Inciting Incident Definition and Examples
The world of creative writing comes with a whole new vocabulary, and it can be overwhelming to try to figure out what all these new words and phrases mean.
If you’re like me, definitions are good, but examples are better! Let me break this down for you in a way that will help you to understand inciting incidents and using inciting incidents in a story.
The Inciting Incident Definition
In the three-act story structure, the inciting incident is “the moment the protagonist’s world changes in a dramatic way” (fictionary.co). It’s the first beat of the story arc, the thing that kicks off the story. (In the hero’s journey, this would be “the call to adventure”.)
Note that the actual event doesn’t have to be dramatic (it can be meeting someone, or a police officer being assigned a specific case) or it can be very dramatic (a murder, or the protagonist finding out they are not at all who they thought they were).
An inciting incident can be caused by the protagonist (a choice they make, for instance), or it can be something that happens to them (either deliberately or by chance.)
In any case, the protagonist’s world is about to be turned upside down and they are going to be forced out of their comfort zone.
Where does it fit in the story?
The inciting incident should be somewhere in the first 15% of the story (have another look at the chart, above.) There needs to be some setup, so we know the protagonist’s world as it is before the upheaval, and so we understand their mindset, what is important to them, and why they act as they do.
The inciting incident is going to send the protagonist on both an external journey and internal journey, which they will be fighting, so we need to know them in their comfortable status-quo existence!
Using Inciting Incidents
If you’re a writer, you want to make sure your inciting incident follows some key parameters. It needs to be:
- Something world-changing enough that you can write a whole book about it. Finding out that the car accident that killed your parents was murder, for example, or falling in love with that cute boy from the family that your parents hate.
- Written into the story as it happens. Don’t have your inciting incident occur before the start of your story, as it won’t have the same impact on your reader.
- Something that actually affects your character’s world. Playing hide-and-seek doesn’t really work, unless you happen to hide in a wardrobe that leads to another world…
- Something that raises a question for the reader; who killed the protagonist’s parents? What will happen to the protagonist in this new world?
Inciting Incident Examples
And now to really cement the idea of inciting incidents into your mind, let’s look at some popular books and their inciting incidents.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the setup we see Harry in his normal world, living with his aunt and uncle and horrible cousin. Strange things start happening, but it’s not until Hagrid shows up and tells Harry he’s a wizard that Harry’s world changes in a big way.
- The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is the provider for her family, taking care of her little sister, Prim, and their mother. When Prim’s name is drawn for the games, Katniss volunteers in her place because she knows Prim would never survive. This starts her on a journey to not only survive the games, but to find a way to rebel against the system.
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Four siblings are sent away from London during the Second World War. One rainy day, Lucy hides in a wardrobe and wanders into Narnia. Eventually all the children get to Narnia and have great adventures there, changing them in that world and their own.
- Romeo and Juliet. We know that the Montagues and Capulets are feuding, but Romeo and Juliet meet at the ball and fall in love at first sight. Needless to say, this changes the course of their (short) lives in a drastic way.
- Twilight. Bella has moved to a new community to live with her father, and she becomes fascinated by a handsome boy named Edward. One day Edward miraculously saves her from being crushed by a car, and Bella begins a journey to find out what Edward is, even as she falls in love with him.
Some Last Thoughts
Inciting incidents are vital to a story because they are what starts the journey the protagonist must take. This is what makes a story a story! But if you really want to use inciting incidents to their full potential, consider linking your inciting incident to your climax. For example:
- Harry Potter is a wizard, but the climax of The Philosopher’s Stone (the battle when he keeps Voldemort from getting the stone) shows he’s not just any wizard.
- Katniss’s inciting incident in The Hunger Games is volunteering for the games, and the climax is her winning the games (although not in the way the reader expects – she wins the games and wins against the Capitol.)
- In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the inciting incident is getting into Narnia, while the climax is defeating the White Witch and saving Narnia.
- Twilight’s inciting incident is when Bella is saved by a good vampire, while in the climax she is almost killed by a bad vampire (and saved again by the good one.)
Now that you have the inciting incident definition on your toolbox, follow the links below and go deeper in your learning.
The Inciting Incident in the Context of the Story Arc
Linking the Inciting Incident and Climax
Masterclass article “What is an Inciting Incident”
Post Written by Kara Henderson
Kara Henderson is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach and a content creator for Fictionary. She attended Simon Fraser University for editing courses and is a student affiliate at Editors Canada. She edits blogs, creative non-fiction books, non-fiction books, and fiction novels. She has a passion for young adult stories.
She is excited about living life as a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach and helping writers make novels the best they can be.
She currently lives on Vancouver Island, Canada. Contact on LinkedIn.