Inciting Incident: How to Power Your Story

What would happen if you had a gun pointed at your head? Would you react calmly or panic? In real life, we don’t always act rationally. The way we react in a crisis tells a lot about us—the real us rather than the image we like to present to the world.

 

An inciting incident is a dramatic event that sets off a chain reaction that leads to a major conflict within a story. In other words, an inciting incident is something that causes a character to react in a way they never expected.

When you create an epic inciting incident, you get to see how your character reacts to a crisis. That is why a good inciting incident should be unexpected and unpredictable.

 

This guide explains what an inciting incident is and how to use it for maximum effect in your stories.

What Is an Inciting Incident?

The inciting incident can be thought of as the turning point in the plot. It is the moment when everything changes—the catalyst that makes the story happen and the point where the protagonist begins to act.

 

The protagonist’s action may be by choice. After all, the inciting incident definition commonly refers to the moment when something happens that causes a character to make a decision that will inform the entire story.

 

It may, however, be the point where the hero is caught up in a situation they don’t know how to handle or escape. Much of the story is often about their efforts to return to a Paradise Lost following this event, and their journey getting there.

 

There are several types of incidents, depending on how they affect the main character. For example, there may be a personal incident, such as a death; a physical incident, such as being injured; or a psychological incident, such as having a mental breakdown.

Criteria for an Inciting Incident

Inciting incidents usually have certain things in common:

 

  • They are unexpected and out of the character’s control.
  • They are significant and dramatic. 
  • They have high stakes and change the hero’s life in a big way.
  • They create an urgent goal, thus requiring an immediate response by the hero and setting the stage for the entire story.
  • They are tied to the core value of the story and act as the catalyst that will propel the narrative.

Types of Inciting Incidents

There are many ways to categorize inciting incidents. The most helpful way to examine them, though, is through the lens of the character’s level of control: does the hero have any control over the incident, or is it a random event they can’t influence in any way?

 

This crucial distinction allows us to categorize inciting incidents as casual, coincidental, and ambiguous.

Causal Inciting Actions

A casual inciting action is related to a choice made by the hero or about them. This is a personal incident, i.e. one that happens to the main character personally. It can be a death, a divorce, a relationship breakup, etc. The hero must make a clear choice about their path.

 

It may also be a Social Incident—one that involves other people. Some examples include a fight between two friends, a riot, a robbery, etc.

 

Finally, it can be a psychological incident, i.e., one that happens psychologically to the main character. Examples include a nervous breakdown, a hallucination, a premonition, etc.

 

This deliberate choice tells us something about the hero and helps shape the story.

Coincidental Inciting Actions

A coincidental inciting action is a random event that the hero can’t influence in any way. This may be a physical incident, such as getting hit by a car, getting shot, getting stabbed, etc.


It may also be a case of “being in the right place at the right time.” The hero may help thwart a robbery, receive strange powers thanks to a meteorite, or even stumble upon a magical land through a portal in the back of a wardrobe.

Finally, it may be a political incident or something else that is related to the hero’s surroundings. An example would be a coup d’etat, a revolution, or a war, but also a hurricane, earthquake, or storm.

Ambiguous Inciting Actions

Sometimes it is unclear how the inciting action fits into the story: is it the result of choice or chance? This is common in thrillers such as The Sixth Sense, where the ambiguity is only resolved at the end and serves as a shocking twist.

 

Another common example is that of a man waking up to a body with no memory of how he ended up there. Did he commit a murder? Is he being framed? What will he do next—call the cops or flee the scene and pray he’s never found out? We may only find out the truth at the book’s end but the inciting event will tell us all we need to know about the hero and inform our opinion of him right from the start.

Why Inciting Incidents Matter

Simply put, without an inciting incident you don’t have a story but a series of events. Inciting incidents have several important effects on your story. They compel your characters to develop. They help your readers understand who your characters are. They provide conflict. And they give your story a beginning, middle, and end.

They Help Your Characters Develop

Inciting events allow your characters to grow. They force them to change. They push them out of their comfort zones by putting them in situations that they wouldn’t normally encounter.

 

If you don’t include an inciting incident, then your characters won’t face these challenges. You might think that your character would never do anything so bold. But if your character doesn’t experience adversity, she may not grow. She may remain stagnant.

 

Your characters need to struggle through obstacles. Otherwise, they’ll stay the same. They’ll never learn new skills. They’ll never get stronger or become better at what they do.

 

The best way to help your characters grow is to give them a set of challenging tasks. If you want your characters to improve, then give them difficult problems to solve. Give them problems that they can’t easily overcome. Inciting events usually have this effect.

 

They also help your characters deal with tragedy. Tragedy is one of the most powerful forces in fiction, as it pushes your characters beyond their limits. It makes them confront their fears and helps them gain perspective.

 

If you don’t include an inciting event, then your characters won’t be pushed past their limits. They won’t face any tragedies, so they will never have to work hard to overcome adversity.

They Help Readers Understand Your Characters

Inciting incidents show your reader who your characters are. When we read stories, we often try to figure out what each character is thinking. We try to guess how they will respond to a situation. We assume that, if we see someone doing something, then they will always continue doing the same thing.

 

Readers use imagination to fill in the gaps. Astute authors can use this to their advantage. They surprise the reader by having characters do something out of, well, character. 

 

For example, suppose that you are reading a book where the main character has just been fired from a job that previous chapters suggested she loves. You assume that she is going to feel sad and expect her to cry but instead, a feeling of relief and joy emerge out of nowhere. The rest of the story can explore where this feeling stems from and how she uses it to propel her to a new destiny.

 

This is why inciting incidents are so important. They show your readers the truth about who your characters are—a truth that even the characters themselves may have failed to realize. By showing readers the characters’ actions, you use “show, don’t tell” to help them understand who your characters are more clearly.

They Provide Conflict

Another reason why incidents matter is that they provide conflict. In order to keep your story interesting, you need to introduce some sort of tension. Ideally, this tension should come from within your characters rather than outside influences like plot devices and gimmicks.

 

In other words, you don’t want your characters to fight off aliens, escape from prison, or defeat an evil villain. These aren’t conflicts, they’re distractions—mere parlor tricks that don’t build up enough suspense to make your readers care about your story.

 

Instead, you want your characters to struggle against themselves. To wrestle with their own demons. To battle their inner monsters.

 

When your characters are struggling against themselves, they’re facing real challenges and exploring the human condition. That means that they’re learning valuable lessons and growing as people, which is what keeps readers interested.

They Create Drama​

Incidents also cause drama. They create tension, excitement, and conflict. All of these things add up to create drama. Drama is what creates interest. Interest is what drives your readers forward. Without it, no one would ever finish a novel.

 

Inciting incidents are great ways to generate drama. They create tension by forcing your characters to confront their worst fears. They create excitement by pushing your characters to the edge of their abilities. And they create conflict by giving your characters problems to solve.

 

Inciting incidents thus give your characters opportunities to grow. If your characters are forced to deal with tragedy, they learn lessons that help them become better people.

Inciting incidents can even lead to romance. In the face of adversity and tragedy, they may fall in love.

Inciting Incident Examples

Here are three of the best-known inciting incidents in the history of books and movies: Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Hamlet. 

 

In all of these, we have an unsuspecting hero living a (well, kind of) normal life who has to make a choice to abandon everything they knew thus far for the sake of a high-risk adventure with no clear benefit to them.

Harry Potter

Harry Potter is just an orphan living under his cruel uncle’s stairway. Then, one day, an owl comes with a message for him from a stranger called Hagrid. Harry now has to choose whether to go to stay in the safety of his home or leave for the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. 

 

If the choice seems simple enough given how he’s treated by the rest of his family, don’t forget that pursuing the path of wizardry is what got both his parents killed by an evil sorcerer—a fact that must surely be in the back of his mind.

Luke Skywalker

Luke Skywalker is just a boy living on a farm with his uncle and aunt. Then, one day, he comes across a droid with a message from a Princess asking for the help of a General Kenobi. “This is our most desperate hour,” the message ends. “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”

 

Luke now has to make a difficult choice: should he try to locate this general or go back home and forget all about the strange encounter? An encounter, after all, that seemingly has no bearing on him or his idyllic life on the farm!

Hamlet

Hamlet is a forlorn prince. His father has passed and he’s grieving when he hears that his father’s ghost is haunting the castle’s battlements. As soon as he goes there, the ghost appears and tells him that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle. He then asks him to avenge his murder by killing the new king.

 

Hamlet is a prince and has much to lose if he goes down the path this ghost asks of him. Further, he has no way of knowing if this seemingly unlikely claim is even true. Should he risk everything just because a specter has asked him to?

How to Write an Inciting Incident

When you write a story, you want to keep your reader engaged. They need to know what’s going to happen next. In short, you need to give them clues. These clues could be anything from dialogue, to settings, to character traits. All of these things will lead to a climax.

 

You can think of an inciting incident as a catalyst. It sets everything else in motion. Think of it as a firecracker that explodes, igniting a forest full of dry leaves. But how can you use an inciting incident in a story?

 

To create an epic inciting incident, you must start out with a solid idea of what your story is going to be about. Then you need to figure out what kinds of incitements you are going to use. Once you have identified them, you need to come up with ways to incorporate them into your story. Remember, you want to keep your incitements as realistic as possible, so don’t go overboard with them. Keep them subtle and understated.

 

One way to choose an epic inciting incident is to ask yourself some key questions. Use them to get the creative juices flowing, as answering them will help you come up with ideas when looking for the perfect incident to kickstart your story.

  • Is the inciting incident necessary? Does it really matter? If not, then why does it exist?
  • Does the inciting scene contain all the elements needed to keep the reader interested?
  • Does the inciting moment give us any information we don’t already know?
  • Does the inciting episode provide the reader with new information?
  • Does the inciting episode reveal something important about the main character?
  • Do we understand the main character better because of this incident?
  • How does the incident make us feel for the main character?
  • Do we sympathize with the main character because of what happened?
  • Does the inciting element serve any purpose besides setting up the rest of the story?
  • Does the inciting incident occur early enough in the story? Or does it come too late?
  • If the inciting incident occurs later in the story, does it still work? Why or why not?

What would happen if you had a gun pointed at your head? Would you react calmly or panic? In real life, we don’t always act rationally. The way we react in a crisis tells a lot about us—the real us rather than the image we like to present to the world.

 

An inciting incident is a dramatic event that sets off a chain reaction that leads to a major conflict within a story. In other words, an inciting incident is something that causes a character to react in a way they never expected.

When you create an epic inciting incident, you get to see how your character reacts to a crisis. That is why a good inciting incident should be unexpected and unpredictable.

 

This guide explains what an inciting incident is and how to use it for maximum effect in your stories.

Frequently Asked Questions

The term “inciting incident” was originally used in journalism. It was first used in 1954 by John Kenneth Galbraith in his book, The Affluent Society. He defined incitement as “any event which causes people to change their behavior.”

In fiction, inciting incidents are also called inciting events, inciting actions, or catalysts.

An incitement is a plot device used in storytelling to move the story forward. Inciting incidents are similar to catalysts, except that they are used to trigger events rather than cause them. They are plot devices that serve to kickstart the narrative of a story.

Yes, absolutely! Without an inciting incident, you don’t have a story but a journal of places your hero visited and the things he did. It is the inciting incident that will get the story going, let your hero develop, and provide the conflict and drama necessary to elevate the journal into a book worth reading.

There are two schools of thought in writing: the first one wants the author to fully establish where the hero is before the inciting incident occurs. This lets the reader better understand the stakes at heart: what the hero is giving up when the inciting event does occur and what they lose. So, the author starts with a long exposition and the inciting event comes as a shock when it comes. This was the technique traditionally preferred by authors until a few decades ago.

 

The second school takes into account the lack of patience characterizing most readers nowadays. A long introduction to the current, uneventful situation will cause many readers to either skip that part or put down the book in favor of a more exciting one. Therefore, writers should start with as brief an introduction as possible and move straight into the inciting incident.

 

A common way to combine the two, first used by Homer some 3,000 years ago, is the in media res technique. Specifically, a modern twist whereby the author starts with an exciting event, e.g. an explosion, then works back to explain what led to it. Exposition can wait and the inciting event can either be part of the introduction or wait until it essentially becomes part of the exposition.

Some argue that a story can never have two inciting incidents.

 

Others believe that, while it’s relatively uncommon, a story can have several inciting incidents.

 

Consider Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. In Potter’s case, the choice to leave his home is all his. Luke, however, has his hand forced. His family lies dead in the hands of Imperial Stormtroopers. This atrocity acts as a supporting coincidental incident, leaving him with no home to return to. Is it a real inciting incident, though? That is largely a matter of perspective.

 

Additionally, in some genres, it is common to have multiple points of view, as is the case with A Song of Ice and Fire. It can be argued that each of the characters has their own inciting incidents. King Robert’s visit to the North is an inciting incident and this serves as the inciting incident for Ned Stark, who must choose whether to accept the position of King’s Hand or not.

 

Ned Stark’s is not the only point of view in the story, though. Ser Jaime Lannister’s inciting incident, for example, comes when Bran Stark stumbles upon the love affair between Jaime and Cersei Lannister—and Jaime has to choose what to do (spoiler: he sends him flying down the tower). Sansa Stark’s inciting incident comes when she witnesses the death of her family. And Aria Stark’s inciting incident comes with the death of her fencing instructor, who gives his life to save hers.

 

Some may argue that the only true inciting incident is the King’s visit to the North. Others will counterargue that each of the characters has their own inciting incident, as described above. As with Star Wars, it seems to be more about perspective than clear-cut rules.

Absolutely. Winning the lottery, for example, can be a great inciting incident. Of course, and depending on the hero's choices, it can easily lead to tragedy.

An inciting incident can be anything, including a flashback. Consider, for example, a soldier who’s back home. His memory is foggy and he can’t remember the details of his last mission. Then he has a flashback that triggers a quest to figure out what really happened out there.

A popular writing tip goes like this: “In the first act, put your character up a tree. In the second act, throw rocks at them. In the third act, bring them down.” The first rock thrown can be thought of as an inciting incident.

So, what follows is the unfolding of the story based on the choice the hero makes during the inciting indent. Think where you wish your hero to end up and then think of where the rock thrown at him will lead him.

An inciting incident is not the same as the first plot point.

An inciting incident is the event that triggers the protagonist's journey toward their goal. It usually occurs at the beginning of the story. The inciting incident is often the catalyst that sets off the main action of the story.

 The first plot point is the moment when the protagonist realizes they need to change direction in order to achieve their goals. This is usually after they fail their initial attempt to solve the problem instigated by the inciting incident.

 In other words, the inciting incident is the starting point of the story while the first plot point is the turning point where the character decides to follow a different course of action.

An inciting incident is not the same as rising action.

An inciting incident is when a character first experiences something that will change their life forever. It usually happens at the beginning of the story and sets up the rest of the plot. In other words, it's the catalyst that causes everything to happen.

Rising Action usually occurs during the middle of the story and is often used to describe events that occur after the inciting incident. For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen has been chosen to compete in the games, but she doesn't know why until she goes to District 12 to meet her family. That's the moment we enter Rising Action.

An inciting incident is not the same as conflict.

An inciting incident is when a character experiences a dramatic event that causes them to change their behavior. It is not necessarily a fight or argument, but rather a significant life-changing experience.

Conflict occurs when two characters disagree about something. Conflict is often used to describe a situation where one person wants something while another doesn't. In other words, they're at odds with each other.

Nicholas C. Rossis

Nicholas C. Rossis

Nicholas C. Rossis lives to write and does so from his cottage on the edge of a magical forest in Athens, Greece. When not composing epic fantasies, children’s books, or short sci-fi stories, he chats with fans and colleagues, writes blog posts, and enjoys the antics of his dog, cat, and young daughter, all of whom claim his lap as home. His books have won numerous awards, including the prestigious IBBY Award.

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