Inciting Incident – What Is It?
When you read an author talking about an inciting incident what does that mean to you?
The term "inciting incident" is thrown around a lot among fiction writers and teachers of craft. When I was really new to all this I would have exchanged the words “inciting incident” for “dramatic event”. But that wasn't quite right.
The truest definition of an inciting incident (I believe) is simple: Change.
Whether that change is anticipated or unexpected is irrelevant. The point is that change is the element which spurs the protagonist in a new direction and so the plot begins to unfold.
But "change" is such a wide, overarching term. What kind of change should it be? Does it have to be bombastic? Does it have to be life-threatening? Does it have to bring the heavens crashing down on the head of the protagonist?
Short answer: No. But some of those elements wouldn’t hurt.
(NB: I’ll be leaning heavily on Dwight V. Swain’s book Techniques of the Selling Writer in this post because even though I’ve read dozens of blog posts, articles and book chapters on this subject, I still believe his explanation of the elements that comprise an inciting incident are the best and clearest. For a truly inspired explanation of these elements, buy the book).
Inciting Incident – What Does It Involve?
To build a successful opening – the first pages or first chapters of a book that a reader will be compelled to keep reading – you need four things.
1. THE STATUS QUO
What does normal life look like? What is the protagonist’s usual routine? How would they expect the rest of this day to pan out?
Grounding the reader in "normal" is crucial to helping them understand the impact of the change you’re about to invoke. It gives the reader a baseline – and emotionally invests them in the impacts of…
2. CHANGE TO THE STATUS QUO
Whether surprising or expected, change must come. In its truest sense, this moment of change – either in environment, circumstance or relationship – is the core of the inciting incident. But the event itself will only have the desired impact if you’ve provided the reader with the foundation of normal first.
Bestsellers Delirium by Lauren Oliver and Divergent by Veronica Roth both do a really good job of opening with the protagonist in the midst of a normal day. Both also let the protagonist knowingly anticipate a massive change in the near future. This has the duel effect of showing the reader what normal looks like, and building tension through anticipation of dramatic change. But the reason these examples work is because they center around…
3. AN AFFECTED CHARACTER
The reason an affected character is utterly crucial to an inciting incident is because s/he pulls the reader into the story via empathy.
A nuclear blast is a terrible thing. But we remain fairly emotionally detached from it until it affects us personally. At its core, the affected character is me – the reader. I feel for and with the person whose skin I’m in. If dramatic events occur in a vacuum, it’s a news story, not a novel.
Besides, how can you define "normal" and create change without a specific life to establish where we started and what changed within it?
Now, as a general rule the affected character will be the protagonist. But there are plenty of examples where the inciting incident occurs in the life of someone other than the protagonist – but the change draws the protagonist into the center of the story - i.e. a murder victim in a crime thriller wherein the protagonist is a detective. Just take care not to try and be clever. When you’re drawing a reader into your book the best vehicle is usually the person who they’ll get to know the best and be rooting for throughout its pages: The protagonist. If you have to step outside that box, do it with care and make sure you bring the protag into the mix as quickly and deeply as possible. Because they are the one who will make us realize to true depth of…
4. THE CONSQUENCES
Change without consequence is either unimportant or unrealistic. Neither of those are ways to kick off a compelling book.
Take a look at your opening chapters. You’ll often hear writers talk about creating trouble or raising the stakes. Consequences are the real measure of a problem.
EXAMPLE: A strange man turns up at my door and tells me my power is about to go out because of line testing. If the only consequence of this is that I can’t have a cup of coffee or a shower for another hour, it may be irritating, but it’s pretty much a yawn-and-move-on moment for a reader.
But, if the consequence of that man’s announcement is that my security system goes offline, allowing covert entry to my premises from a psychotic criminal… well… You see what I mean.
Without consequence, the change doesn’t spell trouble. And without trouble there is no basis for tension.
The most effective tension is based on fear of what could be. So, as the change occurs (or in anticipation of the change if your plot is based around an upcoming known event) make sure the reader understands what this means. Or might mean. Or might mean if the change doesn’t come to pass.
Inciting Incident – When Does It Occur?
If you can find a way to fit all of that into your first five pages, great! Do it! But without fail, you must have all these elements in place within the first fifty.
Don’t be afraid to combine elements – let the affected character observe a "normal" day on the commuter train in the moments just prior to the Policeman running onto the platform demanding everyone off because there's a bomb on board.
Or, let the jaded protagonist curse her wretched, boring, small-town life as she crosses the dusty street in her cowboy boots - just before the romantic interest screams into town in his sleek, black sports car.
Or let the young magician’s spell fail again in the moments prior to his final exam – which, if he doesn’t pass it, will mean banishment to the dungeons of the castle and a life of servitude, rather than the vaulted heights of a King’s Man.
See what I mean?
It may be that you can depict status quo, change, an affected character and consequence in the space of a few paragraphs. Or it may take pages. Or it may take chapters. But whatever you do, do it as quickly as feasibly possible.
So, that's it! Go forth and double-check your manuscript openings for these critical elements, then come back in a couple of days when we explore what I like to call the “Plot Mirror” and discuss the differences between foreshadowing (WANT!) and projecting (DON’T WANT!).
And to wind up: There's a lot of information here. Feel free to ask questions in the comments if any of this is unclear. I’m happy to clarify.
Your Turn: When you read these elements of a good beginning to any books come to mind as great examples of this approach working (or not working)?