Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Incite. Instigate. Provoke. Spur. Trigger. Activate. Force. Does this describe your opening? Is there an event that propels your protagonist on his or her journey? This event is the key to starting off your story on a strong note. It’s called the inciting incident. It’s that moment that disrupts your protagonist’s status quo and sets the plot in motion. The inciting incident is a key ingredient to a powerful story opening. Without it, what do you have to jump start the plot and character arcs? What is the agent of change? Before we talk about your inciting incident and how to make the most of it, let’s take a look at some examples so you know what you’re looking for.
A few examples
It’s sometimes hard to identify the inciting incident, especially if there’s plenty of action in a story’s opening. The thing that sets this element apart is that it is directly tied to the plot and character arcs, and it initiates the main story question. Here are two examples I think you’ll recognize.The inciting incident asks the question that your story will attempt to answer.Click To Tweet
Think about the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo Baggins is getting ready for his 111th birthday party. There are lots of comings and goings, bits of party business to attend to, even a visit from the famous wizard Gandalf. Then comes the night of the party, when Bilbo gives everyone a shock by disappearing during his speech — this seems like a wicked magic trick to all his friends and neighbors, but readers know it’s because of his ring; when he slips it on, he’s invisible.
So this is an interesting and compelling opening, but are any of these events inciting? Has anything happened yet to catapult our protagonist, Frodo, into his journey? No. That moment comes when Frodo Baggins leaves the Shire. He learns that dark forces are coming in search of the One Ring, which Bilbo has left in his care. Frodo can’t stay; he has to take the ring out of the Shire — a scandalous prospect for a hobbit, and one that will change the course of his life and the fate of Middle Earth forever.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is another great case study. The book takes its time with the opening, introducing readers to the fictional world. We meet the very ordinary Dursleys and their peculiar nephew, Harry. They take a trip to the zoo for Dudley Dursley’s birthday, and Harry accidentally unleashes a boa constrictor from its cage. One day a letter comes for Harry — a highly unusual event in the Dursley house — and when Mr. Dursley sees who sent it, he’s adamant about keeping it from his nephew. But with every passing day, more letters arrive until hundreds are shooting out at the family from the fireplace. Mr. Dursley whisks the family away to a secluded island all in an attempt to keep Harry from opening that letter.
Here again we’re not wanting for action; there’s a lot going on. But has anything happened yet to force Harry out into his journey? No. That moment comes when Hagrid arrives and the mysterious letter is finally read; it’s when Harry learns he’s a wizard bound for Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Notice another hallmark of the inciting incident: the protagonist can’t go backward from the event. It’s a catalyst; it’s a moment that incites permanent change and propels a character forward.A good inciting incident causes permanent change and propels a character forward.Click To Tweet
What if I don’t have an inciting incident?
Are you scrambling to figure out what your inciting incident is? It’s very possible your opening simply doesn’t have one. If that’s the case, don’t worry. You can always rework your opening to include the inciting incident. I promise you’ll be glad you did — it will make your story so much stronger.
One of the easiest ways to go about this is to work backward. What’s your main story question? What’s at the heart of your plot and character arcs? For this exercise, we’ll call that Point B.
Now look at your protagonist at the very beginning of the story. What is his or her status quo before the change begins? Call this Point A.
So, what event needs to occur to drive your character from Point A to Point B? What incites (provokes, spurs, activates, forces) your character into that change? What irreversible thing happens to him or her to create a new path?
Okay, now go write it!
What if my inciting incident is weak?
Completing the above exercise might make you realize you actually do have an inciting incident but it could be much stronger. Maybe you didn’t recognize it at first because it’s not all it could be. I hope you’ll take the time to work on it — again, this is a powerful story element, and you want it to really carry its weight. Imagine if Frodo knew all he did about the One Ring and Gandalf told him he should take it out of the Shire, but there was no looming threat of the Black Riders. That moment wouldn’t have the same power, would it?
So, how can you make a weak inciting incident stronger? That’s going to look different for every writer, because every story is of course unique. Here are a few questions to ask of your story that will get you thinking:
- Does your current inciting incident launch your character and plot arcs?
- Is the event too long or too short?
- Are the stakes high enough?
- Does the event address the main story question?
- Can my protagonist go backward from the event; is it a transformative moment?
These are the types of questions that help you get to the heart of what’s happening with your protagonist. If the answer to any of these is no, then you have some work to do. Do all you can to write a powerful inciting incident that propels your character forward irreversibly into the heart of his conflict, force her out into her journey.
Want more exercises to help you craft your story? Then check out 40 Exercises And Resources Every Author Needs for some essential tips, and important questions, that can help any author.
What tricks do you have for writing a powerful inciting incident? What are some of your favorite inciting incidents in literature that you look to for inspiration? Let me know in the comments.Don't gently guide your character out of the introduction - catapult them into the main story.Click To Tweet