What Is The Inciting Incident?

This past May, I ran a series on prologues and epilogues, and one term that popped up multiple times was the "inciting incident."


I gave a brief overview about this element of fiction then but didn't go too into it, so that's what today's post is all about.


What Is The Inciting Incident?

The inciting incident is the moment that jump-starts a story's main events.

The protagonist is often seen going about their daily life when all of a sudden, something comes along and shakes everything up. From there, the character is thrown onto the path of the plot and put in a position to follow where it leads—even if they're a reluctant hero who wants nothing to do with it.


This can be a positive event like qualifying for a national competition or receiving a promotion at work, or negative such as the death of a loved one or being laid off from your job.


Most inciting incidents fall into one of three zones:


Decision-Based

This is where the inciting incident is the result of a direct choice made by the protagonist.


In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to enter the titular battle to the death in her sister's place. It's this sacrifice that drives the plot and later conflicts. Everything that happens afterward is a consequence of her decision.


Mere Coincidence

Otherwise known as being in the right place at the right (or wrong) time. A coincidental inciting incident is often something that happens to or around the protagonist that propels them into the action of the story. The character stumbles upon it.


In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy's house happens to land on the Wicked Witch of the East. Literally dropped into this new world, she has no idea what is going on but is soon sent by Glinda to confront the Wicked Witch of the West.


Here, the inciting incident is provoked by coincidence. Were it not for the tornado, Dorothy never would have been made to embark on this quest and experience everything else that transpires, but now she must if she is to return to Kansas.


Without Discernable Reason

Sometimes, there's no way to know why things happen. Instead, these are circumstances the protagonist must navigate throughout the course of the story.


The Last of Us is a game set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies infected by a cordyceps mutation. Elle is immune. There is no explanation for this. All the player, Joel, and a select few others know is that she might be the secret to finding the cure. Here, the inciting incident is not a choice that the character made or a coincidence. Instead, it seems like a cruel trick of fate.


Understanding the kinds of inciting incidents out there can help you identify what the inciting incident is in your own story. If you are not able to identify a specific event or circumstance that disturbs your protagonist's status quo, that might be a sign you need to rework the opening.


When Should The Inciting Incident Occur?

This typically happens within the first chapter or two if not beforehand. The opening scenes of a story are typically used to give readers a brief glance at an average day for the protagonist before the inciting incident occurs comes along and shakes everything up. Sometimes, though, this may occur prior to the story's beginning, say for example the death of the character's grandfather resulting in their inheritance of the family farm; the first chapter might be that character pulling up the dirt road in a Jaguar rather show them in their swanky NYC apartment where they receive the phone call about their grandfather's passing.


Without the inciting incident, nothing extraordinary happens until you get to that moment. This will likely cause readers to lose interest in the story because it's not moving quickly enough.


Speaking from my own writing experience, the inciting incidents for Zach and Eve's respective arcs were delayed in the first drafts of Bound to the Heart.


The inciting incident for Zach is when his siblings arrive to stay with him and he's tasked with chaperoning not only Sophia as planned, but Henry, too, leaving him to balance not only his duties to his family but to his bookshop. That hasn't changed, but it was moved up slightly with the deletion of what was formerly Chapter One.


But what was the original Chapter One?


In BttH's earliest versions, Eve and her mother were shown traveling to London in the first chapter, with the intention to show how Mrs. Chavasse views Eve's passion for novels and hopes to marry for love. This was, in retrospect, fluff considering Eve's side of the story really didn't kick off until she meets St. John and it becomes clear that her mother has plans for the two of them—specifically, wanting to see them wed. In other words, the inciting incident was not happening soon enough.


Recognizing this and cutting that first scene helped speed things up a notch and brought the inciting incident closer to where it needed to be: the start of the story.

And, of course, the library meet-cute remains the inciting incident for their romance.


The sooner you get to the inciting incident, the sooner you will get to the point of the story. The "why" and "what" behind it all.


Can There Be More Than One Inciting Incident?

Just as there might be genre crossovers, you might find that the inciting incident fits into more than one of the above zones.


In Divergent, Tris experiences two separate inciting incidents.


Firstly, she learns that she is Divergent, meaning that she does not fit into one single faction and that she is now at risk should she be discovered. Tris does not know why she is different, let alone that people can even be Divergent, and the discovery sets up much of the conflicts and stakes throughout the series. This is an inciting incident without definable cause.


Not long after, Tris attends the Choosing Ceremony and decides to leave her home of Abnegation for Dauntless. This is deliberate and throws her into the pit—literally. She's thrust into a brand new world, needs to find her place within it, and figure out her newly discovered identity as both a member of Dauntless should she pass initiation and as Divergent. Actively deciding to join Dauntless is a choice-based inciting incident.


Divergent is an example of a single protagonist experiencing multiple inciting incidents.


If you're writing a story that features two protagonists, each might have their own inciting incident relevant to their individual storyline. It's fairly common in romances, for example.


Let's say you're writing a romance that involves one character returning to her hometown for the holidays. His inciting incident might simply be arriving in town after so long away, but he might also have been prompted by the loss of his job and wanting to regroup.


Meanwhile, his love interest might have lived there all her life and recently inherited the local vineyard from her late grandmother, and she is now running the business.


Both characters eventually make it to the wine tasting meet-cute, but their inciting incidents bring them to that point.


Suffice it to say that your story might include multiple inciting incidents.


While the inciting incident of your story is usually only one scene, it's among the most important.


The catapult that flings your protagonist into their journey, the inciting incident serves a great purpose. Knowing what kinds of inciting incidents are out there, when to implement them, and how to use them in the best way possible can make sure that your story's inciting incident is both exciting and impactful.



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