Inciting Incidents: A Breakdown

A few months ago, Kate Sullivan, a senior editor of YA and MG at Delacorte, tweeted the following question:

The whole thread is worth a read, and it definitely got me thinking about Inciting Incidents, and beginnings in general. When talking about plot and structure, a lot of people talk about inciting incidents as “the event that starts the story.” But sometimes, the inciting incident isn’t always so clear-cut or defined, especially for writers struggling to identify it for their queries. Is it when the stranger comes into town? Or when the protagonist’s father is killed and she’s forced to flee for her life?

I’m a pantser, but I tend to know my story beats before I start writing anything. I naturally think in acts or parts, and generally to know what the turning points are before I even sit down to work. A novel is a narrative of change, and the turning points are the fulcrums of change. The inciting incident is one…and The Moment The Story Begins is another. Usually the first comes at the very beginning of the novel, and the other closes the first act. These two inflection points comprise your entire beginning.

Let’s take Act I. In our fictional story, we have a protagonist in a small town, where everything is the same. (Chapter 1) Then one day, a stranger comes to town. [Inciting Incident] (Chapter 2) The stranger brings with him all kind of changes, a disruption in routine. (Chapters 3 through whatever) But then when the protagonist’s father is killed by the stranger’s hand in what seems to be a planned murder, the protagonist takes off after the stranger, vowing revenge. [The Moment The Story Begins] (End of Act I.)

Between then one day and but then is probably quite a few words. That’s okay. That setup is crucial context for the rest of the story. Act I is the slow climb to the top of a hill on a roller coaster. It builds anticipation. Another thing to keep in mind about Inciting Incidents and The Moment The Story Begins is that the former is generally an external event, whereas the latter is when the protagonist gets personally involved. One is plot-driven, the other is character-driven.

For example, in my forthcoming novel, the Inciting Incident is when the protagonist’s sister eats forbidden fruit, therefore making her vulnerable to goblin enchantment. (This comes at the end of the second chapter.) The Moment The Story Begins is when Liesl decides to go Underground to rescue her sister after the Goblin King steals her away. (End of first act.)

To use an example cited by Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein, in Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, the Inciting Incident is when Mr Bingley comes to Netherfield and the The Moment the Story Begins is when Mr Darcy slights Lizzy at a dance, setting the tone for all their interactions until the Midpoint Reversal (we’ll get to that another time).

I also talk about Inciting Incidents in this podcast episode with Kelly! We give a few examples from Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Martian, Ash, and The Wrath and the Dawn.

So that’s it! What do you think? Was this helpful? Would you like another post breaking down the different story beats? Sound off in the comments!


7 Responses to Inciting Incidents: A Breakdown

  1. Kristin Russo Nov 9 2015 at 8:43 am #

    This is wonderful! The question I’m struggling with is, what if my mc is the stranger? The inciting incident is when (and why) he must move to the new town. I’m having a hard time pinpointing When the Story Begins for him. I would love to read more on inciting incidents in general. These are crucial but not much talked about. Thanks for a great post!

    • JJ Nov 9 2015 at 8:50 am #

      I talk about that a little in the podcast episode I linked to, but the moment of the story begins (what I called The Point of No Return in the podcast) is the moment when your protagonist becomes personally involved in what’s about to happen. The best way to describe the inciting incident is that it’s an External factor that changes this status quo, something the protagonist often doesn’t have any control over (Harry receiving his Hogwarts letter, Katniss’s sister getting her name called for the Hunger Games, etc.), and the moment the story begins is when the protagonist takes Internal action. (Katniss volunteering to take Prim’s place.)

      Hope that helps!

  2. LAURENCE KING Nov 9 2015 at 11:44 am #

    Awesome post and hugely helpful!!! This deconstructs exactly what I have been struggling with. And yes please, more posts on breaking down the story beats 🙂

  3. Chris Bailey Nov 9 2015 at 4:56 pm #

    Yes, please, more breakdowns. Each offers a slightly different angle on the puzzle of how to write compelling fiction. Thank you!

  4. allreb Nov 11 2015 at 11:04 am #

    One thing I found really interesting as I revised… my initial inciting incident had been a sort of foggy “When Primary and Secondary protags meet” (basically the stranger comes to town). I wondered, did it take place off-page before the the novel began (the event that set Secondary Protag on his way to said town)? But that also felt wrong because he *is* secondary, and the inciting incident seemed like it should happen to the primary protag.

    Buuuut when I was revising, one of the big notes from my editor (Kate, in fact!) was on character motivation. I had to do a lot of restructure and rebuilding to iron out both of the protagonists’ motivations… and completely by coincidence, as I changed things around to strengthen the primary protag’s motivations, suddenly the whole inciting incident shifted. It still involved the same basic crisis that sent secondary protag on the path to meet her… but it happened on page, and affected her directly.

    Which really feels like a “duh” moment in retrospect. Beefing up motivation makes it easier to point back at the beginning and say “look at where this started” – so naturally where it started becomes more clear, too. (If that makes any sense at all…)

  5. Tiffany Nov 23 2015 at 1:40 pm #

    This is something I really struggle with – figuring out the turning points and the pacing, etc. I like your suggestion about thinking about them as plot-driven or character-driven – that will help cut down on the ambiguity/aimlessness in my scenes, I think!

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