How to Discover Your Inciting Incident
Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, at some point you will need to have a look at your story structure. Do you have all the main plot points? Do they work where they are in the story, following the story arc?
If you are a plotter, you may have already figured out the skeleton of your story based on those plot points. Now, as you edit, you need to make sure all things work together.
If you are a pantser, you have allowed the tale to grow organically. Now you need to go back and make sure your book has the bones of good story structure.
First things first; let’s look at the inciting incident.
What is an inciting incident?
To review, the inciting incident is the first of the main story structure plot points. This is something that happens to the protagonist that starts them on the journey towards the story goal. The thing that kick starts the action. (In fact, the Hero’s Journey calls this plot point ‘the call to action’.) You can read more about the inciting incident and some examples here, and again here.
So how can you discover your inciting incident?
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?
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.)
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?
The 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. As Kristina Stanley writes in her blog post, there are several ways to accomplish this:
- Linking the protagonist’s inner goal or external goal
- Kicking off a conflict and then resolving it
- Showing character growth and change
- 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.
Post written by Kara Henderson
I have a passion for story, and I love working with authors to help them make their manuscript the best version of the story they’ve created. Through Fictionary, I can help you know what you do well, and I will help you figure out what needs to be tweaked to allow your story/writing to be as good as it can be.
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