What is an inciting incident?
Do your friends or family yawn when you show them your latest work of fiction? Are you struggling to start your story in a way that your reader never forgets?
Do you want to light a fuse in your script so that your reader has to read on and discover how the tale turns out?
What you need is an inciting incident.
How do you do that? Let’s find out!
I’ve spent the last few months rewriting a collection of short stories, and I’ve faced all of these problems.
I won’t lie to you.
It’s disheartening to read something you spent hours on and discover you (never mind your would-be readers) want to put it down after the first three pages.
I had this problem. So I got help.
A few years ago, I attended a workshop by master storyteller Robert McKee. He explained the definition of inciting incident and further described why the inciting incident is an essential part of any compelling script.
In this post, I will share what I learned from Robert McKee and offer practical tips for writing a more compelling inciting incident that grips your reader.
Warning: there will be spoilers and plot points ahead!
What is the Inciting Incident?
Whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, the inciting incident is an important part of any story structure. In his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee offers this inciting incident definition for writers and storytellers:
“The inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in your protagonist’s life.”
- Winner, International Moving Image Book Award
- Hardcover Book
- McKee, Robert (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 480 Pages - 11/25/1997 (Publication Date) - ReganBooks (Publisher)
The inciting incident normally takes place in the first act or even in the prologue.
Before the inciting incident, your character lives a normal life, but nothing is the same for your hero after the incident in your tale. It drives the action of the story forwards in some manner.
This incident could be a positive key event like:
- Your main character or hero changing their status quo by winning EUR3.2 million in the lotto.
- Your character or hero being offered a high-paying job in a large tech firm on the condition he screws over his mentor.
- Your character or hero being bitten by a radioactive spider.
Or the inciting incident could be a negative key event, such as:
- The father/mother of your main character dying in a fatal late-night hit-and-run the day before Christmas.
- Your character being fired from his job and coming home from work early to find his wife sleeping with his boss.
- Your hero being framed for killing her spouse with hemlock.
- Your main subject facing shark attacks while surfing.
- Your main subject running into Godzilla on a trip to Seoul.
Here are 7 tips for writing one with incident examples that will hook readers in your story:
1. Include Your Inciting Incident in the First Quarter of Your Story (Or Sooner)
Obviously, there are exceptions, but the writers of popular books and successful stories and themes include an inciting incident in the first quarter of their tales.
For example, in the novel Misery by Stephen King, the inciting incident comes almost immediately within the first few pages. King knows how to capture the attention of his readers.
The hero of the story, Paul Sheldon, wakes after a car crash in Annie Wilkes’ remote country house, realizes he can’t move his legs, and that he’s a prisoner.
If the inciting incident comes later than the first quarter of your script, the reader will feel bored and wonder when your story will start.
Here’s the problem with bored readers: They have a frightening tendency to put books down and never pick them back up.
Tip: If you really want to avoid boring your reader, skip all that back story and cut right to the story's action. Start as close to the end as possible.
2. Change Your Hero’s Journey for Better or Worse
In the Spiderman film's first act, a radioactive spider bites our hero Peter Parker during a school trip. Before you ask which Spiderman film, almost all start like this!
The next morning, Peter’s whole life changes. He wakes up and finds he is super-strong, can shoot a spiderweb from his wrists, and his other senses are heightened. Peter can never go back to the way things were because of this inciting incident.
Boom, we're hooked on this new story arc. A life-changing decision must be made in our protagonist's life.
In the Wizard of Oz, Dorthy’s life turns into a mystery after a wild tornado sweeps through her hometown. She has no choice but to explore her new reality to find her way home.
You can change your hero’s journey for the worse too.
In Misery, things were bleak for the novelist Paul Sheldon’s after he woke up to find he couldn’t walk and that he was a prisoner of the deranged Annie Wilkes.
Things were great for the reader with a hunger for a gripping yarn, though.
Even in the Hunger Games, the hero’s journey takes a turn for the worse within the first quarter. Whether you read the book or watched the movie, the inciting incident led to an addictive quest.
In all of the incident examples mentioned above, the inciting moment was so successful that each successive film was a grand success, and the rest was history.
3. Awaken a Hidden Desire In Your Hero
First, consider the plot points and story arc of the classic novel and movie The Godfather. After rivals shoot Don Vito Corleone and threaten his business, his son Michael discovers a desire within himself to protect his family and their business interests at any cost.
When a radioactive spider bites Peter Parker, this awakens a desire and reason in Peter to become something more than just a clumsy high-school student who people ignore.
In Game of Thrones, when Ned Stark is visited by his friend Robert Baratheon, this visit awakens a desire in Ned to become a loyal and just friend.
The story arc of Game of Thrones continues in this manner, giving incident examples that hook the audience in nearly every episode. Big applause to the screenwriters!
When writing your story's inciting incident, consider what your hero wants (or sub-consciously wants) and then let this incident awaken this desire in them.
4. Consider Your Climax: Now Work Backwards
The climax of the first Game of Thrones book is the execution of one of the book’s heroes: Ned Stark. This book's inciting event comes when King Robert Baratheon calls on Ned Stark to help him in Winterfell.
When Ned accepts his old friend’s request and leaves Winterfell's safety, his fate becomes irrevocably tied with Robert’s.
In the book and movie Misery, the main character Paul Sheldon bludgeons his captor to death with his typewriter.
Almost all the story events in both stories from the inciting incident onwards build towards these shocking (and inevitable) elements and climaxes.
5. Force Your Hero To React to the Inciting Incident
A successful inciting incident throws your main subject's life out of balance because they have to react or take action. It is simply impossible for your main hero to go on with their normal life after the moment of the inciting incident.
How can Peter Parker continue to be a normal schoolboy when he’s got the skills to fight crime and get Mary Jane/Gwen Stacy?
How can Ned Stark stay in Winterfell with his family without being disloyal to his oldest friend?
How can Michael build a life outside the family business when everyone around him needs his help?
6. Write a Single Memorable Event that Happens to the Protagonist
In the first Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker’s life is irrevocably changed when he finds Princess Leia’s plea for help in a broken droid.
Luke can’t forget his message or go back to his normal life, and he goes in search of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is living in the hills as an old hermit.
It’s equally difficult for Peter Parker (or the audience) to forget about being bitten by a radioactive spider. His heroic action shapes the rest of the story.
When you’re writing an inciting incident, ask yourself this question: Is this key event something your main hero and audience will remember after the incident has passed?
7. Start a Conflict
Almost every great narrative and short story is about a conflict and a major decision, and the inciting incident is often the spark that lights the powder keg in your story. The moment and reason that engulfs your audience.
The shooting of Don Vito Corleone leads Michael into a violent gang war and ultimately tears apart his family.
After Luke Skywalker finds R2D2’s message, he decides to embark on a quest that culminates in a life or death battle against an evil empire, which unearths a shocking family truth.
And when Ned Stark agrees to help his old friend, what happens next tears the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros apart.
Hook Your Readers Every Time
A powerful inciting incident is a catalyst that all great stories are built on. You can use one for blogging, writing books you want to self-publish on Amazon, or penning personal essays.
The next time you're reading through the first draft of a story-driven blog post, article, or book, ask yourself if you've included an inciting incident early enough.
Yes, it’s possible to break all of the above rules and still write a compelling script; literary writers and screenwriters do this all the time.
However, masters of the script, like Robert McKee, argue that newer writers must nurture the definition of inciting incidents and learn the rules before breaking them. Like it or not, story structure comes with a template, and the inciting incident is a key part of that template.
No matter what type of fiction or short story writer you want to become, the good news is. You can always use an inciting incident to begin a narrative that hooks your new audience.
Now take action and go get ‘em!
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