Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.