How Do You Write a Good Inciting Incident? 9 Hot Tips!

Abi Wurdeman
January 16, 2023

How do you write a good inciting incident?

I just happen to have a list of nine tidy little tips to answer that question. 

But first, a suggestion.

If you really want to write a good inciting incident—a moment that seizes your reader’s curiosity, forces your character to make a bold move, and sets an epic tale in motion—revisit the inciting incidents that have stuck with you.

Will you always remember Lucy’s magical first steps through the thick coats of the wardrobe and into the winter wonderland of Narnia?

Or Sully’s hilariously unexpected terror upon discovering that a babbling toddler had infiltrated Monsters, Inc.?

Or Romeo’s inability to stifle a sonnet when he first lays eyes on Juliet?

The best catalysts surprise us, intrigue us, and yank our hearts into the story. 

And if you want to write a good inciting incident, a great place to start is studying the catalysts that have moved you.

That and the advice I’m about to share. But first, let’s nail down a definition. 

What is an Inciting Incident?

Two friends walk down city sidewalk, engaged in conversation.

So how do you write a good inciting incident?

First, you get clear on what an inciting incident is. 

Depending on which story structure you’ve learned, you might know this beat as the Call of Adventure (Hero’s Journey), Trigger (Eight-Point Story Arc), Catalyst (Save the Cat!), or something else.

Basically, this is the event that sets your story in motion. It’s an occurrence that forces your protagonist outside their zone of comfort and alters their life forever. This moment introduces the central conflict.

Katniss Everdeen wins the Hunger Games and becomes the leader of a rebellion all because her little sister was selected to be a tribute. (The Hunger Games)

Anne Shirley finds a loving community and becomes the pride of Avonlea all because some lady accidentally sent the Cuthberts an orphan girl when they specifically requested a boy. (Anne of Green Gables)

Kevin McCallister becomes a master booby-trapper and learns the importance of togetherness all because his family flies to Paris without him. (Home Alone)

In the short term, the inciting incident forces the protagonist to change direction and create new goals. In the long term, this story beat sets them on the path that will force them to change.

It’s fair to say the catalyst does a lot of heavy lifting.

But don’t be overwhelmed. I’ve got nine hot tips for how to write a good inciting incident.

1. Honor Thy Genre

Your readers will probably have certain expectations about your inciting incident if they’re familiar with your genre.

In romance, the meet cute is pretty much always considered the inciting incident. In mysteries, it’s the discovery of the dead body. If you write a thriller, your story catalyst will probably be some kind of enemy attack—a kidnapping or art theft or something.

Now, this doesn’t mean there’s no room for originality in genre fiction. But you should use this information to understand what your reader considers a call to adventure.

2. Keep It Simple

How many sentences do you need to explain why your inciting incident spurs your protagonist to take the action they take? It should be no more than two. Ideally one.

Scar murders Mufasa and pins it on an impressionable young Simba, so Simba runs away from Pride Rock in grief and shame.

Simple. Straightforward. And much easier for your reader to connect to emotionally than, say:

Scar secretly moves up the posters on Simba’s cave wall half an inch every day so Simba starts to think he’s shrinking. When Simba panics, everyone tells him he’s crazy. He starts to question his grip on reality. Now Scar is able to convince Simba that he murdered his own father in cold blood. Simba runs away in shame.

That’s not an inciting incident. It’s an entire plot

3. Make It a Surprise for the Protagonist

If your protagonist is on a mission to become a small-town beauty queen from page one, then joining the beauty pageant isn’t an inciting incident. It’s just the next step in their plan.

Remember, a good inciting incident forces the protagonist to change direction. It interrupts their plans.

Now, that doesn’t mean it has to change the protagonist’s motivation

In Legally Blonde—one of the greatest movies of all time—Elle Woods is determined to marry Warner. When he breaks up with her on the grounds that she’s not serious enough to live in his world, she doubles down on her goal, applying to law school to prove that she can hang with his stuffy family.

This sets her on a trajectory that’s the exact opposite of the glitter-strewn, Barbie-pink sorority world she’s used to. She’s still after Warner (for some reason). She’s just trying a new tactic—one that ultimately forces her to grow.

4. Make It Inescapable

A big spider stands over a tiny bug trapped in its web.

One cannot stop the Hunger Games. Nor can one unfind a dead body or unlearn that they’re actually a wizard.

A good inciting incident presents the protagonist with a challenge they cannot deny, avoid, or walk away from.

Now, you could argue that many romances have escapable catalysts. In Sleepless in Seattle, does Annie really need to blow up her engagement to pursue a stranger just because he said really lovely things about his dead wife on a radio show?

Yes. Yes, she does, because in a romance, literally nothing is more important than a soul connection between two people. And the movie’s truly unique “meet cute” works beautifully to convince the audience that these two people are MFEO (made for each other).

5. Spark Curiosity

This is one of the most obvious tips to write a good inciting incident, but it’s still worth saying.

Your catalyst needs to raise big questions about what happens next. This event sets up the entire premise of your novel.

What will it be like at this school of witchcraft and wizardry? Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games? Is she even capable of killing another human being? Exactly how much hilarity will ensue when Elle Woods tries to fit in with the Harvard Law crowd?

6. Set the Timer

A good inciting incident creates a sense of urgency. This is your chance to set a ticking clock.

Maybe your protagonist has 36 hours to find the kidnapper. Or the single daughter just has to keep up the ruse that her nerdy lab partner is her sexy life partner for the length of one Thanksgiving meal.

Let your reader know what the finish line looks like so they can feel the tension as it draws nearer.

7. Manipulate Your Protagonist

This maneuver is evil but necessary.

Your protagonist’s internal conflict is the key to how to write a good inciting incident, because the catalyst should prey on that conflict.

Is your character struggling with an identity conflict? Give them an inciting incident that threatens their sense of self or presents an opportunity to be seen as the person they wish they were.

Are they struggling to find a moral path in a kill-or-be-killed world? Let the catalyst force them to choose between two evils.

After all, the inciting incident introduces the external conflict, and you want your protagonist’s external and internal conflicts to continuously build on one another.  

8. Force Your Protagonist to Make a Decision

A hand moves a chess piece.

This formula is important:

A good inciting incident is something that happens to your protagonist but also requires them to make an active choice.

See, it’s really fun for your reader to watch an unavoidable, external force shake up your character’s world. But what makes the inciting incident so compelling is the question that comes with it:

What will they do now?

By answering this question, you make your protagonist more real for your reader. You give them depth and show who they are under pressure. 

Harry Potter is down to explore the unknown. Katniss Everdeen really will do anything to protect her family. Elle Woods is more fearless and self-possessed than any of us will ever be.

9. Establish a Point of No Return

You get big inciting incident bonus points if you can establish a line that—once crossed—cannot be uncrossed.

Once again, I bring up The Hunger Games because it’s such a clean, clear example of every single tip in this article. The entire inciting incident happens with the pronunciation of the name “Primrose Everdeen,” and immediately Katniss has a decision to make.

Will she let her sister fight and likely die in the Hunger Games? Or will she sacrifice herself? Either decision will be final and come with devastating consequences.

Now, depending on your genre and storyline, it may not make sense for your character to face a decision as mortally irreversible as volunteering for a battle royale between children. But you can force your protagonist to cross their own, genre-appropriate version of a point of no return.

Maybe they have to put their reputation on the line. Maybe they risk damaging an important relationship or sacrificing an opportunity they’ll never get back.

Whatever it is, this is your chance to help the reader understand the enormity of the journey that lies ahead for your protagonist. 

The inciting incident clarifies what’s at stake for this character—what desires and fears drive them. 

This is a powerful moment in your outline. When you know how to write a good inciting incident, you know how to keep your readers emotionally invested and desperate to know what happens next.

Bonus: How Do You Write a Good Inciting Incident With Dabble?

One final tip as your create and draft your masterful catalyst:

Plan this beat (and all your others!) using the Dabble Plot Grid.

The Plot Grid offers a great way to see your whole story at a glance, and this makes all the difference when you’re working on your inciting incident. 

Why?

Because your inciting incident is the setup for everything that follows.

Plus, the Plot Grid allows you to add columns for story elements like character arcs (or anything else you want). This way, you can check to make sure your inciting incident feeds your protagonist’s internal conflict and sets them up for a compelling journey.

A screenshot of a Plot Grid for The Hunger Games with columns for scenes, story beats, and Katniss's arc, all showing how to use the Plot Grid to write a good inciting incident.

If you don’t have Dabble, don’t worry. You can experiment with the Plot Grid and all Dabble’s other Premium features for free for fourteen days. Just click this link to get started. No credit card required.

Now get out there and set your mighty story in motion.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.