The Inciting Incident
Salutations, Padawan! Prepare yourselves, but today I’m going to type at you about the inciting incident.
Plot points all have their uses, and I’m not really sure you could rate one above the other. They all serve very crucial roles in developing a compelling story. But the inciting incident is one of the important ones.
Because I said so!
LOL. Just kidding. The inciting incident is important because it’s really the first major indication of character. Yep. Character. Because the primary job of the inciting incident is to throw your character from their totally normal and cozy world into the shadow world. Or basically their version of hell.
Now, here is a little interesting sort of side bit. Some think terms like the normal world or shadow world only apply to specific stories. Ya know, epic quests, great conflicts, portals to another dimension. BUT they don’t. A normal world and shadow world can easily mean the cute, badass CEO chick, walking into a business meeting and facing her lover from college. She’s stepped from her normal world, into a new world. See? Those seemingly genre specific story words can actually apply to any story. It’s magic!
Let’s start with a few examples from popular books and movies, because that’s how the professionals do it. And I am (sometimes) a professional.
Pride and Prejudice. It’s first because it’s a romance and I love romance.
Inciting Incident: The dance at Meryton Assembly. Oh boy, oh boy.
Here we see a meeting of all the characters and all the personalities. We also get the first sight of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. This is where our fierce heroine, Elizabeth, gets to see Darcy’s strong jawline and dreamy eyes. Darcy also gets an eyeful of Elizabeth’s sparkling smile and refreshing honesty. It’s also where, gasp, Darcy insults Elizabeth’s pride. And so beings the journey.
This is a great inciting incident because it forces Elizabeth and Darcy into each other’s orbits. It also provides a great highlight for the major theme. Pride and prejudice. Yep. there is a reason Jane Austen is da bomb.
Want more? Sure. I’ll hit you up with more. A movie probably everyone has seen.
Starship Troopers. The inciting incident is a little further into the film, but it works. Because you can see how Johnny has really hit a sort of dead end with his character. He’s in the army for reasons that are crumbling, then add to that the death of a teammate, which he’s responsible for. So he quits.
As he was walking down washout lane, news hit. An asteroid has hit his home city of Buenos Aires. Killing everyone, including his parents.
Now THAT is a tremendous character defining moment. Which is exactly what the inciting incident is.
Importance of the Inciting Incident
Character is one of the critical elements of a compelling story. Which shouldn’t really be surprising since a story is only just an in-depth examination of the chosen POV characters. This is why you should strive for a great inciting incident. It will allow your readers to really understand what makes this character important. Why they should follow this character through their journey.
Think of Elizabeth Bennett. Why do we want to follow her around through these pages? It’s the author’s job to make these characters as interesting and well rounded as they can. And the inciting incident is the first proper step in that process. Which makes sense, considering the inciting incident falls somewhere in the beginning of the first act.
Now if you remember in my post about crafting an excellent beginning? I mention the beginning is where you must form your character. This is why the inciting incident is in the first act. Because you need your readers to understand who they’re going on this journey with.
They must identify (at least some parts) with that character.
So the inciting incident and character development are intertwined. You can’t have one without the other. You can’t have a completely amazing inciting incident without character, and you can’t have character without a great inciting incident. Well, I guess you can, but the story will be a flop. Worse than flat pancakes.
The inciting incident is a very important stepping stone to the next major plot point. The first plot point. I’ll go into the first plot point in another post, which I’m sure you’re dying to read.
Location, Location, Location
If you’re going off the three act structure, like I said above, the inciting incident should be in the first part of the first act. This is for several reasons. Probably the biggest being the first act is where you lay the foundation for the story. There’s a reason there is so much world building/character development going on within the first act.
If you use the first act to its full capabilities, your story will have all the required momentum and interest to keep readers engaged through the middle and ending. If your beginning is lacking, the rest of the story can drag before being set down by a disappointed reader. We don’t want disappointed readers, so the first act is critical.
If you want an exact number, the inciting incident should fall somewhere around the 15% mark. Now, don’t get too hung up on the exact percentage where it falls. But keep in mind there are excellent reasons it’s at about the 15% mark.
The hook, which captures your reader’s interest, should fall within a page or two. Which is why Starship Troopers picked the report show about the bug aliens and the destruction on the planet. That was a great pick for a hook. Because now you’ve got to know what in the hell is going on!
But then things calm down, because you can’t keep readers on the edge of their seats too long before fatigue sets in. So you bring the story down a little. In Starship Troopers, you get to see Johnny in his normal world. We meet his friends, his teachers. We get to know him as a character. This is prime act one material.
Normal world shit.
But if you continue on with normal world shit for too long, the reader gets bored. The story has to move along. It has to progress to a place where your character steps out of the normal world into the shadow world. This is the inciting incident, and therefore it should fall about the 15% mark.
It’s placement here means that you have plenty of space to set your characters up, to build your world a little. Then you smack the reader with some excitement. Get their blood pumping.
This is for all genres. Even romance. In romance, the inciting incident can be a few different things. It can be where your two lovers meet for the first time, or where one gets in trouble, or where one fights feelings, etc.
This goes to show that all plot points are non-genre specific. They just get changed a little to suit the story.
Wrap it up!
I’ve typed at you a lot today, and for good reason. The inciting incident is both character critical, momentum critical, and story critical. If you’re able to come up with a great inciting incident, you’ll give your readers an in-depth view of your character. This will give them the chance to bond with them and glimpse their inner workings. It’s an excellent opportunity to further cement them as more than words on a page, but make them feel real.
It’s placement in the middle of the first act, gives you a chance at both world building, and ensuring that your reader doesn’t get bored because nothing is happening. Boredom is a mood killer, so you should always strive to ensure your stories don’t get boring. Because fear isn’t the little death. Boredom is. If a reader gets bored, they set the book down and never pick it up again. Even worse, is they’ll tell all their friends that so-and-so author is boring. Cringe.
In terms of story, the inciting incident really catapults your character into the next dimension, shoving them further and further away from their normal world into the shadow world. Its placement at about 15% will set the story up nicely for the next plot point, which is the first plot point. This point is easily the most important in a story. Now that will be a beefy post. Because the first plot point is like the inciting incident on steroids. I’ll get to that, eventually.
Take all you’ve learned here and go make a stellar inciting incident! Make me proud. 😁