Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Inciting incident, key event, plot point… they’re useful terms for those who are comfortable with them, but more often than not, they’re treated as if they’re interchangeable.
Sadly, these are terms that authors have treated pretty poorly over the years. They’ve swapped places, been used as synonyms, and eventually ended up as a homogeneous mass that leaves different sources attributing different meanings to each term.
There’s no reason to despair, though, because film lexicon is swinging towards us on a vine, hollering its heart out and preparing to save the day. That’s because film scholars have kept these useful terms separate far more successfully than writers (to be fair, they haven’t been at it for nearly as long), meaning we can reconstruct our own vocabulary as it applies to writing.
While we may refer to these devices with the collective term ‘inciting incident’, it’s actually far more useful to understand the inciting incident, key event, and plot point as unique components of a successful story.
That’s why in this article I’ll be looking at the specific definition of each term and providing examples of how they can be used to plot an exciting and engaging story. I’ll look at why key events and plot points are so often treated as the same thing, explore why that’s not actually the case, and offer practical advice on what that means for your writing.
For all that to happen, though, it’s important to consider these terms in context.
Film plotting and the three-act structure
Key events, plot points, and inciting incidents are often difficult to apply to writing, where narrative is incredibly malleable. It’s no surprise, then, that the terms have a more definite meaning and history when considered in the context of more visual media – namely TV and film.
Narratives with their roots in such media tend to follow a more definite structure than in written form (especially today), and often have some form of relationship with the ‘three-act story’ detailed in Blake Snyder’s controversial Save the Cat!
The first act in this type of narrative structure is about shifting the reader into the world of the story – establishing the stakes, introducing the characters, and kick-starting the series of events that will drive the narrative. The second act deals with an escalating problem, while the third deals with the resolution of that problem. It’s in this context that inciting incidents, key events, and plot points can be best understood.
You may be asking yourself what film plotting has to do with your novel. Simply put, the three-act story is an incredibly functional story structure. It hews closely to the ‘hero’s journey’ described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces – a basic structure on which many of our most treasured and impactful stories are based.
You may wish to deviate from this structure, tackling more complex ways of plotting a story and exploring the unique possibilities of the written medium, but as Snyder himself says:
True originality can’t begin until you know what you’re breaking away from.
– Blake Snyder, Save the Cat!
In this sense, understanding inciting incidents, key events, and plot points allows you to become incredibly skilled at putting together a highly functional, though simple, story structure. Where you want to go from there is your choice, but nailing the basics is the best way to guarantee success.
In order to use these basic devices, however, you have to figure out what your story is about.
What is your story about?
There are lots of definitions of what a ‘story’ is, but one of the simplest and most accurate is ‘something happened’. This ‘something’ usually has a beginning, a middle and an end, or at least the sense of them – the reader understands that there was a situation before, a status quo, and that something occurred that changed that. The past tense also implies that the ‘something’ has run its course – the status quo has changed or has been maintained, the situation has ended.
Is ‘something happened’ the best definition of a ‘story’?Click To Tweet
What trips many authors up is the idea that the events in their story are the same as what it’s about. Take, for example, the story of aliens attacking Earth. In The War of the Worlds this is the plot of the story – people are going about their business, aliens arrive to disrupt that status quo, and (spoilers) the aliens are defeated and the status quo restored. This is in comparison to The Invasion, book 1 of the Animorphs series. In this book, aliens invade, but the book ends with them still locked in battle with the protagonist. Here, the plot is actually the protagonist’s awareness of and involvement in the conflict – Jake is living a normal life (his status quo) when he becomes aware of a secret alien invasion, his investigation uncovers enough that he is left in a position to fight back, establishing a new status quo that ‘ends’ the initial story of his discovery.
The ‘something’ in ‘something happened’ is therefore very different, despite these books sharing similar events. In The War of the Worlds it’s an alien invasion, whereas in The Invasion it’s a personal reassessment of how the world works.
This is good storytelling advice in general – it’s vital to provide an ending to your plot, even if the events of your story don’t end neatly – but it’s also vital for getting the most out of the inciting incident and other plotting devices.
With that understood, let’s move on to actually defining the terms.
What is the inciting incident?
The inciting incident is the thing that begins the ‘something’ in your ‘something happened’. The reason it’s such a slippery term is that where it occurs in the story can differ depending on the type of story you’re telling, and how your plot differs from its events.
In the traditional three-act story, you’d begin (however briefly) with some indication of the initial status quo. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry lives with his abusive aunt and uncle until the arrival of a letter inviting him to attend a magical school. The book is ‘about’ Harry’s entrance into this world – the plot in its most basic form is him finding his place in this new world – and the letter acts as the inciting incident which moves him from his status quo and into a new situation.
It’s important to note that there’s an event prior to this that many might mistake for the inciting incident: Harry communicates with a snake while at the zoo. This event suggests the status quo is not good for him, it alludes to the possibility of a better life, but it doesn’t move anything forward. In terms of plot mechanics, the incident with the snake doesn’t incite anything. The letter, on the other hand, is the first part of a chain that sees Harry leave his home and attend the school – it is a literal invitation to abandon the status quo.
An inciting incident causes the rest of the story. Otherwise, it’s just an event.Click To Tweet
In this particular story, the inciting incident happens roughly halfway through the ‘first act’, but it could happen earlier. Sometimes, it makes sense to begin a story with the inciting incident – Richard Stark’s Slayground begins with a car wreck that leaves his protagonist stranded in a theme park and draws the attention of gangsters who will go on to hunt him down, inciting future events from the first sentence.
In this case, the status quo needs little definition – the protagonist, Parker, was successfully escaping a robbery – and so Stark has no need to wait. In this story, there’s value in being as fast-paced as possible, whereas in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s more value in establishing how bad the status quo is for the character. Part of this is the desired outcome of each story – Harry wants his status quo to change, he wants to find a place in the new world, whereas Parker just wants to escape and get back to his life – and part of it is the different ways in which they’re told.
The inciting incident, then, is not the first ‘event’, but the thing that starts your ‘something’ happening – it’s the machine of plot starting up. It’s worth coming back to the difference between the events of a story and its plot, here. Written narratives exert more control over the reader than films – they require a dedicated immersion that can allow greater experimentation, and so a story often starts with events underway. Maybe the narrative moves around in time, maybe we’re following one person’s account of a decades-old conflict, or maybe we’re not initially meant to understand what’s going on – whatever the case, remember that the plot isn’t nearly so obtuse.
As in The Invasion, it’s common that stories set in a conflict are actually about the experiences of a character or set of characters. It’s these experiences that require an inciting incident. In The Hunger Games, the games are not the plot, either in the form of the annual celebration in which the protagonist is involved or the wider tradition of holding the games at all. The plot is protagonist Katniss’ attempts to survive and care for her family – the inciting incident is therefore not the announcement of the games, but Katniss’ sister’s selection to take part (which incites Katniss to volunteer in her place). Here, it’s clear how the inciting incident relates to plot over events – it’s Katniss involvement that alters the status quo, not the games themselves.
If, in applying this to your story, you can’t identify an inciting incident (or the place where one would fit), it’s worth thinking about whether you’ve correctly identified the plot of your story and separated it from the events. It should be pretty clear what drives the protagonist from the status quo into a period of change and upheaval – if not, take another look at what your story is really about.
The Key Event and the First Plot Point – Why the confusion?
Before moving on to the key event and the first plot point, it’s worth considering why they’re so often linked. The truth is that these two devices are often incredibly close together – so close that they may occur one after the other.Your key event and first plot point are two sides of a doorway. Close, yes, but separate.Click To Tweet
K.M. Weiland, author of Structuring Your Novel, suggests that they’re like two sides of a single doorway – distinct, yes, but one step will often take you past both. This isn’t always the case, but it’s useful for keeping the two terms distinct when defining how exactly they can help your writing.
What is the key event?
The key event is the moment from which your character can’t return to the status quo. Things have changed and, whether they want to return to the existing status quo or create a better one, there’s no going back. Katniss volunteers for the games, Harry is escorted to a magical part of London by a half-giant named Hagrid, the Martians attack civilians.
This point of no return doesn’t have to be physical – Harry could hypothetically get back home if he wanted – but changes the nature of the protagonist’s world, self, or experience. After seeing the wonders of Diagon Alley, Harry has gained entry into the magical world. Even if he physically left it, it now has a place in his life and there is no return to his previously mundane existence.
The key event often happens near the end of the first act, as it acts as a transition between the status quo and the time of upheaval. Alone, however, it’s not enough to tell a story. Instead, it’s part of a double-act, teaming up with the first plot point.
What is the first plot point?
The first plot point is the event which drives the character forward into their confrontation with the new upheaval. This may sound similar to the key event, but in fact the two are different – the key event means the character can’t go backward and the first plot point drives them forward.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this is (arguably) Harry’s arrival at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Through the scenes that make up his induction, Harry makes friends, is assigned to a school house, and encounters the idea of a challenging curriculum. Diagon Alley closes off the previous status quo and introduces Harry to a new world, but it doesn’t provide significant forward momentum into the second and third acts. In this way, Rowling takes her time, extricating Harry gradually from his status quo, showing that there’s a whole new world of which he is now a part, and then giving him goals, challenges and relationships that serve to drive the plot forward.
In contrast, Slayground and The War of the Worlds present their key events and first plot points more or less in the same instant. When Parker enters the amusement park, and when the Martians attack, there’s no going back into the world that was, and the characters have clear motivation to move forward. This is also the case in stories like Alice in Wonderland and A Christmas Carol – in these stories the protagonist is physically transported to a new place that immediately drives the plot forward.
Along with the multitude of options for where you can place the inciting incident, the variable distance between the key event and the first plot point suggests two possible scenarios – either it doesn’t matter where these events occur in a story, and you can stick them wherever, or it’s really important, and the tone and mood of your story can change drastically depending on your choices. You won’t be surprised to hear it’s the latter.
Why your inciting incident, key event and first plot point matter
Understanding the inciting incident, key event, and first plot point means you know exactly how to guide your reader into the plot of your story. This is important because it’s easy to start a story badly – to throw the reader in at the deep end, or hold off on introducing the plot in a way that frustrates rather than intrigues. This is especially the case with the key event and the first plot point as, even if you have them occur at the same time, you know that you have to both seal off the previous status quo and propel the protagonist forward.
If you can identify your plot, know what starts it going, show the change from status quo to period of upheaval, and prompt your character to tackle their problem, then that’s a great start, but these moments can also be establishing the tone of your story and engaging the reader in ways even the words on the page can’t.
Differences in narrative space
I mentioned earlier that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has an unusually large gap between key event and first plot point, but this is no accident. Rowling luxuriates in the world of her story, knowing that the reader wants to do the same, and even casting them in the role of Harry (who is just as amazed and keen to explore). The inciting incident happens well before all this – in fact Rowling steadily builds the incitement, having the characters literally flee the invitations for Harry to enter into the magical world until they have no choice. This helps build suspense; Harry and the reader receive invitation after invitation to move on, so that when they finally do, they’re primed to want to dive into this world and take their time combing over its specifics.
In contrast, Richard Stark writes Slayground as a tense, claustrophobic thriller. He wants the protagonist, and the reader, trapped as soon as possible – the vast majority of the story takes place in one location, and so the reader is bustled inside without any ceremony. The car crash that incites the plot happens only paragraphs before the protagonist enters the amusement park; if the key event and first plot point happen together, then the inciting incident very nearly joins them.
Thinking about the placement of these points – how much time the reader spends in one stage, and why – can help craft your story at a point where readers are still getting their bearings. Imagine, for example, how Harry’s adventures would read differently if he was escorted straight from his aunt and uncle’s house to the magical school: if key event and first plot point were one. Not only is anticipation limited, but the world feels smaller. As a transitional space, Diagon Alley is hidden in London, and here form mirrors function – Rowling doesn’t split Harry’s world between magical and non-magical, but suggests that magic has always been there, and needed to be uncovered. Moving straight to Hogwarts would create more of a dichotomy, making his journey similar to that of Alice, who tumbles from a world of lazy sanity to one of energetic nonsense.
In fact, for the best example of why the placement of these devices matters, look no further than Alice’s multiple cinematic outings. In Alice in Wonderland, there is barely any time before the inciting incident (a sighting of a white rabbit) and Alice tumbling into an impossibly deep hole that deposits her in the challenging environment of Wonderland.
This tumble, however, is open to interpretation, and is often used to change the nature of the story’s key event/first plot point relationship. It’s easy to see how this could be the case – if we return to Weiland’s door metaphor (with the key event as the entrance and the first plot point as the exit), then we can see the tunnel for what it really is: a particularly long doorway, which creators can stretch or compress as they please.
For example, in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the tunnel becomes an extended sequence that gradually introduces the oddity of Wonderland into the realistic world of the status quo. In this version of the story, the tunnel becomes Alice’s own Diagon Alley – a transitional space between the key event and the first plot point where Alice can’t return to the status quo but has no real reason to move on and engage with the plot.The rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland holds the secret to a great first act.Click To Tweet
Whether it’s better or worse is down to personal opinion, but it does chime with the more realistic Wonderland that Burton’s movie portrays. This is suggested as a strange but real place, rather than the impossible, ever-shifting dream-state from Lewis Carroll’s stories. Burton similarly extends the time before the inciting incident, letting the reader settle in Alice’s normal life so he can bring it back later to bookend the story.
With just small changes like this, the tone of the story changes and a new interpretation is created. That’s fine if you’re retelling an established story, but when you’re writing something original, be aware that you can alter your story in big ways depending on how you space these events.
The importance of structure
The above examples should have given you an understanding of the inciting incident, key event and first plot point, but the best way to appreciate how they can change a story is to experiment.
If you’re struggling with a project, try tweaking the placement of one of these devices and see how your story changes shape and tone. It’s a surefire way to gain insight, and it might even be the missing piece of the puzzle.
For more on story structure, check out The Pros And Cons Of Plotting a Novel, or try How To Decide If Your Plot Points Are Too Weak (And How To Fix Them) for more practical advice on shaping your story for maximum effect.
Have you got any examples of how spacing has affected your reading of a story? Let me know in the comments.