Writing Your Story’s Inciting Incident

When I was a noob at writing for publication, I used to wonder what inciting incident meant. Didn’t we jump into the story on page one? Well, yes and no.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss how and where to place a story’s inciting incident.

Normal Not Boring

A story’s inciting incident is the same as the Call to Adventure or sometimes, premise. A character is bopping along in life when, out of the blue, something happens to set the character on a quest for a goal. This incident must change everything for the character. He or she will never be the same.

One of the challenges to getting the inciting incident right lies in writing just enough of the “before” the inciting incident. Say too much and readers get bored. Too little and readers can’t know the underpinnings or the whys of this big change.

The perfect balance of ordinary to inciting gives readers only the info needed to understand where this character has been. Your character likely is living an ordinary life, when Bam! Everything changes.

In some stories, the character is vaguely aware something is missing. In others, the inciting incident delivers a swift and irreversible change without warning. In either case, write as briefly as possible to sketch the ordinary. But don’t neglect to express the critical features that will influence the characters on the quest for the goal.

Everything Changes

At the inciting incident, everything changes for the character. Now the ordinary life of BEFORE will not do. The character burns with a passion for a goal, and even if she’s unsure, embarks on the goal trajectory.

One way to do this is by closing off anyway possible routes of escape for the character. In life, we often decide that a goal is too risky or too labor-intensive. We go on with our boring, ordinary lives. We tell ourselves we didn’t really want that goal. Or we rationalize that it’s illegal or might hurt someone. In fiction, once the character has put on the mantle of the goal, there can be no escape.  

That ordinary life the character gave up becomes more powerful as the story progresses. The character often wishes to return to that calm peaceful boring life. As much as he or she longs for that life, it no longer exists.

But the memory of lost things—family, home, peace, country—becomes a strong catalyst to propel the character forward. A strong inciting incident keeps the passion for the goal burning bright.

Lean In

Once you present the character’s goal, be very clear about what it is that she wants. Let your protagonist be fiery in her drive to obtain that goal, especially as you then present obstacles.

As Nathan Bransford says, “Sharpen this, paint a clear picture for the reader of what happens if a character succeeds and what they fear will happen if they fail. This will form the basis of the stakes of the novel.” A character who doesn’t care that much about her goal will have readers saying, “So what?”

Obstacles in each scene become steeper (remember, rising action, increasing tension). Your character fights harder, until he can’t fight anymore. He’s exhausted, spent, out of resources. For the first time, he questions his decision to go for the goal. This is your “point of no hope” in the story. If you’ve crafted your inciting incident well, it becomes a momentary fantasy of regret.

This black moment that wishes to return to pre-inciting incident time sets up the character for the second wind attempt at the climax scene. Memories of what once was (or could have been) give our character just enough moxie to enter the last battle. The inciting incident of an effective story echoes all the way through the story to the resolution.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

2 comments on “Writing Your Story’s Inciting Incident

    • Mark,
      I think this is one of the more difficult story concepts to get right (in my own work especially!). Glad you found it helpful.
      Keep Writing,
      Linda

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