The Inciting Incident

I’m running a storycraft meeting on inciting incidents tonight, Squiders, and since y’all liked my pacing info sheet so much, I thought I’d share my info sheet for inciting incidents as well.

What is an Inciting Incident?

An inciting incident is the first major “event” of a story. In broad terms, it is the incident that sets the story rolling, the event that disrupts your main character’s world. In the Hero’s Journey model, it is the Call to Adventure.

Some writing resources will refer to any major event throughout a story as an inciting incident, but for the sake of our discussion, we will use inciting incident only to refer to the first one.

What isn’t an Inciting Incident?

The term inciting incident is sometimes used interchangeably with other terms, such as First Plot Point. This can be confusing. In some cases an inciting incident will be interchangeable with a first plot point (or act turn, or any number of terms), but in many cases the first plot point comes after. The first plot point is the point where a character begins to act on the events of the inciting incident. For the sake of completeness, we’ll discuss the first plot point a little further along.

What IS an Inciting Incident?

An inciting incident is generally passive–something that happens to your character as opposed they choose to do. They can be positive, negative, or neutral. They can also be arbitrary. Because an inciting incident is not the first plot point, it can be hard to pinpoint what exactly changes that incites the story. In Star Wars, the inciting incident might be Darth Vader capturing Leia’s ship (because then Leia needs rescuing, and it also gives a reason for the droids to leave). It might be when Luke finds the message Leia left in R2D2. Part of it depends on how the story is being framed–as to who is the main character, how close the voice is (omnipresent stories can have different inciting incidents from first person narratives), etc.

Inciting incidents also often reveal what genre a story is, especially in stories that have real world trappings.

Do I Have to Have an Inciting Incident?

Yes. Without one, you have no story.

Does It Reveal the Main Plot?

Not necessarily. The only requirement of the inciting incident is that changes the main character’s life in some manner. It may not reveal the overall plot of a story. For example, the inciting incident in Harry Potter is when he finds out he’s a wizard–but that tells us nothing about Voldemort, the prophecy, or things to come. But no matter what comes next, Harry’s life has changed.

However, often the inciting incident causes your main character to want (or not want) something, which can lead into the main plot.

When Does an Inciting Incident Happen?

Generally, an inciting incident takes place some time during the first quarter (approximately 20-25%) of a story. It has to happen before the first plot point (which is the break between acts 1 and 2, if using an act structure). In many cases, it happens within the first 10% of a story. In some cases, it can happen before the story starts (off-screen) or at the same time as the first plot point.

What Happens Before an Inciting Incident?

Before an inciting incident is the status quo. We see the main character, the world they live in, and their normal life. Often some sort of stake is introduced, something that the character is willing to fight to defend, as this may provide motivation for the character later. Generally the main character also has some sort of more mundane issue motivating them at the moment, which may or may not be related to the main plot.

What Happens After an Inciting Incident?

After the inciting incident we have the build-up to the main plot and the first plot point. This can be short or long, depending on how close the inciting incident happens to the first plot point. In many cases, whatever dilemma the character was worrying about before the incident continues to dominate. But eventually things come to a head and the first plot point happens.

About That First Plot Point

The first plot point is where the main story gets rolling. It’s where the main character makes a decision and begins to act on it. It’s where Frodo decides to take the ring to Mordor, it’s where Luke decides to go rescue Leia. In a Hero’s Journey, it’s the Crossing the Threshold. At this point, the main character absolutely can not go back to the way things were. The antagonist is often introduced or directly responsible for this plot point. The main character may learn that what he thought he knew was all a lie. The first plot point happens 20-25% through the story and bridges between act 1 and act 2.

So, there you go, Squiders. Agree with my definitions? Anything you would add?

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Pretty good description, I think. It’s that thing you can’t unsee, the revelation that may have been there all along. I like your line about never going back.

    Reply

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