A Quick Explanation Of The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident in your novel is going to be the event, early in the story, that will interrupt life-as-we-know-it for your protagonist. In general, you might think of the inciting incident as the kick-off to the plot. It will present your character with a choice from which they cannot turn back.
A commonly-used example of an inciting incident is in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Hagrid tells Harry he’s a wizard. This knowledge completely disrupts Harry’s life with the Dursleys and launches him into his new life in the world of magic.
The inciting event can happen on page one or as late as one-fourth of the way into the book (this late is pushing it, but I’ve seen it), but it must happen early, it must set the protagonist on a new course, and it must create a sense of urgency for the story and your character.
The inciting incident will always result in conflict and complications, but the incident itself can be something that appears positive, like taking a dream a job offer, or negative, like a plane crash.
What Comes Before the Inciting Incident?
When you’re writing the scene that includes the inciting event, you’re going to need to understand your character’s backstory. What in their past laid the groundwork that lead them here and why do they end up making the choice they do? All this backstory may or may not make it into the book, but you need to know it.
So what might actually go in those opening pages before the inciting incident? For one, you’re going to want to give the reader the experience of your character’s status quo. Often a book will begin with the current “normal life” situation and the inciting incident will be the early disruption to that life.
Let’s look at another common example from The Hunger Games. The inciting event takes place at “the reaping” when Katniss’ sister is chosen to participate in the deadly Hunger Games and Katniss volunteers to take her place. There is no turning back from this decision that yields three books-worth of conflict.
But before this scene we get acquainted with Katniss’ mother, sister, and best friend, we see Katniss foraging for food, and we start to understand the grim reality of life in District 12 and the lethal grip the Capitol has on the people under its rule.
Since the inciting incident ushers in the trouble of your book, try to begin the story just before the trouble. If the inciting incident is on page one, then you’ll need to weave in some backstory so that your reader has context for what’s happening and exactly what sort of disruption it is for your particular protagonist.
The bottom line is a reader can’t properly understand the gravity or consequences of the inciting incident if they don’t know your character.
Distinguishing It From the Beginning Hook
A final but essential note—it’s important not to confuse your book’s inciting incident with its beginning hook. The hook is the seductive scene, dramatic delight, grounding and grab (basically the entertainment factor) on your story’s first page.
When, for example, you send your first pages to an agent, they may not get to read the scene with your inciting incident. That’s okay. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of other dramatic and hooky material to grab them and make them curious about what’s to come. In The Hunger Games, the reaping is mentioned on the first page. We don’t yet know exactly what it is, but we get that it’s bad.
Lastly, even if you haven’t written the rest of your book, it’s helpful to look at the inciting event from a hypothetical place later in the story. The event will be one that you can pinpoint as the moment your protagonist’s life changed. They were going down one path, and now they’ve either chosen or been forced to take another path. The inciting incident is change. And it will force your protagonist to reveal their character.
Written by Kim Lozano
Kim Lozano is an editor and creative writing coach from St. Louis. Her work has been published in The Iowa Review North American Review DIY MFA CRAFT and many other publications. You can find out more about her classes and the writing resources she offers at kimlozano.com.