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Inciting Incident: Definition, Examples, and Tips

inciting incident

You’ve written a first draft. And with that major milestone completed, I’m guessing you want others to read your story and love it.

That means you need to perform a story edit. This is where you step back and evaluate your story from “Chapter 1” to “The End”.

The story arc is made up of the Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, the Midpoint, Plot Point 2, and the Climax.

Today, we’ll cover the first key event in the story arc. The inciting incident.

What Is an Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the moment the protagonist’s world changes in a dramatic way.

It’s a major turning point that occurs before the midpoint of the first act. Note it doesn’t have to be the first event in your story.

The dramatic change can be positive or negative and should give the protagonist a goal she can’t turn away from.

To make your inciting incident shine, make it cause both a conscious and unconscious desire in your protagonist.

I recommend that you write your inciting incident as a dramatic scene and not as backstory or narrative summary. This enables the reader to experience the event at the same time as the protagonist and increases your chances of getting the reader emotionally involved.

The inciting incident can happen to the protagonist or can be caused by the protagonist. It’s up to you as the artist to decide what’s best for your story.

Inciting Incident Definition

In the three-act story structure, the inciting incident is the moment the protagonist’s world changes in a dramatic way. 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”.

Inciting Incident Examples

  • Gone Girl: Nick comes home to find his wife missing. (External goal — find wife. Internal goal — get wife out of his life.)
  • The Martian: Mark Watney goes missing during a storm on Mars. His teammates can’t find him, think he’s dead, and evacuate the planet.
  • 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.

How to Find an Inciting Event

Questions that might help you discover your inciting incident and improve your story:

1) What is the event/scene that introduces the story’s goal and will set the protagonist on a journey?

Fictionary Inciting Incident

Is it obvious to the reader that this is the start of the journey? The harbinger of things to come? You want your reader thinking, “I wonder what will happen to the character because this happened. How will this play out?” It introduces the goal of the story – we know what the journey will be about based on this event (Harry must find out what it means to be a wizard, Katniss must take part in – and try to survive – the Hunger Games.)


2) Is your inciting incident placed well in your story?

You not only need to discover your inciting incident, you must ensure it happens at the right time int eh story. It’s important to set your story up. You need to introduce your characters in their comfort zone, their current ‘normal’ world. Who are they? What do they do? How to they interact with the people and circumstances around them? What might be their ‘fatal flaw’ – the thing that will blind them to what they need so they can triumph at the end (and they will spend the next half of the story figuring out)?

Write the inciting incident, the catalyst that will change your protagonist’s world, somewhere before the 15% mark of your manuscript. (Ideally, thanks to Amazon’s preview feature, this should be before 10% of the way through, so it’s the hook to grab those who choose to read a preview of your story.)

Fictionary Inciting Incident

If you write too much introduction, you risk boring your readers. They will wonder when something is going to happen that makes the book worth reading.

If you don’t write enough introduction, the reader won’t feel for the character, so won’t care what happens to them. They may put the book down even if you’ve written a fantastic inciting incident.

3) Is the inciting incident exciting/promising enough to hook the reader in? Is this event strong enough to carry the plot of the entire story, or even a series?

This is it. The catalyst to big changes for your character. The thing that will change their life and who they are. Does the inciting incident scene reflect that?

If you’ve written the set-up scenes well, you have the reader at least interested in the character. The inciting incident should be intriguing enough that makes them want to keep reading to find out how the protagonist journeys through the plot you have written.

In the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, the assassin Celaena Sardothien is in a prison camp. Cruel conditions and mass graves are the norm. The crown prince offers her a chance to compete to become the king’s assassin – a king she hates. If she accepts the offer, she risks either losing her life in the competition or winning and working for a man she despises. If she declines, she will remain in the camp and continue to exist in unbearable conditions. Whew! No spoilers here, but let’s just say that’s only the beginning of the conflicts for our heroine.

4) Is this something that happens to the character?

Most often inciting incidents happen to the protagonist – it could be receiving an offer (Throne of Glass) or information (“You’re a wizard, Harry!”), or a change in situation, like a new world (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) or a missing wife (Gone Girl).

Note that this is a ‘most of the time’ kind of thing. Artistic license is allowed, but whether your inciting incident is a choice your protagonist makes with unintended consequences, or something happens to your character, it still must have dire consequences.

We’re over half way to helping you discover your inciting incident.

5) Are the stakes high enough that the protagonist can’t turn away?

The inciting incident is an event your protagonist cannot turn away from, or they risk unthinkable consequences.

• If Harry decided he didn’t want to be a wizard and go to Hogwarts, he would risk staying at the Dursley’s, living under the stairs as an unloved inconvenience.

• If Katniss didn’t volunteer for the Hunger Games, Prim would have gone and wouldn’t have survived.

The stakes are high, so the protagonist must choose to engage in a conflict they didn’t see coming.

6) Have they been forced out of their status quo comfort zone and entered a new world?

This new world could be literal or metaphorical, but it will be outside their comfort zone, and it will require them to navigate new challenges and conflicts.

• Harry learns of a world full of magic. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

• Lucy learns of a literal new world full of mythical creatures and talking beasts. (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

• Dorothy wakes up in Oz. (The Wizard of Oz)

• Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games, leaving behind everything she knows. (The Hunger Games)

7) Have you linked your inciting incident to your climax?

Fictionary Inciting IncidenThe inciting incident kicks off the action and conflict of the story, and the climax is the culmination of all that has gone before. The climax should mirror your inciting incident, as this will provide a satisfying conclusion for your readers. There are several ways to accomplish this:

  1. Linking the protagonist’s inner goal or external goal
  2. Kicking off a conflict and then resolving it
  3. Showing character growth and change
  4. Showing opposing forces battle

Your inciting incident is imperative to your story. It is the event that will trigger the plot and character arcs, the thing that will set up the conflict of the story. It will hook readers into wanting to know more and see the action played out, whether that is following a young boy as he figures out how magic works and how he is the one who can defeat the Dark Lord, or if it is cheering for two romantic characters who meet under adverse conditions.

If you ask yourself a few questions to ensure you can discover your inciting incident, you are on your way to having a story your readers won’t be able to put down.

How to Place Inciting Incident in a Story

The story arc has been around for over 2000 years. It’s a proven form to keep readers engaged and is not about formula. The story, the imagination is unique to you.

The story arc is the structure of your story and the timing of the events in that story.

The arc takes the reader from one state at the beginning to a changed state at the end.

Using the tools at your disposal, like the story arc, and knowing how to write and when to place key events in your story for maximum reader satisfaction is key to a good story. So what’s a good story? It’s story others want to read.

The first of the key events is the inciting incident.

The inciting incident exists in the context of the complete story arc. If you don’t have an inciting incident in the first 15% of your novel, you need a strong reason for delaying it. Readers expect something to trigger the protagonist to act. If you delay the inciting incident, add in subplots that keep the reader engaged.

Example Story Arc

Here’s an example of a story arc from Fictionary. The brown line shows the recommended story arc, and the green line shows the actual story arc for the novel.

You can see above, the inciting incident occurs too late in the story. The writer will lose readers who get bored.

After that, plot point 1 is reached too quickly, denying the reader story depth.

And on it goes until the climax is too late, and there isn’t enough time for a satisfactory resolution. Meaning the reader won’t read the writer’s next book.