The Inciting Incident: How to Get Your Story Into Motion
In the last post on story structure, we went over the first story milestone – the Hook. As a reminder, the Hook is your first opportunity to catch your reader’s attention and draw them into your story. But once you’ve hooked them, how do you keep their interest and convince them to keep turning the pages?
First, you need to set up your protagonist’s ordinary world and get the reader to connect and empathize with your protagonist. Then, you need to deliver another story moment that piques the reader’s interest and pulls them even further into your story.
This moment is called the Inciting Incident and it’s the second story milestone in the First Act.
You might know it as the Call to Adventure (on the Hero’s Journey), or the Catalyst moment (in Save the Cat), but in today’s post, we’re going to refer to it as the Inciting Incident to keep things simple.
What is the Inciting Incident?
The Inciting Incident is some kind of event that occurs and upsets the balance of your protagonist’s life. It's usually something unexpected that makes it impossible for your protagonist to continue living their life the way they’ve always done.
It’s also what sets your story in motion and gives rise to your protagonist’s overarching story goal. So, from this moment on, your protagonist will be trying to achieve something specific that they think will bring happiness or success or validation or whatever they need in order to restore balance to their life.
We’ll talk more about examples later, but for now, imagine you’re writing a murder mystery and a dead body has been discovered. This is the inciting incident that throws life out of balance. So, in order to restore balance -- or to bring justice to this dead person and their family, the detective must find out whodunnit by following the clues and solving the case.
The inciting incident is also what raises a specific question in your reader’s minds that they won’t find the answer to until the very end at your story’s climax. So, the inciting incident asks a question and the climax answers it.
Using our example of the murder mystery, the inciting incident asks “whodunnit” and the detective answers this question in the climax when they unveil the identity of the murderer and bring him or her to justice.
In this way, the inciting incident is also what puts the protagonist and the antagonist at odds with each other, too. The detective wants to solve the case while the antagonist wants their identity to remain hidden. So, in this way, it’s the moment that ignites the central conflict of your story, too.
And because of all that, you can probably see just how important it is to nail the inciting incident of your story, right? But luckily, we can break it down piece by piece so it’s less overwhelming and so that you have all the tools needed to write a great inciting incident.
So, with that in mind, let’s first talk about where the inciting incident usually occurs in your global story.
Where does the Inciting Incident occur in the story?
The inciting incident of your global story should occur somewhere around the 12% mark or about halfway through the first act of your story.
And this placement is important because it will allow you to properly introduce your characters so that readers can sympathize with and latch onto them before the global inciting incident arrives and completely changes things for better or worse.
If your global Inciting Incident occurs too early in the story, it’s likely that haven’t given your reader enough time to connect with your protagonist and the world they live in. In that case, you risk confusing your reader and preventing them from adequately sympathizing with your protagonist.
If the global Inciting Incident occurs too late in the story, you’ll need a strong reason for delaying it. Readers expect there to be something that triggers the protagonist to act. If you choose to delay the global Inciting Incident beyond the 15% mark, add in subplots (with Inciting Incidents that occur earlier) to keep the reader properly engaged in your story
So, now that we know what an inciting incident is -- and where it typically occurs in the story, let’s talk about the three types of inciting incidents.
The Three Types of Inciting Incidents
#1 – The Causal Inciting Incident
The causal Inciting Incident is the result of a choice made by either the protagonist or by someone with the power to make a decision on behalf of the protagonist. Either way, this choice upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life for better or for worse.
For example, in Bridget Jones’s Diary, the global Inciting Incident is when Bridget meets Mark Darcy at her mother’s turkey curry buffet party and makes a fool of herself. It’s a causal Inciting Incident because Bridget’s mother chooses to introduce Bridget to Mark, and Bridget chooses to try her hand at flirting with him.
#2 – The Coincidental Inciting Incident
The coincidental Inciting Incident is when something unexpected, or accidental happens. It’s a random event that occurs and throws the protagonist’s life out of balance.
For example, in Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, the global Inciting Incident is when Harry finds out he’s a wizard and that he’s been accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s a coincidental Inciting Incident because it’s completely unexpected and changes how he views himself, what he knows about his parent’s death, and alters his path forward in life.
#3 – The Ambiguous Inciting Incident
The ambiguous Inciting Incident could be either causal or coincidental, but the reader doesn’t know for sure until the end of the story.
For example, in Fight Club, the narrator comes home to find that his apartment has been blown up. It’s an ambiguous Inciting Incident because we don’t know whether the apartment was blown up by accident (coincidental) or if someone caused the explosion (causal) until the end of the movie.
So, okay, now let’s talk about how the global inciting incident manifests across the different genres. Before I dive into the specifics, I want to remind you that I have a whole blog post and podcast episode on genre that you can check out here.
The Inciting Incident is Genre-Specific
Now, like I was saying, the global Inciting Incident of a story is genre-specific. That means that the Inciting Incident of your global story will most likely be determined by the genre you’re writing in. Here are some examples:
- Action – a scene in which there’s an attack by the antagonist or the environment
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss’ younger sister, Prim, is chosen as the female participant in this year’s Hunger Games.
- Crime – a scene in which a crime has been discovered, and the victim is identified
In The Murder of Rodger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, the Inciting Incident is when they find Roger Ackroyd’s dead body in the study.
- Horror – a scene in which there’s an attack by the monster or antagonistic
In the movie Alien, the Inciting Incident is when Kane is attacked by an alien life form while exploring the planet.
- Performance – a scene in which the protagonist is presented with a performance opportunity
In the movie Billy Elliot, the Inciting Incident is when Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher, gives Billy ballet shoes and asks him to join her dance class.
- Romance – a scene in which the lovers meet
In Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, the Inciting Incident is when Bridget Jones meets Mark Darcy at her mother’s annual turkey curry buffet party.
- Society – a scene in which there’s a threat to reigning power
In the movie Dead Poets Society, the Inciting Incident is when Mr. Keating encourages the boys to “seize the day,” challenges the boys to look beyond Welton’s “four pillars.”
- Thriller – a scene in which a crime is discovered and victims are identified
In Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, the Inciting Incident is when the narrator (the victim) discovers his apartment has been blown up (the crime).
- War – a scene in which there’s an attack by the opposing force
In the movie The Hurt Locker, the Inciting Incident is when Staff Sergeant Thompson dies in a roadside bomb explosion.
- Western – a scene in which there’s an attack by the antagonist or the environment
In True Grit by Charles Portis, the Inciting Incident is when Tom Chaney murders Frank Ross.
- Morality – a scene in which a positive or negative shock upsets the protagonist’s authentic self and challenges their morals
In the movie Kramer vs. Kramer, Ted Kramer finds out his wife is leaving him and that he now has to raise their son, Billy, which will interfere with his high-pressure job in advertising.
- Status – a scene in which someone or something challenges the protagonist’s status quo and threatens their position
In the movie Gladiator, Marcus Aurelius says he wants Maximums to succeed him as the Lord Protector of Rome after he dies.
- Worldview – a scene in which something or someone challenges the protagonist’s black-and-white view of the world.
In Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, this is when Hagrid shows up and tells Harry he’s a wizard and that he gets to go to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is also where Harry learns that his parents were murdered (and not killed in a car crash).
If you've seen any of these movies or read any of these books, you can probably see why these moments are the catalyst for change in the protagonist's life, right?
And can you see how each of these examples accomplishes the same thing even though the specifics of the scene looks different across genres?
Let's dive into a few of these examples a little deeper...
Example #1: In The Hunger Games, Katniss’ younger sister, Prim, is chosen as the female participant in this year’s Hunger Games.
This works because if nobody from Katniss’ family was chosen for the Hunger Games, life would have continued on normally. When Prim is chosen during the reaping, it forces Katniss into action. She knows Prim will never survive the Hunger Games and decides to volunteer as tribute. The story is now set in motion, and Katniss’s life will never be the same. At the end of the scene, the reader is wondering, “What will the Hunger Games be like? Will Katniss survive? How will she prepare for this?”
Example #2: In Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry finds out that he’s a wizard and that he’s been accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He also learns that his parents were murdered (and not killed in a car crash).
This works because up until this point, Harry’s uncle has been preventing him from receiving his Hogwarts acceptance letter. Harry knows something is up, but it’s not until Hagrid shows up and tells Harry he’s been accepted into Hogwarts that everything changes. Within this scene, Hagrid also tells Harry the truth about how his parents were murdered which changes how Harry views himself and his past. At the end of the scene, the reader is asking, “Will Harry go to Hogwarts? What will a magical school be like? Will Harry fit in there? Who is Voldemort? Why has Harry been kept in the dark about his past for eleven years?”
It’s important to be aware of the typical Inciting Incidents of your genre because if you don’t deliver the type of Inciting Incident that readers are expecting, they will likely put your book to the side and pick up something else to read. Or, if they read it, they’ll likely walk away from your book feeling unsatisfied without being able to explain why. Not ideal, right?
So, to recap, after you've hooked the reader in your first page or opening paragraph, it's time to set up your protagonist's ordinary world and get the reader to connect with him or her. Then, you need to deliver the Inciting Incident of your global story so that readers are pulled even farther into your story and are even more curious about what's going to happen next.
To do this in the most effective way possible, make sure that:
- The Inciting Incident happens on the page (not behind the scenes)
- It occurs about halfway through the First Act, around the 12% mark of the global story
- The event upsets the balance of your protagonist’s life and makes it impossible for him or her to continue on as usual.
- The Inciting Incident forces your protagonist to take action or make a change.
- It gives rise to your protagonist's external story goal (and maybe even their internal need) AND launches them on a quest to accomplish or achieve their goal
- The event somehow ignites the conflict between your protagonist and your antagonist -- AND that it somehow foreshadows the climactic moment of your story
- The reader is left wondering "how's this going to turn out?"
- The Inciting Incident is appropriate for the genre you're writing in
And as one more quick bonus tip, guess what?
There needs to be more than one Inciting Incident in your story. Each act, subplot, sequence, and scene must have an Inciting Incident, too.
Why? Because in each unit of your story (global story, act, subplot, sequence, and scene) you need to show some kind of change, and the Inciting Incident is the catalyst for change. It’s the event that sets things in motion in every unit of story. Without an Inciting Incident in each unit of your narrative, your story won’t work.
👉 Let's discuss in the comments: Can you pinpoint the global Inciting Incident of your favorite book or movie? Is it causal, coincidental, or ambiguous? In your own writing, what’s your process for coming up with an Inciting Incident for your story?