Everyone seems to have a different idea of what the term inciting incident means. The answers vary from person to person, with no clear-cut definition to be found.
- It’s the first thing that happens in the story.
- It’s the event that introduces the conflict and gets the plot going.
- It shows up at the end of the first act.
- It happens before the story starts.
With all these different responses, no wonder writers are so confused. When it comes to understanding the inciting incident, you need to know one thing: it’s not a single event that happens in the story – it’s three different events. Here’s a brief breakdown of each of them below.
- The Hook. The opening of your story should draw readers in and keep them wanting more. It’s the first thing that happens related to the plot, and sparks interest in the audience. For example, in The Hunger Games, the novel opens with Prim and Katniss preparing for the Reaping.
- The First Plot Point. This event is what pushes your story ahead. It’s meant to shove your characters headfirst into the conflict. Their world has been forever changed for one reason or another, and now they will have to confront that change. The first plot point usually occurs around the 25% mark. It’s the “doorway of no return” at the end of the first act, not the first eventful moment in your story (unless you have a pacing problem). In The Hunger Games, the first plot point involves Haymitch and Peeta’s scheme to make Katniss more likeable – Peeta tells everyone that he has a crush on the woman who came with him.
- The Inciting Event. The inciting event can also be thought of as the first act’s turning point. Ideally, it’s placed around the 12% mark, and truly launches the main conflict. This plot point bridges the gap between the hook and the first plot point. Unlike the first plot point, it doesn’t change the characters’ world forever, but it does make them break out in a cold sweat. For Katniss in The Hunger Games, this is volunteering to take her sister’s place and being whisked away for training.
While these three points are vital to understanding the concept of the inciting incident, you should also take note of something called the key event. This event forms the other half of the inciting event – think of it as what involves your character in the inciting event. Sound confusing? Let me explain.
Continuing with The Hunger Games, let’s find the key event. Often, this will coincide with the first plot point, although it comes after the inciting event. Once Peeta declares that he and Katniss are lovers, there is no turning back. The two of them must keep up the ruse in order to win sympathy from people watching the games. According to K. M. Weiland:
The Inciting Event (remember: that’s the turning point halfway through the First Act) brings the conflict to the protagonist’s awareness. But the protagonist still won’t fully engaged with the conflict. He may make a half-hearted attempt to resolve it. Or he may try to walk away from it entirely. Until the Key Event.
For Katniss, the key event happens when she needs medicine and can only get some from the sponsors. She realizes that her only chance for survival may be to keep up appearances with Peeta, and she commits to putting on a show for everyone.
You might still be a little puzzled, but that’s all right. The inciting incident is a difficult concept to grasp. If you want to practice identifying these events, try locating them in your favorite books.
How do you think of the inciting incident? What are the important events in your works-in-progress? Feel free to share them in the comments below.
Got questions about the inciting incident? @brianawrites discusses what it means and how you can use it in your story. (Click to tweet)
Author’s Note: This is an excerpt from the short story I read for my senior capstone presentation. If you’re interested in reading more of my work, feel free to contact me.
The therapist’s office was a stuffy, wood-paneled room with beige carpet, tall windows, and mahogany furniture. There were golden curtains on the windows. The room was furnished with four chairs, a desk, a bookcase, and a potted plant. The room reminded Sheila of her gynecologist’s office, though she wasn’t sure why.
“I’ve heard of you two,” said the therapist, a blonde woman who could’ve been a model were it not for her height. “Then again, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. I’m surprised you’re just now seeking therapy for what you both went through.”
Sheila twisted the white gold band on her left ring finger. Although Dirk had taken his ring off, she wanted to keep hers on. She felt naked without it. She’d grown accustomed to its weight. “This isn’t about the island. It’s about an affair.”
Dirk scratched his red stubble. “It’s about our whole marriage.”
“I see,” said the therapist. She scribbled something on her yellow legal pad and tapped her pen against her nose. She could be pretty, Sheila thought, if only she did something about her weight and her nose.
“A week ago I found him having sex with someone else.” Sheila pulled her hair into a ponytail. She had to keep her hands busy so she wouldn’t bite her cuticles. She’d made them bleed that morning. Her fingertips were covered with polka-dot Band-Aids. “We’ve only been back for two months. How could this have happened so quickly?”
“Did you ask him about it?” the therapist asked.
Sheila felt like smacking her. “Of course I asked him about it. He’s my husband, isn’t he? Why wouldn’t I have asked him?”
“Hey,” said Dirk, bumping Sheila’s knee with his, “do you need to get some air?”
Sheila realized that her nails were digging into her thighs. She stood and smoothed her skirt. “I’d like a drink of water.”
While she watched the therapist pour her a glass from the pitcher, Sheila thought about water. She remembered how much they’d come to value water on the island. She remembered the first few days, lying spread-eagle on the sand with the sun beating down, begging for Dirk to kill her, please, so she wouldn’t die of thirst. She remembered him asking her when. He’d wanted her to be certain when she wanted to go.
In the present, the therapist handed Sheila the glass of water. Sheila sat back down. She chugged the water without stopping and drained the entire glass. Dirk took the empty cup from her and set it on the table in front of them. Sheila wondered if he remembered the water. She wondered if he remembered how it felt to be so thirsty, so bone-dry-as-the-desert inside of his cells.
“Sheila,” said the therapist, “when did you notice that something was amiss?”
Amiss, she said, like their marriage was a painting hanging crooked on the wall. Sheila stared at the glass on the table. She’d always known that she and Dirk were destined for divorce. As high school sweethearts, their chances of growing old together were slim. Both of them had known that going into the marriage. Still, they’d decided to make it work. If Sheila closed her eyes, she could still feel the way her wedding dress hugged her. She remembered the first affair. She remembered the second. Back in the present, her stomach lurched.
“We were doing all right until I cheated,” said Dirk. There was no need for him to elaborate. The therapist had their file. She knew about the affairs. What she didn’t know, thought Sheila, was how their time on the island had almost repaired them. She didn’t know that the day they’d found water had been the first time they’d made love in months. She had no idea that Sheila was pregnant again. She didn’t know that, and she most likely never would.
“Sheila,” said Dirk, “are you sure you’re all right?”
That concludes the excerpt. What did you think?
Note: This information comes from the following article. I cannot take credit for any of these rules.
When I stumbled on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling, I realized the company knows exactly what they’re doing. It’s clear to me now why Pixar is the leading contender when it comes to film and animation. Here are a few of my favorite points:
#2: Keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard. Get yours working up front.
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next. More often than not, the material that gets you unstuck appears.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#19: Coincidences that get characters into trouble are great. Coincidences that get them out of it is cheating.
#22: Putting it on paper allows you to start fixing it. If a perfect idea stays in your head, you’ll never share it with anyone.
These are just a few of the excellent tips Pixar offers about storytelling. Interested? Read them all. You just might learn something.
What do you think? What is your favorite storytelling tip?