When writing creative fiction, the opening scenes and chapters that guide your protagonist into their journey are pivotal. They set the atmosphere for the entire story, and writing the perfect inciting incident is one key factor in exceptional storytelling.
What is the Inciting Incident?
The inciting incident is a key event or plot point that hooks your reader into your story. There’re often events leading up to this key event, but this is when your protagonist is thrust into the main action of the story.
But unlike most other plot points, the key event isn’t something that’s decided upon by your protagonist. It’s something that’s done to your protagonist, and they are faced with a decision to press forward or not.
Hint: The protagonist should continue the story, or else the story would end right here.
The Most Important Thing About Your Inciting Incident
There are a hundred things that are important about your inciting incident, including timing and how you use your key plot point to expand your narrative, but the most important thing about your inciting event is that it must change your protagonist’s journey.
Your Inciting Incident Must Change Your Protagonist’s Journey (For Better or Worse)
Up until the key event, you’ve been showing your readers the normal, every day of your characters. You add in the backstory about why they are the way they are and introduce the bulk of your main cast. You’ll even show the readers the questions that burn inside your protagonist’s heart and soul.
Your protagonist probably knows they’re about to do something, they just don’t yet know what it might be.
For better or worse, your inciting plot point must upset and completely overturn your protagonist’s life.
In Start Wars: A New Hope, the inciting incident is when Darth Vader illegally boards Princess Leia’s ship destined to Alderan. Though it’s a guise of the rebellion, the ship is supposed to be on a diplomatic mission, but the Empire creates the problem by showing to which lengths they will go to squelch the rebellion forming within them.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the inciting incident is when Hagrid kicks down on the door on the cabin the Dursley’s had rented to escape the Hogwarts letters. More specifically, it’s when he informs Harry that he’s a wizard.
The 2-Step Guide to Writing Your Inciting Incident
It Must Create Action in Your Story
Your entire novel is a series of actions and reactions, so it should come as no surprise that your key event is the same. Prior to this event, your character lives a relatively normal life. During the setup, the author is given the chance to weave the foundation of the protagonist and to give your readers a reason to connect with your protagonist.
But now that you’ve gotten to the inciting incident, you must overturn the life they’ve lived and push them into Act 2, where your protagonist is a little downtrodden by past circumstance and still trying to find their way.
But, simply said, action creates a sense of urgency that is needed to pick up the pace in your story. And your key event is the perfect place to launch your story full speed ahead.
It Must Cause a Reaction in Your Protagonist
While action is important, so is that your key plot point and the decision your protagonist makes to push forward. Without this decision, the story stops. Without this decision to continue, the second act never happens.
The inciting incident and the decision to follow, are what push your protagonist into the second act (and meat) of your story. Even if your protagonist is passive during the inciting incident, they mustn’t stay that way.
For every action, there must be a reaction. How does or will the inciting incident impact your protagonist or other characters? How does your main antagonist react, if they react at all? What questions will arise because of the inciting incident, and how will you answer them for your readers? What future conflicts will happen because of your key event? These are all things you should think about when writing
The inciting incident isn’t something that your character does. On the contrary, it’s something that happens to your protagonist and, in the process, changes your protagonist’s life.