoes, then the inciting incident is the first domino to topple. It’s the beginning of a chain reaction.

The domino metaphor also explains why plots absolutely need an inciting incident. If that first domino doesn’t tip, nothing else happens either. The plot simply doesn’t start.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. Here, the inciting incident is when Harry receives his acceptance letter to Hogwarts. (Rowling is great at creating compelling inciting incidents, and every book in the series has one within the first few chapters.) How do we know this is the inciting incident? Because it’s the event that kicks off the rest of the story. It’s when Harry finds out he’s a wizard, learns the truth about what happens to his parents, and begins his first journey to Hogwarts. Without this moment, Harry would stay at Privet Drive, and the story would never start.
  2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This one is pretty straightforward: the inciting incident here is Amy’s disappearance. That’s the moment that kicks off the rest of the story, and everything that happens afterward is a direct result.
  3. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The inciting incident here? When Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games. The rest of the story, which centers on the Games, would never have happened without this moment.

You can do this with just about every book you’ve ever read (and every movie or TV show you’ve ever seen, too). Think about the moment that starts the story. More likely than not, that’s your inciting incident.

Now, let’s talk about when the exciting incident should occur. Remember, before this moment happens, your plot hasn’t actually started. For that reason, I usually advise writers to start their story as close to the inciting incident as possible.

Now, when I say “as possible,” that doesn’t necessarily mean on the first page. Most of the time, you’ll have a little bit of set-up to do before this moment can happen. You have to introduce the reader to the character(s), the world, and the setting. You have to establish what’s going on and ground the reader so that there’s no confusion. The trick is to do all of this as close to the inciting incident as possible. So, instead of starting your first chapter with a play-by-play of your character’s day, start right before the inciting incident happens, and provide only what the readers absolutely need to know to understand that moment.

Let’s take a look at some of those examples again. Notice how early the inciting incident happens in The Hunger Games: by the second chapter. Collins doesn’t waste any time kicking off the story. But she doesn’t place the reaping scene on the first page, either. She takes a few pages to introduce Katniss, her family, Gale, District Twelve, and the concept of the Hunger Games, so that readers understand what’s going on. But she doesn’t provide any lengthy backstories or unnecessary sightseeing at this point. Even Peeta, who’s one of the most important characters in the book, isn’t introduced until later in chapter two, after the inciting incident.

In most cases, the inciting incident will happen within the first chapter or two (depending on how long the chapters are). And in many genres, you can even guess what the inciting incident is going to be. For example, in romance, the inciting incident is almost always the moment when the hero and heroine meet. Which makes sense, because the plot is about the relationship between these two people. It’s a convention of the genre for good reason.

So, what does all of this mean for you as a writer? First, identify your inciting incident. If you’re unsure, ask yourself these questions: What’s the first moment that changes everything? What’s the event that kicks everything into motion? What’s the life-altering moment?

If you’re still unsure, then you likely need to rethink your plot and include a stronger inciting incident right from the beginning. Without an inciting incident, the plot never really begins.

Once you’ve identified your inciting incident, think about where it occurs. Is it within the first few chapters? Should it be the first chapter? Does it need to happen sooner? Does it happen too soon? Understanding where your book starts in relation to the placement of the inciting incident can address a lot of issues with your opening scenes. And with a powerful inciting incident, you can create a fascinating story that will keep your readers glued to the pages.

What do you think? What’s the inciting incident of your book? Where does it start? What other examples of inciting incidents from books/movies/TV can you think of? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your manuscript? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

4 Tips for Adjusting Your Pacing

5 Tips for Drafting Faster

When to Show and When to Tell

5 Common Novel Openings to Avoid

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