What is an Inciting Incident?
Put simply, an inciting incident is a story event that sets off the conflict of your plot. Everything that comes before your inciting incident is what we call exposition. Here, you’re giving your reader background information on characters, setting, etc. Will talk more about exposition later.
Now you’re probably thinking, “But I’ve seen movies that jump right into the action. Isn’t that the inciting incident?”
The answer- maybe.
The truth is, a writer can place an inciting incident anywhere they like as long as it’s in the first act of the narrative. But, every writer needs to hook their reader early. This is especially true in film and television.
The writer needs to hook the audience within the first few seconds of watching. For this, they’ll use a tool called a cold open.
Think of the pre-credit scenes of any James Bond movie. They’ll be action, gadgets, chase scenes, and explosions. All designed to titillate the audience. A cold open may or may not have anything to do with the plot of the story. But, It’s a great way to get people interested.
After the cold open you’ll notice that the movie will slow down for twenty minutes or so. That’s because the writer needs to do one important thing before they kick off the plot.
And that all-important task is…
Establish the Stakes
An awesome cold open may grab the reader’s attention but it won’t keep them reading to the final chapter. For that you need conflict. That’s why you need to establish the stakes of your story early on in the first act.
What do I mean by establishing the stakes? I mean giving your reader an idea of what the character has to lose or gain within the world of your narrative. A good story has to have conflict. To have conflict, your character needs to have something at stake. They need skin in the game.
Here’s the question you should ask yourself when you begin a story:
What are the consequences if my character fails to overcome their conflict?
So, that’s an explanation, but here’s an example. Let’s look at the 1976 movie Rocky.
I chose Rocky to highlight a character that doesn’t have much to lose, but everything to gain. The stakes are reversed from what we normally see. So, what’s going on with our titular character at the beginning of this film?
We’re shown pretty quickly that he’s an unsuccessful boxer, not a has-been. A never-was. But, more importantly, he’s lonely. He lives with turtles for god’s sake! Early on he meets Adrian, and that’s when the stakes are established.
If Rocky can get his life together, then maybe he can win the love and intimacy that is clearly absent from his life.
This is why the final scene of the movie is not Rocky hoisting the championship belt above his head. The final scene is of Rocky embracing the love of his is life.
Put it in the Right Place
Just so we’re clear, an inciting incident is a singular event within the narrative. It’s something that happens to your protagonist. So, where does this event need to take place? Technically it can happen anywhere within the first act of your story. But, make it easy on yourself and put it at the end of your first act.
The inciting incident is a great way to conclude the first act of your story because it begins the conflict. Starting in act II you’ll increase the tension scene by scene until you reach your story’s climax and the conflict is resolved (in acts III and IV).
By placing the inciting incident at the end of your story’s exposition you can transition seamlessly into the conflict of your story. And, if you’ve done a good job establishing the stakes your readers should be engaged and motivated to read until the end.
Make it Disruptive
Whatever your inciting incident is, make sure that it’s dramatic. The inciting incident should completely upset the order of your first act. It should turn your character’s life upside down. This is where your protagonist’s stakes come under threat.
Going back to our example, what is the inciting incident from the first Rocky movie? Go on. I’ll give you a second to answer.
It’s when Apollo Creed decides to give Rocky Balboa, a relative unknown, a chance at his title. So how does this event disrupt Rocky’s life? Think about it. I’ll get back to you.
Right again! Rocky has the opportunity to completely transform his life for the better. It’s a chance at redemption. If he can go the distance with Creed, then he’ll never be called a loser again. Of course, if he gets knocked out in the first round, on national television…
Well, I don’t have to tell you. The stakes for Rocky are the highest they could possibly be.
Start a Conflict
It goes without saying- your story needs conflict. And like I’ve already said, your inciting incident should start that conflict. It is the match that lights the fuse of your plot.
The inciting incident should create some dilemma for your protagonist. A challenge that they spend the majority of the story struggling to overcome.
Good prewriting is essential here. You’ll want to know where your story is going before you create an inciting incident. So think about this first plot point in the context of your story as a whole.
You need to know what the conflict will be before you know how to set it off. And hell, it wouldn’t hurt to know the resolution to your story either.
Frame it around a Gripping Story Question
The inciting incident is a wonderful opportunity to introduce your story question. What do you want your reader to worry about? How are you going to build suspense and keep your reader turning pages? What question, or questions, will the resolution of your story answer?
When Apollo Creed offers Rocky a shot at the title it poses a natural story question. Will Rocky, the scrappy loser, be able to take advantage of this unlikely opportunity? Could he beat Creed and go from a nobody to a champion overnight?
You can learn more about story questions over here.
So those are a few things to mull over as you’re crafting your own inciting incident. To end, I thought I’d leave you with a few examples of great inciting incidents from the silver screen. Enjoy!
Examples (Beware there’s some NSFW language in a few of these):