TAP015, How to Write the Inciting Incident
So, you’ve created a great narrative hook and an ordinary world scene for your story and you’re thinking ‘what next?’ In this episode, I will share with you the important elements of the next plot point in the first act of your story. The next plot point in the first act is the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the scene that many first time writers seem to confuse or entirely overlook. Most often this scene is confused with the hook or the first plot point. I will discuss the first plot point in another episode. But, today I want to take the time to point out the elements of the inciting incident.
This is the third instalment of my three-act structure mini series. If you’ve just joined me on this episode then, I will link the previous three episodes, the hook, the ordinary world, and the episode on three-act structure below.
TAP015, Plot and Story Structure: The Inciting Incident
A Minor Change to the Series
I’ve decided against unpacking the key scenes in Sanctus due to the stories length and complexity. The story has a tonne of setup and a huge cast of characters. I now realise this story isn’t a great choice when explaining three-act structure. Instead, I’ll share examples from literature and film.
So, let’s get started.
In a nutshell
The inciting incident must appear in the first act of the story. It’s between 10 to 15% of the way through the novel. This isn’t set in stone but, it must appear around this time because you need to establish the ordinary world and then set it up for disruption. So, everything between the ordinary world and the inciting incident is story setup. An inciting incident is a metaphorical bridge between the ordinary world and the core conflict of the novel. Without this bridge the story wouldn’t make sense. This plot point changes the status quo of your protagonists ordinary world and forces the unwilling character to take steps toward the core conflict of your story.
So, what should you include in a great inciting incident scene?
There are five things you need to do in the inciting incident. I know this sounds like a lot of things to think about as you write or outline, but I wanted to break down the elements so it’s easy for you to follow.
1. A problem and an Opportunity to Act
The inciting incident is set in motion by an event such as, a text message, a phone call, an unexpected visit, or a false arrest. This trigger event needs to be strong enough to force the protagonist to act and take a risk. The protagonist needs to go from passive to reactive. The easiest way to do this is to present them with a choice and little time to decide. A choice that will cost your protagonist no matter which option they pick. It’s important you show the reason your protagonist chooses the option. The choice presented to protagonist by the inciting incident must appeal to something with them to make their reaction believable.
2. By Choice or By Force
The protagonist has a part to play in the inciting incident. They made a decision that put them in the right place at the right time. But, the consequences of this action are often unintentional. We’ve all been in situations are beyond our control. The same needs to be true of your protagonist. So, your protagonist might go to a specific location but the problem should find them. An example of this is your protagonist is travelling home and they witness a murder. They’re dragged into the police station for questioning. It turns out the protagonist is the only witness and now the only suspect. The protagonist now has an invested interest to solve a murder.
3. It Triggers an Emotional Response for the Protagonist
The inciting incident should cause your protagonist to react instead of act. When someone reacts they do so out of emotion and not out of a rational place. By reaction out of emotion the protagonist takes a risk. And not just any risk, the risk. The protagonist has been avoiding this risk for so long. A risk like this should trigger fear which leads to action taken from an emotional place. This is something we all can relate to and so can you reader. These emotional reactions are revealing. The protagonists reaction in a crisis shows personality. It also exposes their values, goals, strengths, and weaknesses.
As you write this plot point, consider what you want to reveal about the protagonist. Choose the personality trait first, then consider what type of event would reveal this. If you’re stuck creating a moment to bring out these revelations here are a few examples to consider.
- The Death of a loved one.
- Being framed for a murder you did not commit.
- Getting fired from a job when you have a huge amount of debt piling up around you.
- Catching a partner cheating.
- A loved one goes missing, but no one takes your claims seriously.
- An orphan seeks the truth about their past only to have answers ripped away at the last minute.
4. Set into Motion by the Antagonist
The actions of the antagonist cause a problem faced by the protagonist in the inciting incident. These actions are deliberate, there’s no room for accidents here. The antagonist has a plan and sets it in motion. In the process of this plan, the actions affect the life of the protagonist. At this point in the story, the protagonist is unaware of the antagonist or the plans they have set in motion. All the protagonist knows is they have pain in their life and they want a quick fix. This is the only point in the novel where you can have a passive protagonist reacting. After this point the protagonist needs to act and decide and not react.
5. Triggers Your Story into Motion
The inciting incident needs to be a point in which the rest of your story evolves. You need to look back at this point in your story and see how it changed the course of the protagonist life and without it the story would not be the same. This trigger moment hurdles your protagonist towards the point of no return or the first plot point at the close of Act One, through a series of events and choices. It’s almost like a series of dominos the first one falls and triggers the next and so on. It creates a logical flow for your story.
Examples of the Inciting Incident from the Hunger Games
In The Hunger Games, the inciting incident occurs when Prim is chosen for the games and her sister Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss and Primm are at an age where they must attend the reaping organised by the government of Panem. There is no choice, they must be at the reaping ceremony. As Primm is chosen and Katniss makes a last minute decision fuelled by her need to protect her Mother and Sister. We know Katniss’s mother has been through a considerable amount of loss. The government created the reaping and the games to prevent another uprising. Which reveals later that President Snow is the antagonist and orchestrates the games. Without the Katniss’s choice the plot in the entire trilogy wouldn’t be set in motion.
For those of you who want to dig deeper into writing a great inciting incident than I recommend reading ‘Write Great Fiction – Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting and Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish’ by James Scott Bell. I recommend reading chapter two on page 22 of the paperback. The chapter focuses on story structure. Bell renames the plot point used by the traditional three act structure but he does this to help you understand what the terms mean. I love this book because it’s easy to understand and doesn’t make structure complicated like so many other writing craft books.
The inciting incident disturbs the ordinary world of your protagonist. It presents a problem and an opportunity to act. A choice the protagonist makes places them at the right place and brings the problem into their world. The problem triggers an emotional response. This response leads to an impulsive decision. But the protagonist doesn’t realise that the antagonist sets a plan in motion that creates the problem. This plan also creates a series of events that unfolds in your story. Before you dive into writing your novel, I want you to consider the inciting incident of your favourite book. What can you learn from this? How can you apply it to your story?
As always I have to ask, are you writing your first novel or, are you writing the inciting incident for your story? Which tip did you find most helpful? Let me know by coming over to the blog post or the YouTube video and sharing in the comments section.
Thank you for listening, reading, commenting and sharing with such enthusiasm.
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I’m Amelia. I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Missing, the Lawn, and the Candidate. On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process. Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.