Plot Part 4: The Inciting Incident

When you think of your story’s plot, it is helpful to think of a story’s parts to help you see the big picture and help you to begin to work out your story’s plot. All stories have beginnings, middles, and endings. They also have inciting incidents, midpoints, and climaxes.

Regardless of the genre of book you are writing, your story must have an inciting incident

The inciting incident is that thing that happens which kicks off your story. It is the single event that sets your story into motion. The inciting incident launches the main action of the story. It is something that happens that is out of the ordinary for your main character. Something happens that upsets the balance of the world. The inciting incident can be positive or negative, but it must change your character’s life either for better for worse. The inciting incident happens to the protagonist or it can be caused by the protagonist. The key in all the above repetitive description is that something must happen. If nothing happens at the beginning of your story, then you don’t have an inciting incident and you should re-evaluate your story plot and structure.

What the inciting incident does:

  • It disturbs your main character out of their day-to-day life and propels them forward
  • It kicks off the story problem (that thing that your main character must now solve-remember that stories are about characters solving their problems)
  • It awakens secret/hidden/unknown desires in the character
  • It forces your character to react
  • It starts the story conflict
  • It is urgent on some level and creates urgency in your character
  • It sets the tone for your novel
  • It hints at the story’s ending

Example of inciting incidents:

  • Star Wars: Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia’s ship
  • The Sixth Sense: Vincent shoots Malcolm
  • Saving Private Ryan: The general learns of the death of the three Ryan brothers
  • Monsters Inc.: Randall leaves the closet door open on the scream factory floor.
  • Jaws: Naked swimmer is eaten by a shark
  • Tangled: A strange man shows up and Rapunzel doesn’t know how to handle his arrival
  • The Martian: Mark Watney goes missing during a storm on Mars and is believed to be dead
  • Shane: Starrett insist that Shane leave

What the inciting incident is not:

  • It’s not necessarily the hook.
  • It’s not necessarily the first thing to happen in the novel (thought it should be close to the beginning of the story and it definitely should be in the first quarter of the story)
  • It’s not the next episode of someone’s regular day-to-day life
  • It is not backstory
  • It is not something from your character’s past

Some Examples of Inciting incidents by Genre:

  • In a murder mystery, there’s a murder
  • In a romance, two single people meet
  • In fantasy, the main character discovers they are the chosen one
  • In science fiction, someone travels back in time to change the world
  • In a thriller, the character learns of a plot to end the world and must race to save it

These are just examples from genre tropes. If you are unclear what your inciting incident might be, take some time to think about the genre of book you are writing, and research plot and structure for that genre. Read books in that genre. This will help you to be become familiar with what readers expect, and then do your best to meet that expectation.

To write your inciting incident, think about your story in parts because they are related

  1. Inciting incident
  2. Climax
  3. Resolution/Ending

If you know what your climax will be (we will cover the other plot parts in subsequent posts) and how you expect your story to end, it may help you to figure out what your inciting incident should be.

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