The term ‘inciting incident’ is one of those writing words which means different things to different people. Some writers don’t think in terms of inciting incident. To others it is key to a good story beginning.
All good stories have inciting incidents, but if you’re having trouble finding yours, that might be because they don’t look as we might expect. An inciting incident isn’t always a bomb going off.
THERE IS NO SINGLE INCITING INCIDENT
First, know the difference between story and plot. This is what Peter Selgin’s talking about in the first paragraph below:
Where to begin? Of all the questions that harass novelists and others with a story to tell, it has to be the peskiest. The question comes down to structure. Not what happened, i.e. the series of events that make a story, but the order in which those events are conveyed. Should we start with the beginning, or at the end? Or should we cherry-pick a dramatic scene from somewhere in the middle, and backtrack from there, filling in all the things that lead up to that dramatic moment, then continue to the end?
Assuming we’ve chosen to tell a story from the beginning, what beginning do we start with? Writing guides often use the term inciting incident, meaning the event or incident that propels a character or characters out of their status quo existence, igniting the plot.
But locating that inciting incident isn’t always that simple, since often there’s more than one. In fact there’s always more than one, with an inciting incident lurking behind every inciting incident, a breadcrumb trail of inciting incidents leading back to the birth of the protagonist and beyond, to her conception, and the birth of her parents, and the birth of their parents, and, finally, ultimately, by logical extension, the Creation of the Universe.
One famous story that doesn’t have another inciting incident lurking behind its inciting incident begins, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and Earth.” No back-story to that story.
But unless you’re writing the Bible (or a James Michener novel), you probably want to begin your story as close as possible to the event that sends your protagonist off on her dramatic journey—a journey of exceptional struggles and fresh opportunities.
Noting that narratologists and writers have long stressed that there are always related events prior to the start of a formal narrative, Brian Richardson concludes that “there is no ready formula for ascertaining the actual beginning of the story,” and that judgements about where a narrative begins proceeds on a case-by-case basis.
INCITING INCIDENTS MAY BE VERY SUBTLE
As received by the audience, the inciting incident might be barely noticeable. We might call these ‘soft inciting incidents’. We see soft inciting incidents in works such as Madame Bovary and Lost In Translation.
What is the Inciting Incident in Thelma & Louise? Depends who you ask. Most people would probably say it’s the scene where Louise shoots a man. But in his writing book Hooked, Les Egerton tells us that, for him, the inciting incident is the scene where Thelma makes the decision to go on a trip with her best friend, defying her husband for the first time ever. This happens in Thelma’s kitchen as soon as she hangs up the phone. Daryl has just told her he’s going to be working late. The audience knows he’s seeing another woman. We know something has changed in Thelma because she decides not to tell him Daryl what the audience already knows: She has been invited to go on a trip with Louise. She then makes preparations to leave.
TWO TYPES OF INCITING INCIDENTS
Others have divided inciting incidents into categories. Shawn Coyne does it like this:
CAUSAL INCITING INCIDENTS
A Causal Inciting Incident is the result of an active choice—a wife leaves her husband, a man enlists in the Marines, a dentist molests a patient he’s put under anesthesia.
COINCIDENTAL INCITING INCIDENTS
A coincidental Inciting Incident is when something unexpected or random or accidental happens—a simple man wins the lottery, a woman takes the wrong suitcase at an airport, a piano falls out of a window and kills a man’s dog.
— Coyne, Shawn. The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know (p. 160)
In Thelma & Louise, the Causal Inciting Incident happens in Thelma’s kitchen. The Coincidental Inciting Incident happens in the carpark of the bar.
Some people call The Coincidental Inciting Incident a ‘turning point’.
The best inciting event of this kind is one that makes your main character think she has just overcome the crisis. Louise knows she’s just overcome one crisis (she saved Thelma) but now the police will be after her.
CASE STUDY: ORDINARY PEOPLE
Sometimes an inciting incident isn’t immediately clear because an audience isn’t always aware from the start what the character’s journey is going to be. Robert Redford’s film Ordinary People tells the story of how teenager Conrad Jarrett, traumatized by the death of his brother, seeks psychiatric help. The journey into the woods — and thus the moment that kick starts it — only becomes apparent when one realizes it’s a journey towards healing. What catalyzes that journey? The first stage of the first act ends when Conrad is thrown into a new trauma by his mother trashing his breakfast before him; this in turn sparks a journey of introspection, culminating in a flashback of his brother’s death. For Conrad, it’s a choice — continue to suffer, or seek help. If the inciting incident is the what, then the flashback is clearly Conrad’s motivation for seeking help, the how that will eventually enable him to find peace. In truth, all three parts are related — as they should be — but question and answer, the root of all structure, is inherent in the crisis and climax of the act.
In this formulation an inciting incident gives us two elements. The act one crisis point poses a question: will the protagonists make a break with their old selves? And, as we’ve already noted, for the story to really kick off, the protagonist is now required to make a decision how to respond. The ‘explosion’ and the desire it creates often occur in the first act, embodied in crisis and climax. It can be useful to look at these points as the what and the how. The crisis becomes the what — “What’s the problem?” And the climax the how — “This is how I’m going to deal with it.
— Into The Woods, John Yorke
TIPS FOR WRITING INCITING INCIDENTS
From Shawn Coyne, John Truby and others. These tips show how Inciting Incidents connect so closely to Desire.
- Something must happen at the very beginning of the Story—an event that throws the lead character’s life out of balance.
- That something is the Inciting Incident. Either a good thing happens or a bad thing happens.
- The event can be a random coincidence [aliens attack] or a causal occurrence [your main character’s partner leaves her].
- A positive change or a negative change in the life of the character unsettles their world and requires that the character do something to get back to “normal.”
- This event gives rise to an object of desire in your lead character’s conscious and often subconscious mind, a tangible object (a conscious want) and something intangible (a subconscious need). Perhaps they want to stop the aliens from destroying earth (conscious) while needing to prove to their family that they’re worthy of their love (subconscious). John Truby calls this surface desire vs deep desire.
- Depending on your choice of Genre, the balance of these desires (which one dominates and which one is underneath the telling of the Story) varies. The key thing is that the lead character believes if they attain their conscious object of desire (want), all will right itself in his world.
- Whether or not that is true is a different thing.
- Doing nothing about an inciting incident is doing something.
- Build in a subconscious object of desire. So what could be the subconscious/intangible object of desire for this lead character? It could be a lot of things.
- After an Inciting Incident that throws your character’s life out of balance, they will go on a quest to achieve their objects of desire. They’ve got to make plans and execute the plans. But once they take up the quest, forces of antagonism ally against him. Plans go wrong. Character adjusts. Their next plan goes wrong. They adjust. The stakes escalate until they’re at the point of no return. Life will never be the same if they achieves or doesn’t achieve his goals.
- Soft inciting incidents can and do work but the trick is to make the incidents escalate after that. Perhaps you have a Causal Inciting Incident (soft) but haven’t included a big, unexpected or random incident that feels interesting for the audience.
- Load every beat, scene, sequence, and act with tantalizing Inciting Incidents to keep the reader turning pages or to keep the viewer in their seat.
- Mix up your Inciting Incidents. Don’t make them all causal or all coincidental. When the reader is expecting a causal event, swap in a coincidence and vice versa.
- Many Genres have conventional Inciting Incidents that set up obligatory Battle scenes (climaxes). If you’re writing a murder mystery, the Inciting Incident must be the discovery of a dead body. The climax of the mystery will be the solving of the crime.
- If you’re writing a love Story, the Inciting Incident will be when the lovers meet. The climax of the love Story will be the answer to whether the couple stays together.
- If you’re writing a horror, the Inciting Incident will be an attack by the monster, which sets up the obligatory climax, which is the ultimate confrontation between your lead character victim and the seemingly indestructible monster from your Inciting Incident.
Header painting: John Ritchie — An Expected Rise in Stocks