Inciting Incident Definition:
First let’s look at the brass tacks…what is an inciting incident.
The quick, easy definition of an inciting incident is quite simply: Something happens to change the course of the story. Yep, that’s the basics.
Let’s look at a longer, juicier explanation and dig into it a little deeper:
Something happens to your main character that makes them stop and realize something big is about to happen. Something massive. It’s the push that causes momentum. Think of a snowball rolling down a hill in a cartoon, and how it gets bigger and bigger. That’s what you’ll be doing in your story.
It’s a point in your book where you’re waving a flag and telling your reader that something significant is going on. It’s time for them to buckle up, strap in, be prepared because your story is about to launch with a new sense of urgency!
Your character’s world is about to change.
A list of Inciting Incident Tips
- Create a sense of urgency
- Force your character to react
- Change the setting
- Make it dramatic and memorable
- The sooner, the better
- Create momentum
- Make your character uncomfortable
- Must be important to the story
- Change your character’s actions
- Consider if the incident is: forced, an accident, or by choice
Inciting Incident Example:
Think about Harry Potter at the train station that first time he had to run through the wall. He’s learned he’s a wizard, which was huge and eye opening, but now it’s his first experience into a magical, new world.
While the story was set up, and the pieces put in place, this is where things change big time.
(It’s dramatic and memorable. It changes setting. It forces your character to react strongly. And it’s massively important to the story. It’s sort of like a “this changes everything” moment. His reality has shifted on its axis. While there are other points that may seem like the inciting incident prior (hearing he’s a wizard), to me, this is the stand-out moment…Remember those tips you just read?)
Suddenly we’re confronted with a completely different place. This is no ordinary world… Hogwarts and Diagon Alley (remember that change of setting to help cement the change in the reader’s mind) is a great way to say… THIS is what the story is about, and boy, do we have some momentum.
He realizes his world will never be the same. It’s like his world is a giant Rubik’s cube now, and he has no idea how to put it back together the right way. Your reader has straightened up in their chair and wants to know… What happens next? GOLD. That’s the kind of reaction you want from a reader. If they want to know what happens next, you’ve nailed it. The ultimate goal of any writer is to make your reader want to keep turning the pages.
When Should it Take Place?
The simple answer is: the sooner, the better. Let’s take a look at what’s going on, and why. Ultimately it will be in the first act of your story, but there are reasons you might not want to shove it on the first page.
Chapter one is ideal, but maybe not the very first thing you type. Why?
We need to get to know your character and how they normally react to situations. By seeing a change in reaction (remember those tips above), it creates a bigger dramatic moment. If you set it too soon, you won’t have that powerful emotional scene when you thrust them into the uncomfortable situation.
As we add pressure, it allows us to see the character’s personality more clearly. How do they react to stressful situations? Who are they? How will they handle a massive twist in their life? What’s driving them to react? Fear? Panic? Denial? Anger? Each of these emotions will bring out a range of the character that will help you create a powerful scene. Think about it — your character is faced with a path they’d never intended to follow.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy reading an article about how the right details can make or break your setting. You can read about Settings in Stories, here.