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Whether you’ve been writing fiction since you could hold a pencil or you’re an aspiring novelist staring at a blank page for the first time, everyone can benefit from understanding some of the basic features of a well-crafted story. Every piece you write will be as unique as you are, but by following tried and tested frameworks, you’ll be on the path to success in no time. One of the most important elements of your story is the inciting incident. But what do inciting incidents mean?
In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about spicing up your writing with plot twists and share examples from the world’s best-known stories to give you some inspiration.
Let’s first start with an inciting incident definition. Originating from the Latin word “incitare”, meaning to start up, inciting incidents are key plot points that interrupt (and usually upturn) the life of the protagonist.
The clue is really in the word “inciting,” meaning to encourage or stir up. It’s the moment in the story where everything changes for the main character and sets them on their journey that will take place throughout the rest of the tale. From this point onward, the protagonist has a mission that takes them away from their normal life, with the inciting incident providing the catalyst for driving the action that follows.
Inciting incidents usually happen to the protagonist and are entirely out of their control—rather than events that are their own doing. Whether or not it’s considered to be life-changing is up to you, but the event should always be big enough to cause an interruption in the main character’s life and elicit some kind of immediate need to respond, even if the actual action comes later in the story.
When Does It Occur in a Story?
The inciting incident typically occurs within the first few chapters of the story, or within the first 25% of the plot. This gives the writer time to take the protagonist through a series of steps as they try to resolve the problem that the inciting incident has brought about.
If we think about the inciting incident in terms of a multi-part narrative structure, it usually comes second—after the exposition (introduction or story-setting narrative) and before the rising action and initial complications. It’s the first movement upward toward the middle point of the story: the dilemma or crisis.
It’s important to remember your reader when you’re trying to find the perfect place for your inciting incident. If you drag the first chapters on for too long with background information before any action happens, your readers may get bored and stop reading.
How to Identify the Inciting Incident
In most cases, when we think about what is the inciting incident, it’s often the point in the story when the reader feels a dramatic upheaval for the main character. A few of the questions to ask when identifying these moments are:
- Was the main character behaving differently before this event occurred?
- Does the protagonist now have a goal that they’re actively working toward that they weren’t before?
- Has the setting moved away from the main character’s normal life into something or somewhere else?
One important point to remember is that the inciting incident doesn’t always have to be negative. Positive interruptions, like the arrival of an unexpected guest or meeting a romantic partner (the go-to inciting incident in most romance stories), can be just as important and cause as much interruption to the protagonist’s life as something disastrous.
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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
There are several instances that could be considered the inciting incident in the first Harry Potter book, from the first letters arriving at the Dursley’s house to Hagrid pulling up on his flying motorbike. But the clinching moment for the protagonist that kickstarts the real action is pulled together in one of the most famous (and meme-worthy) quotes from the series: “Yer a wizard, Harry.”
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Like with Harry Potter, a single line, “I volunteer as tribute,” launches the main character of Katniss into an unexpected adventure, taking her away from home and into the danger of The Hunger Games. As readers, we immediately empathize with Katniss in her desire to save her younger sister and are hooked into finding out how her journey will end.
The Wizard of Oz
When a tornado rips through her town and she emerges to find herself in Oz, Dorothy embarks on a mission—accompanied by her little dog Toto—to get back home. The extreme weather takes her away from everything she knows and along the way she meets a host of characters before finally completing her journey.
It’s clear to see the sparks flying when Allie and Noah meet for the first time, and the whole story of the movie builds from the connection between these two characters. Their journey, much like any relationship, isn’t simple or straightforward, but their first meeting sets the stage for the adventure that follows.
Now that you have a better understanding of the question, “What is an inciting incident?”, it’s time to learn how to add them into your own works of creative fiction.
If you’re not sure where to begin, start with the end. Now, hear us out. It may seem counterproductive to work backward, but knowing exactly where you want your characters to end up will help you to determine how best to get them there.
You’ll want to plot both the climax at roughly the midpoint of your story, as well as the resolution at the very end. From there, you can fill in the blanks—the rising action leading to the climax, the inciting incident that sets the protagonist on their way, along with any story-setting scenes that you need to include. By working in this way, you’ll ensure that all of your key plot points, including the inciting incident, tie all of your story themes together.
Once you’ve mapped out your structure, it’s time to start getting into the details of what your inciting incident will be. Conflicts are often a good plot device and give you the opportunity to set up drama between your protagonist and antagonist.
Most conflicts, even if expected, will create some kind of unnerving call-to-action for your main character—just the type of life-upheaving event that you need to get them started on their new path. They’re a great way to hook your readers and keep them on the edge of their seats as the tension increases towards a dramatic conclusion.
No matter what kind of story you’re choosing to tell, building the suspense from your inciting incident will keep your readers engaged and interested from beginning to end.
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