On the Importance of Inciting Incidents

A while back I posted a Twitter poll asking writers at what point in their story the inciting incident took place.

I expected a range of answers, but was surprised to find more than one reply of “I don’t have one.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes, you probably do, but might not have pinpointed it. And if you truly don’t have one, that might be a big problem.

So what is an inciting incident, exactly?

Simply put, it’s the moment your plot actually starts. In the traditional Hero’s Journey (as laid out by Joseph Campbell), the book opens with the protagonist’s “ordinary world”. Everything is normal. You get a glimpse of their personality, their goals in life, and the setting.

The inciting incident is the moment where this all changes. It’s the thing that pivots your character out of the everyday into something different. This could be as simple as a meet-cute in a romance novel. Or it could be something big, either emotionally impactful like a family member’s death or as flashy as an alien invasion.

Think of the 1-line distillation of your book’s plot. For my book Cambiare, it’s the story of a princess who ends up embroiled in faerie politics. What got her to that point? What was the first moment of the story that was outside her “normal”? In this case, it’s her brother coming down with a deadly illness, which leads her to make a faerie bargain.

In Star Wars, the moment Luke’s life changes is when he finds Leia’s message.

In The Lord of the Rings, it’s when Frodo receives the ring.

Whatever event triggers the beginning of your plot, that’s your inciting incident. Even if that’s the protagonist choosing a different route home, one that leads him to bump into another character who changes his life in some way.

Why do I need one?

Because otherwise there would be no plot; it’s just following your character through uneventful day after uneventful day. Even a lot of “quiet” literary fiction is about character exploration or development, and it often has a moment where the protagonist’s life or character begins to change, though sometimes it’s in subtle ways.

Something about the story you’re writing makes it interesting. Is it adventure? Then the inciting incident is the thing that called your protagonist on their quest. Is your base plot an exploration of family dynamics? It’s that pivotal argument that begins the downward spiral.

In short, the inciting incident is where your story’s “it factor” begins.

I hope this brief summary helped clarify inciting incidents! Where does your story start? Sound off in the comments below!

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