ON BE A BETTER FICTIONIST BY USING INCITING INCIDENTS
GUEST BLOG /By Joe Yamulla via BookBaby.com--Think about one of your favorite books or films. What was the catalyst that thrust its plot into action? What was the moment that propelled the protagonist to begin their journey or quest?
Whatever it may be — this is the inciting incident.
What is an inciting incident?
The inciting incident of a story is the thing that sets everything into motion. It is a rather simple concept with complex implications. An inciting incident sparks a fundamental change in the protagonist’s life, bringing forth a sense of newfound clarity that often allows them to pursue their purpose.
After an inciting incident occurs, everything changes for the main character and supporting characters. This fundamental plot point shakes up the fictional world and causes a ripple effect that spreads throughout the narrative. This is the moment that captures readers’ attention and allows them to fully grasp where the story is headed. Without an effective inciting incident, readers are left in limbo — and can become disinterested in the story.
Thanks to this event, a whole new journey unfolds. Although each inciting incident serves the same fundamental purpose, there are generally three different types and categories. he Causal Inciting Event The causal inciting incident involves a direct choice made by the protagonist or on behalf of the protagonist. This decision not only changes the protagonist’s life, but it sets the entire plot into motion.
I’m a big Star Wars fan. So, let’s head to a galaxy far, far away for an example of a causal inciting incident. In the 1977 film A New Hope, there is a deliberate choice to recruit Luke Skywalker on a call to adventure. R2-D2 crash lands on Tatooine and is purchased by Skywalker’s uncle.
Soon after, R2 displays a message for Luke in which Princess Leia begs, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” A choice was made to pull Luke into the action. Already a young man, Luke grew up unaware of his Jedi family history, the Empire, or the Rebellion.
If you’ve seen the films, you understand that Skywalker’s recruitment changes everything — both for him and the entire galaxy.
He discovers a newfound purpose and path as a Jedi. Thanks to a causal inciting incident, we get the timeless action and adventure that follows. The Coincidental Inciting Event There is a significant amount of randomness driving the coincidental inciting incident.
This coincidence is a significant moment that turns the protagonist’s life upside down. I find coincidental events particularly interesting because, in most cases, the main character is completely thrown off guard. Because the occurrence is unexpected or accidental, the character must grow and adapt to a new reality.
Consider my favorite example of being in the right place at the right time — Roald Dahl’s best-selling young adult novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The protagonist, Charlie Bucket, lives in a poverty-stricken section of town with his entire family. On his daily walk home from school, he passes the largest and most mysterious chocolate factory in the world.
For some reason, the secretive chocolate factory owner Willy Wonka announces that he’s hidden five golden tickets to tour his factory in chocolate bars all over the world. Charlie just so happens to stumble across some money sticking out of a snowbank. He uses it to buy a Wonka Bar, uncovers a golden ticket, and his entire life changes.
Charlie finding money and receiving the unfathomably rare golden ticket is completely unexpected. But this key event sparks an extraordinary chain of events that alters his life forever.
The Ambiguous Inciting Event
This inciting incident is open to interpretation. Actions occur that are not fully explained — and pressing questions often remain at the conclusion, too. Essentially, the reader and/or audience is tasked with determining whether the protagonist is thrust into a situation by choice or coincidence.
This method is oftentimes implemented when writing mysteries or thrillers so readers and the audience remain “on edge” throughout the entirety of the book or film. In M. Night Shyamalan’s brilliant 1999 thriller, The Sixth Sense, the inciting incident comes in the form of an early bang — literally. Child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe is celebrating an evening with his wife Anna when a former patient breaks into their home.
He shoots Malcolm in the stomach. Then throughout the film, Malcolm is tasked with helping a young boy who can see dead people — but they do not know they are dead and only see what they want to see.
In the end, Malcolm realizes he’s been dead the entire time. The gunshot was the early inciting incident — but you can see the ambiguity as the truth is not revealed until the stunning conclusion.
What’s the difference between an inciting incident vs. first turning point?
The inciting incident and first turning point of a story are connected, but there are distinctions between them. To break it down, it’s as simple as understanding a cause-and-effect relationship. the inciting incident is the initial action that sets everything into motion.
It is an event that causes a massive disturbance — like a crack in glass that progressively expands in size. Because of an inciting incident, the foundation of a fictional world changes entirely. The glass has been cracked and the protagonist seeks balance in an altered existence.
The first turning point is the sequence of events in which the main character responds to this new, unexpected challenge. He/she realizes that life is now different and embarks on a quest to restore balance. Because an inciting incident forces a character to rethink their goals and aspirations, the stakes get higher in the first turning point.
Let’s turn to Harry Potter to compare these two concepts. In the first book, the inciting incident is Harry discovering that he is a wizard. This moment sets the plot into motion and changes his life.
The first turning point of the story is when Harry leaves the “muggle” (non-magic) world and sets forth on his adventure to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hagrid walks him through Diagon Alley where he can gather his wizarding supplies before boarding the Hogwarts Express.
As you can see, the first turning point of Harry Potter demonstrates Harry seeking to find balance in his new magical life. He starts learning secrets of his past and takes the first steps on his quest as the stakes rise.
5 tips for using an inciting incident (with examples)
Now that you know how inciting incidents fit within the context of a story, let’s dive into some tips to help you craft your own.
1. Use subtle foreshadowing before the inciting incident For an inciting incident to pack a punch, some anticipatory build-up should occur throughout the story’s early phases. Although an inciting incident occurs early, foreshadowing is a beneficial technique to keep readers engaged before takeoff. You can foreshadow while introducing the backstory. F. Scott Fitzgerald does this quite beautifully in The Great Gatsby. Because the inciting incident (Nick meeting Gatsby) does not occur for roughly 50 pages, Fitzgerald keeps readers interested with mysterious and compelling foreshadowing. As soon as the book begins, readers encounter hints of Gatsby’s life ending tragically. There is an early and mysterious reference to the “foul dust that floated in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams.” Beyond that, the “green light” is always far off in the distance and never quite can be reached. Thanks to creative foreshadowing, readers are cognizant of impending tragedy and death before the plot is fully in motion. With this successful literary strategy, readers remain intrigued well before the inciting incident occurs.
2. Incorporate your inciting incident early in the story Inciting incidents should occur relatively early on in a narrative. If you wait too long to drop the hammer, you risk readers becoming bored or disinterested in the story. Remember, this action is what propels the plot, character arcs, and the coming conflict. Prior to the inciting incident, you’re doing the necessary work to establish the backstory. But it’s important to light the flame early enough so that your readers/audience remain invested. There are some books and films that even place the inciting incident at the very beginning. In The Sixth Sense example, Malcolm is shot in the opening scene. There is no black-and-white answer, and so much of the inciting incident placement depends on your story. But, as a rule of thumb, it should come early. If you decide to push the incident later in your text, it’s paramount to preface it with an adequate backstory and foreshadowing.
3. Make your inciting incident transformative An effective inciting incident changes everything. Life as your protagonist once knew it is over — and now it’s time to embark on an entirely new journey. Because of this massive shift, it opens many opportunities for great character development. There should be noticeable changes in who your main character is and how they live their life. These changes can even be reflected in their physical appearance. This can involve growth, or maybe it’s detrimental. Whatever it may be, your protagonist must undergo some form of change within their character arc. You see this clearly in J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel, The Hobbit. The inciting incident is Gandalf’s arrival which triggers sudden and drastic changes in Bilbo Baggins’ life. He is introduced to an entirely new world, his normal life is disrupted, and he embarks on a quest beyond his wildest imagination. Before the inciting incident, Bilbo never even knew dwarves existed. But he undergoes a fascinating and powerful evolution to become the leader of the dwarves. He once lived an ordinary, uneventful life. But after Gandalf’s action, we slowly see Bilbo grow and discover his courage and purpose.
4. Use the inciting incident to build tension The inciting incident affects everything — not just the main character. This action ignites a fire of tension that is integral to any good story. Now that the proverbial snowball is rolling down the mountain, let it grow with an antagonist who is threatening your protagonist’s quest. After Harry learns he is a wizard in The Sorcerer’s Stone, he is not the only one seeking to find balance in a changed world. His enemies (particularly, the dark lord Voldemort) are also confronting a fundamental change. The inciting incident is the moment that both sparks a hero’s journey and awakens those who threaten it.
5. Make it grand In this moment, you’re fully immersing readers into your plot, so don’t skimp on the details. Use symbolism to build an unforgettable moment in the story. Look to C.S. Lewis for inspiration here. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy walks through a wardrobe and finds herself “standing in the middle of a wood at night-time, with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.” Read through this entire chapter because Lewis does a remarkable job including vivid imagery throughout the paragraphs that launch the characters into Narnia.
Thanks to strategic literary devices, readers are fully aware that something extraordinary has happened, and the characters’ lives are changed forever.
There can be only one
A great story needs a great inciting incident. When you look back at all the best books and films, you can clearly point to the one moment when everything changed. This event should be clear and obvious. There are benefits to ambiguity in writing, but this is not a moment that warrants that.
Remember, this crucial action propels your narrative arc and spurs your main character into action. As an author, you need to nail this moment. It’s what pulls readers into the story and gets them invested into what will happen next.