In writing fiction, the opening events that set your story in motion are pivotal. They set the tone and mood, establish key details of character and setting (time and place), and build intrigue. Read a full definition of the inciting incident and tips and examples for making your own gripping:
Inciting incident: A definition
The inciting incident is an episode, plot point or event that hooks the reader into the story. This particular moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story. Screenwriting guru Syd Field describes it as ‘setting the story in motion’.
The inciting incident also fits Joseph Campbell’s description of the ‘hero’s journey’. In a study on many myths and folk tales, Campbell observed similar incidents in many myths. Campbell’s term for the inciting incident is the ‘call to adventure’.
Inciting incident examples include the moment when Katniss Everdeen’s sister’s name is drawn and she decides to take her place in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Another example is the moment Dorothy is picked up by a cyclone in The Wizard of Oz and the moment when Luke Skywalker receives Princess Leia’s message in Star Wars. In romance novels and movies, an inciting event is nearly always the moment that the couple-to-be meets for the first time.
So how do you create a compelling inciting incident?
1. Give your inciting incident urgency
Time is a crucial element of setting and plot because the ‘when’ of the story can add tension or constraint, yielding a greater need for development and/or resolution.
Take, for example, a romantic novel in which two characters meet in a seaside tourist town. Compare these two hypothetical openings:
‘She had arrived that morning. The narrow stairs to her hotel room were barely wide enough for her luggage. Bumping her bag up the crumbling concrete she was watching each step when she noticed a man’s watch lying beneath the railing.’
Let’s say the watch belongs to a future lover, and the woman’s discovery leads to their first encounter. If the same extract began ‘She had only four days to explore the city’, this time constraint would create immediate urgency. There would be a constraint on finding the item’s owner and any ensuing relationship.
The time factor makes finding the item (the inciting incident) and returning it to its owner (the key incident, the story-developing meeting) that much more urgent and compelling.
2. Raise questions for your reader
A great inciting incident leaves us with questions we want answered. For example, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, we read this opening:
‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’
The opening is effective because it gives us not one but two inciting events, in different time periods. We are given:
- A future event: A main character will face the death penalty.
- A past event significant enough for the character to remember it in this future moment (the trip with his father).
As a result, we have questions about both incidents we want answered. Why will the Colonel be given the death penalty? What was significant about that day with his father? Marquez thus sets up multiple story arcs with rich potential for discovery in a single paragraph.
3. Use your inciting incident to illustrate key aspects of character(s)
The inciting incident in a novel is a good point to begin illustrating key facts about characters. How your character reacts to the inciting event gives us an idea of their personality, their values, goals, strengths or weaknesses.
For example, the opening line of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway immediately begins filling in character:
‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’
The action (buying the flowers) is relevant to a key event. A party Clarissa Dalloway will hold at her home. The fact that she’ll ‘buy the flowers herself’ suggests multiple character details:
- Clarissa is hands-on, practical, take-charge
- She doesn’t necessarily have to do things herself. It implies she has people in her employ who can do menial tasks for her. It suggests her class status
We thus get a glimpse of the character – her class status along with her decisive, active nature, both of which Woolf continues to illustrate. We know the flowers are for some purpose, but not what. Although this event isn’t a gripping hook, it subtly leads us to wonder about this character.
4. Set the tone for your story
The best inciting incidents set the story’s tone. They give us indications of mood, atmosphere. In Stephen King’s psychological horror Cujo, for example, a family moves to King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, where they are terrorized by the family dog who goes rabid.
King opens his novel by describing the history of a killer named Frank Dodd who terrorized the locals:
‘Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. He killed a waitress named Alma Frechette in 1970; a woman named Pauline Toothaker and a junior high school student […]’
King describes how Frank Dodd took his life, and moves from this backstory to describing Castle Rock in 1980, ten years later. The Trenton’s four year old awakens to find a creature in his room:
‘He pulled the covers up, and that was when he saw the creature in his closet.
Low to the ground it was, with huge shoulders bulking above its cocked head […]’
Through his backstory and inciting incident (the reappearance of ‘The Monster’ in a different guise), King creates a sense of menace. We wonder about the linkage between the Frank Dodd backstory and Tad Trenton’s inciting incident.
King’s narration is maybe a little obvious. Even so, we have a clear sense of multi-generational malevolence haunting Castle Rock from the inciting incident on.
5. Know where in the story your inciting incident occurs
The inciting incident has to take place in the first act. This is non-negotiable: it is the catalyst that sets the rest of your story in motion. If it does not occur in the first act, your story might be structurally confusing. It might meander aimlessly.
If you find that what you think of as the inciting moment falls later in the story, examine your first act (i.e. your first 3 or so chapters) and see if you can identify an inciting event there. If you do find one, you need to stop and consider which story you want to tell and which inciting incident you want to work from. Is there none? You need to rework the first act of your novel so you establish key points of cause and effect sooner.
An inciting incident can happen almost anywhere in the first act. For the most part, sooner is better than later. An early instance gets the attention of your readers and creates a narrative drive that makes them want to read more.
6. Develop your inciting incident
Now that you understand the inciting incident definition and have read some examples, let’s examine how to develop it. To review, here are three points to keep in mind about the inciting incident:
- The inciting incident happens in the first act.
- The inciting incident happens to the protagonist.
- The protagonist is usually passive at this juncture; the inciting incident is generally set in motion by someone or something else (a letter, a visit, an encounter)
Say you have your inciting incident already [if not, join Now Novel to brainstorm your story’s Central Idea]. Maybe your main character makes a grisly discovery, or has a love-at-first-sight encounter. What might happen as a result of this incident?
Brainstorm possible trajectories for your story. Ask yourself:
- How could the inciting incident affect characters? Is their response fear and the need for survival (like King’s four-year-old character Tad in Cujo), desire, or another emotion?
- What additional questions may the reader have as a result of it? For example (to use the first example), ‘to whom does the watch belong and why was it lying in the stairwell?’
- What tensions or conflicts might arise from the inciting incident, creating additional drama and contrast?
Ask step-by-step story questions to methodically chart a course for your book now.
Cover source image by Nathan McBride