Conflict is what makes stories interesting: will the main character overcome their challenges and reach their ultimate goals? What will they have to do to achieve them?
And because conflict is what grabs readers’ attention, you as a writer need to know the best ways to present the conflict.
This includes knowing when and how to show these events that will propel your story forward until the end of the book.
What Is an Inciting Incident?
The event that introduces the conflict is called the inciting incident. It can be an episode or a plot point that hooks the reader into your story.
The inciting incident is also known as the “call to adventure” in Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ outline.
When Should the Inciting Incident Occur?
In short stories, the inciting incident may have already happened before the events that start the the story; readers might learn about it after the fact, as it is revealed through dialogue or narration.
A term that many writers love to use is “in media res,” which is a Latin phrase that means “in the middle of something.” A story is usually most powerful when it begins “in media res,” so that things are already happening when the reader opens to the first page.
But for a novel, the inciting incident usually needs to be fleshed out in a detailed scene. The inciting incident should happen as soon as the readers understand enough about your main character to care about what happens to them.
You don’t want to spend pages and pages on irrelevant information that will bore your readers. After all, your goal as a writer is to hook your readers and keep them reading as long as possible, all the way to the end of the book. So make sure that everything you write in the first few pages will either:
- Shed light on your character’s personality, motivations, and goals; or,
- Build up toward your inciting incident.
Although there isn’t a specific page number for when your inciting incident should take place, a good rule of thumb is within the first 20–30 pages of a novel.
How Do You Write a Good Inciting Incident?
Follow these tips to write an inciting incident that pulls readers into your story’s action.
1. Focus on the character.
Some writers prefer a plot-driven story over a character-driven story. But most of the time, it’s the characters that draw readers in.
With that in mind, focus on what the inciting incident will mean to your main character, and work on fleshing those details out.
For example, if your main character is a writer, you will most likely choose an inciting incident that is way different compared to if he were an Olympic runner.
A car accident that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down will likely have a greater impact on the runner than on someone who works at a desk.
2. Choose an irrevocable inciting incident.
One thing that makes the inciting incident powerful is that, after it happens, everything changes for your protagonist. Therefore, you need to find one that has the ability to do that for your story.
The basic points of the Pixar storytelling framework can help us see how this works:
- Once upon a time, there was ____________.
- Every day, _____________.
- Then one day, __________.
- Because of that, _________.
- Because of that, __________.
- Until finally, ________________.
The “Then one day, ____” part of the Pixar format is the inciting incident, which changes everything for your character. After that event, nothing is ever the same again.
3. Force your character to make a decision.
One way to test whether you’ve chosen a good inciting incident is to describe the changes that happen after it.
For example, a character’s mother getting killed may not be as impactful for a character who was never close with her mother or hardly ever saw her.
But things might look different if this mother was a millionaire who left everything she owned to her daughter, who lived a middle-income life and despised everything her mother stood for.
Or, what if the inciting incident you choose is your protagonist’s failing of an exam—but it turns out he can just retake the exam with no real consequences?
Instead, you might consider making that exam the make-or-break for your character’s graduation or entire future.
Remember, a powerful inciting incident will either change your character’s life in a dramatic way, or require them to make a life-changing decision.
4. Remove irrelevant details.
While we expect the inciting incident to happen within the first 20–30 pages of a novel, it doesn’t mean you can spend those pages writing random stuff.
Be sure to keep everything in the first scenes relevant to the inciting incident you are building up to.
5. Make the inciting incident a single, powerful event.
Although the stakes can be raised even higher in rising action, the inciting incident usually packs more punch if it is an isolated event that becomes a very memorable part of your character’s life.
For example, when a radioactive spider bites Peter Parker, it’s a single event that changes his entire life. The fact that a single incident can catalyze enormous life changes makes it a great plot-mover.
6. Add a ticking clock.
Lastly, an inciting incident holds more power when it comes with urgency. Adding a ticking time element to whatever changes need to happen makes your story more suspenseful and a more compelling read.
For example, an inciting incident where a student is falsely accused of a crime may not have as much impact as when the accusation comes with a time limit for proving his innocence before he gets expelled.
Examples from Literature
Below are several examples from literature that illustrate how an inciting incident works.
Example #1. Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery
In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, the inciting incident occurs when Emily’s father, with whom she is shown to enjoy such a close relationship, suddenly dies. This makes Emily an orphan, and spurs all her living relatives to debate over who has to bring her up.
This whole setup forms the foundation of the entire novel, where Emily grows up as an unwanted charity case in a very strict great aunt’s house.
Example #2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
In The Chronicles of Narnia, a game of hide and seek leads Lucy, one of the four Pevensie children, to stumble into the land of Narnia through a magical wardrobe. She meets a faun named Tumnus, who later confesses to being a spy for the White Witch, but decides to help her escape back to her land.
Later, when Edmund follows her back into the wardrobe, he meets someone who claims to be the Queen of Narnia and who convinces him to lure her siblings back with him. When Lucy finally shows up, she talks about having met with Tumnus, who has escaped detection by the White Witch.
This inciting incident shows us the conflict between the White Witch and the other people of Narnia, and starts Edmund on the adventure of taking his brother and sisters back to Narnia.
Example #3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The opening scenes of The Secret Garden describe how the protagonist, Mary, is sent back to England from India during a plague, drawing the reader in to the heartbreaking childhood that she has experienced.
But the inciting incident happens when, during a seemingly ordinary evening, she hears some strange sounds from down the hall of the large house.
She starts exploring and discovers Colin: Mary’s friendship with him and his eventual healing from spending time in the secret garden forms the essence of the whole book.
Writing an Inciting Event
As a writer, you have the power of luring your readers in, and the inciting incident is one of the tools you have in your arsenal.
Don’t be afraid to explore different possible inciting incidents until you find one that propels your character into his life-changing journey—one that your readers will not be able to put down until the last page.
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