This is the event that kicks off the story and gets things moving. The inciting incident does not necessarily start the main plot immediately, but it does provide an active lead in. One way or another, it sets everything in motion.
In Harry Potter, the inciting incident is when the acceptance letter to Hogwarts shows up. A few strange things have happened before this, but the letter is what gets him on track to go to Hogwarts—the place where the real action is happening.
- In Game of Thrones, the inciting incident of Ned Stark’s POV is the death of John Arryn. While it happens off page and shortly before the story begins, it very directly sets off the tragic chain of events that follows.
- In Twilight, the inciting incident is Bella’s move to Forks. It’s still a while before she meets Edward, but this moves her closer to the plot.
If done right, the inciting incident is a powerful tool. In a sense, this is your hook—the thing that gets readers to start turning pages. It gives you the opportunity to lay out a few driving questions, set the stakes, or give the first few pages some momentum. The presence of a well defined inciting incident makes the story infinitely easier to follow and can potentially close up some plot holes and character motivation issues at the beginning of the story. One of the first things readers want to know is, “Why is all of this happening? Why do I care?” The inciting incident is how you answer those questions.
A good inciting incident requires three things.
First, it should occur very close to the beginning of the story. One of the biggest mistakes that writers make is spending the first few chapters of the book winding up and setting the stage. I won’t deny that the stage must be set, especially in worldbuilding-heavy stories. But thirty pages of stage setting with no action isn’t compelling. The inciting incident gives the story direction. It’s fine if that direction is a gentle nudge rather than a shove. What’s not fine is protracted aimlessness. Even slow openers have an inciting incident.
Second, an inciting incident should be unusual. While rolling out of bed to brush their teeth may be the first thing your characters do before setting out on an adventure, unless they’re on an epic quest for more toothpaste this is not your inciting incident. The inciting incident is the event that deviates from the norm and pulls your characters out of their everyday life. To do this, it must differ significantly from their routine.
Third, the inciting incident is something immediate. It happens either just before or just after the story begins. A shadowy figure reemerging from Jane’s dark and troubled past is an inciting incident. Jane’s dark and troubled past itself is backstory. Unless that past comes to haunt her in the present, it isn’t plot. Likewise, a string of local disappearances is only an inciting incident if it personally affects her. Otherwise, it it’s just happening around her, it’s an interesting background event.
A good inciting incident does not need to be big or flashy. It certainly can be, but they can also be subtle. An inciting incident could be an argument, a meeting between two characters, or the first clue in a mystery. Anything that sets your story in motion counts.
I mentioned in a past article that fight scenes are not inherently good openers (they’re not inherently bad. They just aren’t inherently good either). One facet of this is the fact that a fight scene actually does not guarantee an inciting incident. If the main character is a soldier who has been fighting for a long time and the opening fight is status quo, it doesn’t do anything to kick off the conflict. Likewise, if your main characters are a squad of badass mercenaries and the story opens with them beating up some bad guys then returning to headquarters to play video games and make root beer floats, odds are that the story is already stagnating. Something unusual has to happen during the fight. Action and plot are not the same thing.
Writing like a boss: Finding the beginning
A lot of people, myself included, write a chapter or two—sometimes more—to get warmed up and become familiar with the world of the story. This is a solid way to hit your stride, and I can’t fault anyone for it. However, once you finish, it often leaves you with several pages of fluff preceding the actual story. One of the best things you can do for your manuscript is identify these pages and get rid of them.
To figure out where the true beginning is, find your inciting incident. If it doesn’t jump out at you, (save a copy of the original MS and then) just start cutting. Remove a few pages and see if it drastically alters the plot. When you find the scene that you cannot remove, you’ve found your inciting incident. Was it five pages in? Ten? Fifty?
From here, you can smooth out beginning and add a few pages of condensed set up while keeping the inciting incident close to the front. World and character details can be woven back in later, and will be more effective when placed besides action. Your story might be shorter but it will also be stronger.
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