Starting Off With a Bang: Ideas for Writing an Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the make-or-break moment for your story. It’s the catalyst for change. It’s the thing that sets your entire tale in motion. It’s the kick in the pants your protagonist needs to force a change in their lives they probably never saw coming.
Novel openings are one of the hardest things to nail and you can’t do that without a compelling, disruptive, and logical inciting incident. But how do you create an inciting incident that will carry your whole story?
That’s the question we’ll answer here. In this article, we’ll discuss:
- What an inciting incident is
- How to write an inciting incident
- Some examples of inciting incidents from popular films and books
- Give a list if inciting incident ideas
What is an Inciting Incident?
Your inciting incident is a moment that comes near the beginning of your story that forces your protagonist to move forward—or at least in a different direction than the one they were headed.
The inciting incident can go by many names. In the Hero’s Journey, it’s referred to as the “call to adventure.” In Save the Cat, it’s called “the Catalyst.” Sometimes it’s called the “hook,” too. Whatever you call it, it’s the bomb that’s dropped into your protagonist's life. Sometimes literally, but usually figuratively. Unless you write thrillers, maybe.
It’s called the inciting incident because it literally incites your character into some kind of action that forces them to deviate from their normal trajectory. Sometimes your character will simply react to the incident and sometimes they’ll take the next step while acting in that moment.
The difference is in how your specific character responds. Some might see the inciting incident as an invitation to shake up their mundane or miserable life, while others will see it as a kiss of death to their comfortable existence and do everything they can to avoid having to take action.
Think of it like the door to your story. There’s the intro where we see your character existing within their status quo, then the door opens and Voila!—the real story begins. It’s the before and after. And that moment is one that can ultimately make or break not only your opening, but your entire story.
How to Write an Inciting Incident
Now that you understand what an inciting incident is, let’s talk about writing one. Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating the inciting incident for your novel.
Your Inciting Incident Comes at the Beginning
There is debate on when exactly your inciting incident should occur. Some will hold to a rigid guideline that states it must happen in the first chapter or it must happen by 15% of the story. Maybe that’s true and maybe it isn’t. The answer, as with so many things is in writing, is it depends.
If you’re a beginner writer, there is a rule of thumb you should consider. Your inciting incident should happen as close to the beginning of the story as possible. One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is starting the story in the wrong place.
They’ve gone too far back in time and are introducing far too many new characters or too much backstory or worldbuilding details that are not only irrelevant to the central plot but, far more grievously, are going to bore your readers.
Because the thing about the time before the inciting incident is that it is literally the time when your character is just moving throughout their day, and ultimately, it can be really hard to make that interesting.
That’s not to say you couldn’t have a very good reason for introducing your catalyst later in your story, but you do need a reason.
Introduce us to your character. Show them living in their normal lives. And then blow everything up in their faces like the sadistic author you are.
Some stories start after the inciting incident has already happened. Consider a murder mystery where the body has already been found, for example.
Summary of three types of inciting incident:
- Immediate: happens at the very beginning of the story and immediately hooks the reader into the action, forcing them to quickly catch up.
- Delayed: happens a bit later in the story, though still close to the beginning, immersing the reader in the established world before shaking things up.
- Off-the-page: happens before the story begins, dropping the reader in medias res—also known as the “middle of things,” forcing the reader to quickly adapt.
Your Inciting Incident Should Be Appropriate for your Genre
Following on from what I said above, consider your genre and what’s appropriate for it. If you’re writing a fast-paced thriller, then spending a quarter of the book showing your protagonist going to work probably isn’t going to cut it. If you’re writing a romance, introducing the love interest at the fifty percent mark is going to be sure to get your book tossed in the DNF heap.
If you’re leaning more literary, then maybe there’s a good argument for slowing things down. Maybe you need to establish your world a little more clearly first.
Whatever you’re writing, be sure you’re reading in that genre and pay attention to when those books introduce their inciting incident. It’s always important to meet reader expectations no matter what you’re writing.
Your Inciting Incident Must Upset the Status Quo
As we already mentioned, the inciting incident is meant to throw your protagonist off course. It must be something that forces a life-altering change. It can’t be something they can just ignore until it goes away.
Sometimes your protagonist is perfectly content with their lot and destiny and is then forced to move mountains to save the world. Think Frodo and the ring in The Lord of the Rings. He was perfectly happy in The Shire until the ring found its way into his hands and he had no choice but to journey into Mordor to save Middle-earth.
In other cases, your protagonist is already unhappy and desperate for a change. Think Katniss in The Hunger Games. She lived in the poorest district, had a crummy job, and didn’t have enough to eat for her or her family. She really had nowhere to go but up. Eventually.
Your Inciting Incident Should Create Questions and Urgency
Remember that your inciting incident is simply the call to action. It isn’t the action, nor is it the story. That comes after the inciting incident.
So naturally, you need to ask yourself, what happens after? How does your protagonist respond? How will they solve the issue that’s arisen? Will they answer the call right away or reluctantly? And, if they’re dragging their feet, what gets them to move?
Similarly, the inciting incident often introduces a “ticking clock.” That is, something really bad is going to happen if the call to action isn’t answered and ultimately solved. This ticking clock can look different depending on your story, but one way or another, the inciting incident cannot be ignored or brushed aside. Otherwise, you have no reason to be writing this book.
Ideas for Inciting Incidents
Okay, now that we’ve delivered into what an inciting incident is, let’s look at some ideas for creating your own.
Famous Inciting Incidents
Here are some examples from film and literature you might be familiar with:
- The Chronicles of Narnia: Lucy uncovers the back of the wardrobe and discovers Narnia.
- Alice in Wonderland: Alice chases after the White Rabbit and falls down the hole into Wonderland.
- The Hunger Games: Katinss’s sister is chosen for the Hunger Games, so Katniss puts up her hand to volunteer in her place.
- Saving Private Ryan: Three brothers’ deaths is the catalyst for General George Marshall to seek out the last missing Ryan brother.
- The Handmaid’s Tale: Offred arrives at the home of her new family to be impregnated for the “greater good.”
- Mean Girls: Cady meets mean girl Regina George and can’t resist the temptation to join her world.
- Pride and Prejudice: Mr. Darcy meets Elizabeth and refuses to dance with her while creating a negative impression of her that sets off a series of combative incidents which lead to them falling in love.
- Gone Girl: Amy disappears, sparking an investigation to find out what happened to her.
- The Great Gatsby: Nick meets Gatsby at a house party, introducing him to a whole new world.
- Monster’s Inc: Sully’s rival, Randall, leaves a closet door open at the scream factory, allowing Sully to discover a little girl’s room on the other side.
As you can see from the examples above, an inciting incident can be something very simple as long as it creates a disruption in the life of your protagonist.
Inciting Incident Ideas
In more general terms, here are some more ideas you can use to help spark those creative juices.
- You discover you have an illness
- You find a bag full of money left in a bathroom
- You meet an old friend you haven’t seen in years
- You get a phone call from the past
- You find a treasure map
- You find an old journal with your name written in it
- You lose your job
- You get hit by a car on the way to work
- You get bumped up to first class on an airplane flight
- You find out your significant other is cheating on you
- You find out you were adopted
- You learn that you have a sibling you never knew about
- You’re freed from prison
- You’re tossed into prison or another situation from which you can’t escape
- Your spouse wants a divorce
- Your child goes missing
- You’re betrayed by a love one
- Your friend tells you they’re in love with you
- Your forced to work on a project with someone you can’t stand
- You move to a new city
- You start a new job
- You get caught in an earthquake or other natural disaster
- You’re abducted by aliens or another supernatural being
- You’re bitten by a vampire
- You discover a prophecy written about you
- Your house or farm is consumed by fire
- You suddenly turn into a werewolf
- You find out you have a stalker or secret admirer
Hopefully that’s enough to get you started! If you found this article useful, we’re writing new ones like it every week. Check them all out at DabbleU.
While you’re at it, check out Dabble Writer itself. This clean and easy to use software makes plotting easy so you can decide exactly when that inciting incident occurs in your story for maximum impact. Try it free for 14 days and get working on your best novel ever.
Book marketing. Those two innocuous words instill fear and loathing into the hearts of so many writers. You just want to write your books and have them sell themselves. Why do you have to tell people about it? Well, Susan, because you do. I know you want to write, but if your goal is to write, publish, and make money from your books, then you’re going to have to find a way to make them visible. Thousands of new titles are uploaded to Amazon every single day. Millions of books are being published every year, and no matter how good your story is, without marketing, there’s not much chance very many people will find it.
What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train? Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear. Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh? There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
Dystopian fiction is one of the darker subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. It takes us into dark, foreboding worlds, where oppression and bleak landscapes are the norm. Books like 1984 by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley have become classics that shine a light on political corruption, environmental disaster, and societal collapse.Why do we love these stories? Maybe it's because dystopian fiction allows us to explore worst-case scenarios, to grapple with the idea that the world we know and love could be lost forever. It's a way for us to confront our fears and anxieties about the future, to see what could happen if we continue down a certain path.