Your inciting incident has the power to influence readers to 1) buy your book and 2) pull them in for the remainder of it.
In order to get readers to keep reading, your book needs something to trigger that.
Sometimes…even starting your story out strongly isn’t enough…
And that means you need a powerful and inticing inciting incident that can carry your three act story structure.
Here’s how to write an inciting incident:
- Know why the inciting incident matters
- Learn what an inciting incident is
- Ensure it changes the character’s life forever
- Make sure it draws a line between old life and new
- It must kick off the main plot
- Learn from inciting incident examples
Why Inciting Incidents Matter
By the time you get to Death Wish 5, Charles Bronson has run out of reasons to seek vengeance on the world. You can only have everyone (and everything, if you count the house and the dog) you love destroyed by violence so many times before it stops being much of a motivation.
In action films (and thriller-type novels), the setup for revenge often comes down to quickly killing a loved one. But the 80s are over and motivations need to resonate with an audience that rightly finds some quick woman-in-a-refrigerator to be as irredeemable as it is lazy.
When writing a book, you need to incite your hero to action by giving them a reason.
Your reader needs to be on board with that reason. Barring that, your reader needs to understand the reason. Failing that, your reader shouldn’t hate your reason.
The difference between an antihero and a villain often comes down to a mixture of how they handle an Inciting Incident and the scope of the incident.
A villain will want to burn the world because they lost face to the protagonist. An antihero might decide to shoot every criminal they see because children murder, for example.
Before we get lost in the weeds, let’s break it down and ask the big question.
What is an inciting incident?
An inciting incident is a specific event at the beginning of a story that kicks off the main plot by forcing your main character into it. The inciting incident changes your character’s life forever.
A good Inciting Incident contains the following four qualities:
- Creates a Story Question that the Climax must answer
- Is Sufficient and Kickass: The stakes matter, the presentation WOWs!
- Sets a Tone
- Truly Motivates a Character (internally, not superficially)
Essentially, an Inciting Incident gives the hero a reason. This reason must be sufficient to the character in question and also sufficient to the story in question.
In the Matrix, the Inciting Incident for Neo comes from learning that he is in a simulation. He is offered a choice between learning about that world or going blissful ignorance.
In Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers meet and fall in love at a party, setting them on a course that leads to tragedy.
Katniss, an independent girl with skills and a drive to protect others, sees her sister drawn to be Tribute in the Hunger Games.
Mild-mannered office worker Richard Mayhew has a job, a fiancé, and no real problems in his life until he can’t help but rescue a wounded girl he sees on the street in Neverwhere.
All these examples show inciting incidents that start their respective stories.
Each of these inciting incident examples reveals something about the protagonist and the world they live in. They don’t just set the story in motion; they give us a reason to want to see our heroes succeed.
How do they accomplish this? They do so by deftly ticking off all four boxes without ticking off the reader.
How to Write an Inciting Incident & do it Well
As stated above, if you’re writing a novel, you need an inciting incident. The key here is to do it well by including the necessary elements to do just that.
Here’s what an inciting incident needs to do:
- Alter a hero’s life in an irreversible way
- Draw a Line between mundane life and the Quest
- Kick Off the story’s MAIN plotline
Let’s walk through what each of these means as well as examples to bring them to life.
#1 – Alter a hero’s life forever
There’s really one main objective of an inciting incident and if you fail this part, the rest of the book will be hard to construct.
Your inciting incident must, above all else, alter your character’s life forever.
Without this very element, it’s very hard to “convince” your readers to buy into the story.
If your readers can sit back and say, “or they could just not do it.” to whatever the inciting incident is and their life would be unchanged, you’ve created a lot more work for yourself when it comes to the plot.
The idea behind this is that if your character’s life is changed forever, they don’t have a choice but to move forward with what has happened.
And that forward momentum is what you need to keep readers engaged.
#2 – Draw a line between normal life and the “new” normal
There needs to be a stark contrast between what your character’s life looks like now versus what it’s about to look like after the inciting incident.
Because readers want to know that your character can’t just “go back” to how things were. Otherwise, what’s the point of them continuing on this journey?
With the inciting incident (and really the setup of your story), you are making a promise to the reader about what will happen in your story. If you don’t draw a line between the old and what’s to come, they won’t be interested in finding out what’s to come because it won’t feel like a mystery.
#3 – Kick off the story’s MAIN plotline
Your inciting incident has to be related to the main plot of your story. If the inciting incident is unrelated to what the main plot points are, you’ve done something wrong.
A common mistake authors make with this is using a big, tense moment as the inciting incident in order to draw intrigue, but then in the next chapter, introducing the real main plot elements.
If your story can work separately from the inciting incident, it’s not done correctly. Go back and tie it into the main plot.
An example of this would be Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.
The main plot is her journey to survive the Hunger Games. The inciting incident is when she volunteers as tribute to replace her sister in the games.
Had the inciting incident not happened (volunteering), the main plot would not exist (Katniss surviving the games).
An example of how this could not go well is if the author decided to use a raid or a brawl of some sort as the inciting incident, and then making Katniss be chosen for the games. These elements would not be tied in this instance and it wouldn’t be as intriguing or as good of a story.
Inciting Incident Examples
One of the best ways to get the hang of what an inciting incident really is, is to read and learn from some examples.
Here are 4 inciting incident examples to help you learn how to do this well.
Inciting Incident Example #1 – The Matrix
For Neo, the choice represents an important internal motivation for his character. He doesn’t choose red vs blue pill because he wants to find out what’s going on, he NEEDS to know.
The events leading up to this choice have already illustrated his deep-seated need to thwart authority and solve puzzles, the choice represents a chance to make what he was already doing matter more.
We see his personal stake at play and this also creates a story question for the audience, what is the Matrix and how does Neo matter?
It sets a tone about choice and about the power of illusion which is spelled out by betrayals and misdirects later.
It very much delivers on a WOW! As Neo wakes up in the real world. The rest of the plot follows from the decision and Neo very literally is no longer in Kansas. A metaphor so apt to the application it is the actual reference used in the film.
The audience and the character go through the same revelation created by this Inciting Incident.
Everything that can be hoped for begins and everything that seemed out of place before is shown to be out of place. Despite the trilogy’s faults, this incident is textbook what an Inciting Incident must be.
Inciting Incident Example #2 – Romeo and Juliet
The titular characters met and fall in love. As has been said, you can redo this story with anything, like 2005s pirates and ninjas, and by the end, the audience will demand to know why pirates and ninjas can’t be in love. Or vampires and werewolves, if Underworld is more your thing.
The Inciting Incident creates a story question about love and its consequences which the Climax delivers on.
It reveals the character of both Romeo and Juliet as they feel truly, without the pretense of the society they live in. The costumes and masks of the party keep their prejudices out, revealing an inner truth.
Whether you enjoy a stage production, an older movie, or the Baz Luhrmann version, the party sets a tone for the rest of the events. The presentation leading up to the moment of love discovered feels earned even after a thousand iterations. We root for the characters because we are practically programmed to do so.
Finally, the line is drawn between each character’s former life and their new reality of being in love.
Nothing about their old prejudices continues forward. The consequences of the main plotline stems from this moment.
Inciting Incident Example #3 – The Hunger Games
Katniss offers herself up literally as ‘tribute’ to save her sister. It’s character motivated, it sets a tone, and it stuns the crowd. This Inciting Incident creates an echo that follows the character as the story question becomes about the purpose and meaning of sacrifice.
The separation between the world of the District and the world of the Games themselves is inexorable and clear cut. The film uses a diluted and diffused palette for the earlier scenes, giving way to a brighter almost saturated pallet for the games. In the book, the prose shifts, becoming more playful and les terse. In both cases, the audience knows which world they are witnessing.
The story happens because of this decision.
All of this is sufficient, but Collin’s pulls it off in three words. Well, almost, the setup makes the specific Inciting Incident possible.
The main plotline occurs, in almost a cheat, at the titular Hunger Games.
Finally, the stakes matter to Katniss personally. She saved her sister. The further ramifications that change the society also stem from this incident, but they don’t have to.
If the book ended with her sacrifice it would still be sufficient.
Inciting Incident Example #4 – Neverwinter
Gaiman uses the Inciting Incident figuratively for the reader and literally for the character of Richard Mayhew. The moment that Richard notices Door, he crosses over from the real world to the realm of London Below.
The distinction between the two worlds is irrevocable but not obvious to the intractable Richard, at least not at first.
Meeting Door is both an Inciting Incident personally for Richard, who must help because you help people when you see they need it, and a deeply revealing part of his character development.
The naiveite that comes with it almost gets him killed quite a few times, but the character line is there.
The WOW! of the moment comes from the way Richard entirely focuses on the wounded girl, Door, and totally ignores his blathering fiancé who demands Richard make a decision, on the spot, between helping the wounded waif and staying engaged.
Much like in the Matrix, this is no kind of choice at all. Richard can’t not help.
The stakes don’t seem high to Richard, but the reader soon learns that without aid, the men who wounded Door would have caught up to her.
Finally, the Incident creates a story question about both Richard and Door, how they interact with the world(s) they interact with and who they are. All of which has a pay off in the Climax.
How the Inciting Incident Shapes Your Story
As you see, the Inciting Incident does a lot with very little. The best of them seem to be almost happenstance, a nearly throwaway event that makes an impact on the characters and the world(s) around them.
Even something simple can be used as an iceberg tip, drawing the reader down a rabbit hole (for a fifth example of this EXACT thing) into the world of your story.
Be cautioned! These examples represent everything going right and fulfilling the Musts to be sufficient. Losing one of the Musts alone can cause a story to stumble out of the gate.
It is possible to recover, but never ideal.
Consider the Inciting Incident of The Phantom Menace (picking on a poorly executed story is low fruit, but that’s the point). Anakin is discovered because they need a part to fix a ship to get back on the ‘real’ adventure of protecting Padme. The Incident has prophetic potency but its lack of both a clear separation between the mundane and the quest and its failure to set the stakes leave the audience baffled and relying on external information to care.
The Inciting Incident can be thought of as the first major hurdle you need to jump to make a story kickass. If you stumble, even a little, on that first hurdle getting to the finish line and medalling in the event isn’t impossible, but it sure as hell isn’t going to be easy.