The inciting incident is the best way to capture your reader’s interest hook, line, and story-telling sinker within the first part of your book. Sounds pretty exciting and important, doesn’t it? Let’s take a closer look.
What is an inciting incident?
The inciting incident is the pivotal moment in all stories in which something happens to a person or the world of that story that sets everything else in motion. The ensuing story then deals with that fallout.
Think about the moment Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or Bella Swan realizes Edward is a vampire in Twilight. For both these characters, their world, and the rest of the book, hinges on that moment. Everything else that happens results from that realization or revelation.
Why is it important?
The inciting incident often comes out of nowhere and helps throw the character(s) into turmoil, creating a problem or a series of events they must face/tackle/resolve that leads to the culmination of the story.
It propels everything that happens in the story, so it is important by definition. Without it, plots can seem to lag or never develop. It is never accidental, and writers use the inciting incident to hook their readers in and get them invested in the plot or its characters. It is actually one of the key plot points in the story arc that we outline in other blogs.
What makes an inciting incident good?
The value of an inciting incident is in its placement (see “When in the story should it happen?” below), how noticeably it shifts the story, and how much it will impact and drive the main characters. The disturbance of a character’s status quo with something that complicates their life is a good way of getting your reader interested. If it’s plausible and creates enough of a stir, the reader will realize they must buckle up for the ride ahead, and be prepared to strap themselves in for the duration.
Think of the inciting incident in the movie, Saving Private Ryan, when General George Marshall instructs his officers that a mission will be launched to find the last remaining Ryan fighting in Europe. It’s heartbreaking, compelling, and a beautiful sequence of events that leads to this moment, but we know it will now launch the rest of the plot. It’s fantastic.
When in the story should it happen?
The inciting incident should happen fairly early on in the story, as it will set up the rest of the plot and the motivations and actions of the characters. While it should happen early in the story, it doesn’t have to be in the actual opening lines or even paragraphs of the story.
It is best placed about 10-15 percent into the story when some elements of the story are already established, like the characters, the world of the story, any backstory and other key setting elements. Place it too early and you may not have already developed enough of that backstory to hold it together, and use it too late and your readers may become frustrated and lose interest.
Think of the story about Harry Potter above. We have already met Harry; we know he lives in a bedroom under the stairs in his aunt’s house and her family does not treat him too well. We also know that owls have been trying to deliver a letter to Harry that his uncle is adamant does not reach him. They flee to an island where the Hogwarts’ groundskeeper Hagrid tracks them down to successfully deliver that letter. Harry then finds out he’s a wizard—a moment of truth that becomes the inciting incident upon which the rest of the story is based. Here are those key lines:
“Harry — yer a wizard.”
“A what?” gasped Harry.
“A wizard, o’ course,” said Hagrid, sitting back down on the sofa, which groaned and sank even lower, “an’ a thumpin’ good’un, I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit.”
There are plenty of fine examples of the inciting incident. In C. S. Lewis’ first Narnia book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy unearths the mysterious world of Narnia by pushing through fur coats in a cupboard into a snowy forest. From that moment, her life and that of her siblings take an extraordinary turn into a magical world of beasts and conflict. Unlike other stories, this inciting incident actually takes place right at the beginning of the story on the fourth page. Let’s take a look:
“This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!” thought Lucy, going still further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet … A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time, with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
F. Scott Fitzgerald delays his use of the inciting incident in The Great Gatsby a little longer. The genius of this is that there has been so much backstory built up and plenty of intrigue about the central character that interest in him is very high when Gatsby finally makes an entrance. The readers all want to know who he is by this stage, as do the other central characters that we’ve met, and particularly Nick, who lives next door and is telling the story. In this inciting incident, Nick responds to Gatsby’s invitation to attend a party, keen to meet his intriguing neighbor.
“This is an unusual party for me. I haven’t even seen the host. I live over there — ” I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, “and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.”
For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand. “I’m Gatsby,” he said suddenly.
The inciting incident is the first important plot point you need to develop to entice your readers by using good placement and intriguing details to keep them reading your story. You want to completely ensnare your reader in the story. Make it dramatic, tie it to the plot’s central themes, and even use forces out of the character’s control (such as a storm or other physical elements) that propel them to this moment. That should set up the rest of the story as a good page turner.