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Making Something Happen in Story

on June 16th, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on June 21, 2013

You wanna start something? Wanna egg on folks, get them riled? Then you need to goad them. Push them. Change their status quo. Engage their emotions.

You need to stir them to action by trampling on a cherished belief or messing with a member of their family or taking something precious that belongs to them. Maybe merely threaten to take that beloved object or dream. Maybe jeopardize someone’s life or livelihood.

You incite them to react—not necessarily act, not with rational thought, but react—by poking at the issue that will ensure an emotional response from them. An inevitable response.

We do this naturally when we’re young, bugging brothers or sisters and pushing their buttons until they complain to Mom and Dad or turn to us with retribution in mind.

Leaders of every kind do it when they want to get a group or populace to react, to take a stand, to challenge others.

And writers need to do this to get their protagonists on board, actively involved in story events. Writers need to do it to push characters into reacting. And one major way to achieve this is through the inciting incident.

When writers speak of the inciting incident, they’re talking about one of two moments in a story. There are not two inciting incidents per story, not really, but there are two places in story that can be referred to as the inciting incident.

And no matter which moment you refer to as the inciting incident, your novel requires both of these events.

The first event that can be referred to as the inciting incident is the event that gets your story started. It’s the event that occurs within the first couple of pages that alerts the reader that this is it, the story has begun. It is not description or setting detail, it is event. So until something happens in the early pages of your book, you haven’t provided this element.

This is the event associated with your opening hook. It’s an event that captures the reader’s attention and jump-starts the plot. And believe it or not, your protagonist, your lead character, may have nothing to do with it and may not even be wholly aware of it or personally involved in it. So in a political suspense novel, a political kidnapping across the world, an explosion in an obscure oil field in North Africa, or a biological weapon mutating and growing unfettered in some lab in a foreign country can be the inciting incident that announces the story’s beginning. Your antagonist might be involved, but perhaps neither protagonist nor antagonist are yet involved. But the story has most definitely begun.

This event may reveal the story’s genre. Thus this inciting incident could be the murder in a mystery, the meet between hero and heroine in a romance, or a kidnapping attempt in a thriller.

The event may provide other clues for what the story will be about beyond genre. So the event may point to politics or aliens or the paranormal or medical ethics. Or the inciting incident may carry the first inklings of the story’s theme.

This event may provide setting details in terms of era or time or place, yet the place of the inciting incident doesn’t have to be the same place where much of the rest of the story takes place.

The inciting incident may set a clock ticking. It may establish mood. It may plant false clues about who the antagonist is or false reasons for the antagonist’s actions.

It could unleash the protagonist’s worst fears.

It could be seemingly positive—inheriting an estate—that eventually proves negative—the estate is haunted.

This event at its most basic is the announcement in the early pages that the story has started.

It incites by stirring up trouble, by changing the status quo. It’s the moment of change in the world your characters inhabit, even if many of them aren’t immediately aware of what has happened.

Points to Remember for the First Type of Inciting Incident

~  This incident happens in the very early pages; page 50 is too late. Think about putting this incident somewhere in your first five or so pages. But there is no absolute for this. If you don’t get to it until page ten and your story can handle that, if it is arresting enough for the readers, then don’t think you have to move the inciting incident to page three.

~  Pay attention to genre. Literary fiction allows for more time before this event, though even with literary novels you could put such an event on page two. For most mystery and suspense, this event occurs very soon in the story.

~  The protagonist can be involved, but doesn’t have to be.

~  The antagonist can be involved, but doesn’t have to be.

~  This is not the protagonist’s call to action. It may influence your main character, but it’s not a sufficient goad to get him involved in your main story problem.

____________________________

The second event referred to as the inciting incident—and the one that most writers probably think of when hearing the term—is the event that compels the protagonist to action.

This event happens not in the first couple of pages but a little deeper into the story, closer to the end of the first act in the typical three-act story structure. The end of the first act takes place, approximately, one quarter of the way into the story (assuming the first act is one quarter of the pages, the second act is half of the pages, and the final act is one quarter of the pages). So the inciting incident must occur before this point. This allows the protagonist time to debate his response—fuss and fume and rage if he wants to—and then make preparations for action. Once he does react, once he steps onto the path to save the world or solve the crime or begin his quest, act two begins.

This incident is the one that drives the protagonist to action—it’s what makes the detective decide to take the case, it makes the spy decide to go rogue to save the world from the mad scientist, it’s the event that makes the ghost hunter agree to spend the weekend in the haunted house. It causes the astronaut to agree to return to space after retirement as a result of a tragic off-world accident, it induces the hero to chase after the heroine after saying she wasn’t his type, it’s the event that leads a formerly content farmer away from his land, his peaceful home, and into a dangerous or impossible quest.

Whatever happens, the event has to be strong enough to make the protagonist act, to take a risk. Or not just a risk, the risk. A big one. One he’s feared or fought against having to face or one he’s avoided. The incident truly has to incite, stir him to action. So this means that writers need to choose events that will goad their protagonists—the inciting incident should fit, be tailored to the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses and fears. It should agitate him in his most secret thoughts and emotions. It should rouse him to move.

If you ever needed to light a fire under a character, this would be that time.

If the protagonist is a sucker for a damsel in distress, put a damsel into distress.

If the protagonist owes a buddy his life and has a great need to repay the debt, give him an opportunity to repay it. At great cost, of course.

If he’s a man of honor, appeal to that honor. If she’s a woman of conviction, make the incident one that draws on her convictions.

And if you can give the protagonist multiple reasons to act, do it. You don’t want overkill, but you need enough impetus to make your lead character choose to act. And to make the choice even harder, give him or her valid reasons to not act.

So the man who must act to save his best friend from jail or death might have to break a promise to his preteen son to go camping, a promise he’s broken several times already. He has to choose and either choice is costly.

A woman might be goaded by circumstances into working with her ex-husband even after she promised her friends she’d never spend another moment with him. Thus her choice might cost her her friends. Or at least give her extended grief from those friends.

A detective might be forced to take on a case for his mentor even after his mentor betrayed him. If he doesn’t take the case, he’s protected from those who might suggest that he supports the other man’s disloyalty. Yet at the same time, not taking the case could prove that the detective also had no honor.

You want to give the character a choice, but one that will cost him no matter which options he picks. So a character could choose to not save the world, could remain in his safe little corner of that world, which would mean not only that the world faced annihilation, but could make him feel he’s a coward, something he couldn’t tolerate.

What’s vital is that you convey the reason the character feels compelled to choose what he so clearly does not want to choose. The protagonist has to act once you introduce the inciting incident; you must provide a logical and compelling reason for that reaction.

Points to Remember for the Second Type of Inciting Incident

~  It affects the protagonist directly.

~  It must appeal to something specific in the protagonist in order to make his or her reaction believable and inevitable.

~  While it eventually leads to the protagonist’s response, that response doesn’t have to happen immediately, though it could. But the protagonist could first fight against his response.

~  Some characters may encourage him to act while others counsel restraint or even advise him to run the other way.

~  This event is often caused directly by the antagonist.

____________________________

Whichever event you refer to as the inciting incident, keep in mind that you need both of these moments in your novels—the first to get the story started, declare what type of story it is and to hook the reader, and the second to goad your protagonist to action.

Use both to get something started.

Incite your characters to respond.

Make something happen.

***

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15 Responses to “Making Something Happen in Story”

  1. Benjamin says:

    Hi Beth
    This is something new to me. I’ve never heard of a second inciting incident. I’m not sure I could read one quarter of a book before I learn what the story is about. When browsing in the bookstore, I look for two things, the story goal, and the conflict that will thwart that goal. I look for this information to be in the first few pages, if not, I put the book down. To me, there is no plot until the protagonist moves towards a goal. If he does not form a goal until the one quarter mark, I see the first quarter as plotless and useless, because I cannot bond to the protagonist until I know his goal.
    I don’t doubt that you know what you’re talking about, but I’m just not comprehending a second inciting incident.
    Benjamin

  2. “…the inciting incident should fit, be tailored to the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses and fears….” And, herein lies the need to understand, profoundly, not only your protagonist’s psyche but those of your supporting characters as well. How will they be tumbled in the wake of your protagonist’s action? Will they assist? Sabotage?
    As always, Beth, your blog is not only thought-provoking but inspiring as well.
    Thanks!

  3. Benjamin, I guess I wasn’t as clear as I’d thought I was.

    There are not two inciting incidents, merely two story moments that could go by that name. Yes, as you’ve said, something must happen in the first pages. But the main character doesn’t always commit to a course of action in those early pages. And it’s not always that opening event that causes him to act, not directly.

    This is quite clear in a mystery when a murder gets the story started or in a political thriller when a major event plays out in the early pages. Such events can easily take more than a few pages and the protagonist may not be introduced right away. And just because such an event happens, this doesn’t mean the protagonist will be compelled to act. Something must drive him into action. And this something may well take place a few pages later.

    While the second act typically starts at the one-quarter mark (in the three-act structure), the inciting incident must take place before that point. It must happen early enough that the protagonist can agonize over his choices if you need him to. It must be early enough that you can put roadblocks, usually in the form of other characters who discourage him from acting, in his way. But the second act begins just after the protagonist decides to act and when he takes his first steps into that action, whatever that entails for him.

    So while a murder starts a mystery, that murder alone isn’t enough to get a private eye to investigate (unless, for example, the victim is someone he knows). The murder doesn’t incite the detective to act until he knows about it, until someone hires him. Until his best friend is arrested for assault and battery because it was his girlfriend who was murdered and he went after the guy he thought was responsible. It’s at this point that the detective gets involved and decides to act. Thus, while the murder starts the action in the first pages (which is referred to by some as the inciting incident), the actual inciting incident that compels the protagonist to act may not show up until page twelve or fifteen or twenty-five.

    This doesn’t mean there’s no action in those first pages. This doesn’t mean that you can’t reveal what kind of man the protagonist is—you may actually show him in action of some kind, revealing who he is, well before he actually makes his decision to act on the story goad that you provide. That is, showing the kind of man he is before he needs to be that kind of man under adverse conditions is a great way to introduce the main character and is a staple of fiction.

    So the detective who’d do anything for his best friend—as shown by his willingness to care for the other man’s dog while he and his girlfriend were out of town—would obviously take on the case of the girlfriend’s murder. So when you show the detective driving the dog to his friend’s home on the Saturday morning after he and his girlfriend were to return home (grumbling all the way or feeding the dog donuts or slurps of his own coffee), only to find the police there and to learn his friend is in jail and the girlfriend dead, you know how the detective is going to react. He’s a loyal friend. If he can take care of his friend’s dog for a week, he’s surely going to figure out who killed his girl.

    So plenty can happen (the murder, the friend’s attack on another man, the friend’s arrest, revelation of the detective’s loyalty) all before the detective is compelled to act. In this case, it’s likely to be his friend’s breakdown in jail that compels the detective to act.

    And lest you think that only a private detective might need a second incident in addition to a murder to compel him to action, consider the homicide detective.

    He might come to a murder as a matter of course, but that’s part of his job. So neither the murder nor him reporting to a murder scene is the inciting incident for his story. That happens when he discovers his own ex-wife may be involved in the murder and he has to protect her, keep her out of the reach of his colleagues. This choice to act out of character, outside the law, is based on the conversation with his ex when she admitted she was in the building where the murder took place and when she asks for his help.

    Again, this incident that compels the protagonist to act may well not be the event that jump-starts the story, such as a murder.

    I hope this clarified the two incidents and their importance to the story.

    A great comment to keep the conversation going, Benjamin. Thanks.

  4. Thanks, Julia. I’m happy to provoke writers.

  5. Benjamin says:

    Hi Beth

    Thanks for the answer. I see what you mean now, that the single inciting incident can be placed in an either/or position.

    Not trying to be a nuisance, but, suppose the inciting incident does come at the one quarter mark. This upset will cause the protagonist to clearly state a goal. However, There can be no plot until the protagonist states a goal and takes the first step towards achieving that goal. That would leave the first one quarter of the story plotless, and most people won’t read that far without a plot. Making it hard for me to rectify putting the inciting incident anywhere but the first few pages.

    Can it be that my definition of a goal is lacking something? Here it is—The inciting incident turns the protagonists world upside down, the protagonist clearly states a goal to return her world to normal. The first step she takes towards achieving her goal starts the plot. Prior to this there is no plot.

    I don’t bond to a character until after the inciting incident and after I know the goal. Anything I read before I’m bonded leaves me outside the story looking in, sort of like reading a journal or a newspaper, just a bunch of facts, leaving me no personal involvment in the story. Waiting for one quarter of a story to start enjoying it seems counter productive.

    You have the most knowledgable blog I subscribe to, so I know I’m simply not understanding something basic.

  6. Benjamin, my answer’s a bit long, so I made it into an article (More About Fiction’s Inciting Incident/Plot, Goal, Inciting Incident). I hope I addressed the issue you wanted to address, but if not, we can talk more about it.

  7. Thank you so much, everyone, for all this wonderful information and clarification. Beth, I will try and join this blog. This is wonderful! ~Victoria Marie Lees

  8. Victoria Marie, I hope we see you around often.

  9. alan says:

    Hi,
    the best articles I’ve read on the inciting incident is by Scriptmonk. He pinpoints the inciting incident as the event that makes the protagonist decide to take action to fix the problem, which is how you have described the second inciting incident, but rather than say there are two he sets it out like this:

    problem exists

    character is aware of problem

    character takes action to solve problem.

    If this was Star wars then the problem is the evil empire and their attempts to wipe out the rebel threat.

    Luke, our protagonist, is aware of the problem but the inciting incident has yet to occur that will drive him to do something about it. The story so far is all about setting up the backstory.

    The inciting incident- which starts our story- is when luke uncovers Princess Leia’s message.

    • Alan, I don’t think I read Scriptmonk’s article before, but I looked it up. It’s good.

      The inciting incident is indeed the event that moves the protagonist to action and that truly gets a story going. It’s the event that gets the protagonist involved.

      But stories definitely need to have events and hooks before that moment. In Star Wars, the movie opens with Leia’s ship being fired on. Then we get the excitement of Leia trying to hide the plans and the droids escaping. We also get the introduction of Vader. We don’t get shots of flowers growing or Leia doing her nails as someone explains what has been happening; the movie opens with action. And we get the introduction of the antagonist and three other major characters before we meet Luke. That’s a lot happening. It’s back story, yes. But also an opening event that serves to capture the reader’s interest.

      Novels need that same thing, a hook to capture the reader before the inciting incident is seen. Some have come to call that opening event or hook the inciting incident (which is why I mentioned both events in the article), yet the opening attention-grabber is truly a hook and not usually the inciting incident. That event requires a decision by the protagonist; it incites the protagonist.

      Story structure, part of which you’ve included in your comment, doesn’t implicitly mention that a story needs a hook, even though every story does. Story structure is looking at story in a particular way. My reminder for writers is that they need both an opening hook and an inciting incident. Something has to happen to capture the reader’s interest from the very first page and then something has to happen to deepen that interest by getting the protagonist involved.

      I’m glad you contributed to the conversation. The topic of story structure is a fascinating one. I’ve been toying with an article on the subject, but there’s so much to include, I’m not yet sure how to do it justice.

      Thanks again for your insights and the mention of Scriptmonk.

      • alan crabb says:

        Don’t you think that focusing on the problem will naturally lead to the action and hooks needed at the beginning of the story and because there is a problem to be addressed it is likely that the writer will be forced to address ‘it’ and character’s reactions to ‘it’ rather than describing someone reading a book or arranging flowers?

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