In a first draft, I find myself wandering about. I meet my characters, explore their world, and force them to tell me everything about themselves (resulting in pages and pages of backstory). But in revision, it’s time to cut through the wandering and get to the guts of the novel. It’s the point where I need to ask myself:
What event really starts this story?
Screenwriting jargon likes to call this the inciting incident. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole explains the inciting incident as “the event that takes your character from his sense of normal (life and business as usual) and launches him into the main conflict of your story.”
I like to think of this as the Why Today? question. Why have you decided to start your story on that specific day? What happens on that day that causes your character’s life to change?
In The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is the moment when Katniss’ sister Prim is chosen during the reaping. It’s an event that has inertia, like a snowball rolling down a hill, and forces Katniss into action. It sets the story in motion and changes her life forever.
In Harry Potter, a pretty white owl drops the inciting incident (an invitation to Hogwarts School of Magic) into Harry’s lap, changing his destiny and unveiling a whole new world to him. The film Alien, uses a transmission from an unknown origin to lure the ship’s crew away from their original trajectory, with disastrous results.
The Hero’s Journey terms the inciting incident as the call to adventure: an invitation in Harry Potter, a mysterious transmission in Alien, an unacceptable event that causes Katniss to volunteer for the Hunger Games. All of these happenings “call” to the protagonist and push them to act.
Of course, not all inciting incidents are so blatant. It can be as simple as a chance meeting. When Harry Met Sally’s inciting incident is the title of the film. It’s the moment when Sally’s friend brings her boyfriend Harry with them on a road trip. The film actually jumps in time to five years later after the inciting incident, but without that original meeting, the story wouldn’t exist.
Ask yourself when your character’s life changes? What event sets their story into motion?
As tempting as it is to start your novel with a lot of backstory and set up, you’re probably going to want to hold off and get to the inciting incident as soon as possible. Structurally speaking, this usually comes near the end of a first chapter, or within the first ten minutes of a movie.
Why is an inciting incident so important?
- It’s the kick off the game! It creates the initial energy of your project and starts the plot. Everyone is always waiting for that exciting moment when the game begins. If you wait too long, people might leave before the story even starts.
- It puts your characters to the test and forces them to take action. It reveals what your protagonist values and what he or she is willing to risk.
- It telegraphs to the reader a trajectory for the story and sets up expectations, making them invested participants in the novel. The fun part is that later you get to fulfill or exceed those expectations with your amazing plot twists!
- Rather than wandering aimlessly with a character, an inciting incident informs a reader that they’re in good hands and the author has a plan.
Many of you (like me), might be revising as part of your New Year’s resolutions. As you sit down to slog through your first drafts, look to see if your novel has an inciting incident. Be sure your revision starts there!
Continued reading on inciting incidents: