What to do with your Inciting Incident

Learn what an inciting incident is, and the five story essentials that your inciting incident must address to set off an effective conflict for your plot.

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Want to start writing today? Check out this writing exercise- How to write an Inciting Event!

We’re here to talk about how to write a good inciting incident. Scratch that. Not just a good one, a GREAT one! Because without a great inciting incident your story will never get off the ground. But, before we talk about how to write a fantastic inciting incident we need to answer an important question-

"An event from outside that causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action… [the inciting event] makes your hero think he has just overcome the crisis he faced since the beginning of the story. In fact… the hero has just gotten into… Click To Tweet

What is an Inciting Incident?

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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 setup, or exposition. Here, you’re giving your reader background information on characters, setting, etc. In the hero’s journey structure, this part of the story is called the Ordinary World because it is the setting where the protagonist feels comfortable. Will talk more about this exposition later.

(Quick aside- The term Inciting Incident can seem redundant, so some people call it Inciting Event.)

Inciting Incident definition

John Truby gives an excellent definition of what he calls the Inciting Event in The Anatomy of Story, a valuable guide to any writer looking to improve their craft.

Here’s how Truby defines an inciting event,

“An event from outside that causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action… [the inciting event] makes your hero think he has just overcome the crisis he faced since the beginning of the story. In fact… the hero has just gotten into the worst trouble of his life”

Inciting Incident vs. a Cold Open

Sometimes a movie or story will start with a bang. A whole bunch of action that may or may not connect to the plot. You might be asking- Is that the inciting incident?”

The answer- maybe, but only if it connects to the plot in a fundamental way. Usually this is not the inciting event, but an action sequence called a cold open. 

An inciting incident can happen anywhere as long as it’s in the first act of the narrative. But, every writer needs to hook their reader, or viewer, early and that is the job of a cold open. For that reason a cold open has to take place at the very start of the narrative.

The job of a cold open is to grab the audiences attention, and sometimes, to foreshadow the story’s conflict.

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 as the audience is introduced to the hero and their world. That’s because the writer needs to do one important thing before they kick off the plot– they need to show what the hero has to lose.

How to write an Inciting Incident

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 before you craft your inciting incident. 

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 story has to have conflict. To have conflict, your character needs to have something at stake, something they stand to lose. 

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?

The inciting incident often threatens to take away what is most important to the protagonist.

Inciting Incident example

Let’s look at and example from the movie Rocky.

In Rocky our hero 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 Rocky at the beginning of this film?

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We’re shown early that he’s an unsuccessful boxer, not a has-been. A never-was. But, more importantly, he’s lonely. His only apparent friends are two turtles he keeps on the nigthstand. 

Then Rocky meets Adrian, and that’s when the stakes are established.
If Rocky can jump start his fighting career, then maybe he can win the love and intimacy that is clearly absent from his life. More importantly he can gain some self respect.

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 his true prize which is a loving relationship with Adrian.

Once you establish stakes you can start thinking about your inciting event.

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When does the inciting incident occur?

The inciting incident is an event, or series of events, that happens in the first act of a story. There’s no exact science to placing an inciting incident just make sure that you’ve established your protagonist, their ordinary world, and what they stand to lose from the conflict.

The inciting incident is an effective way to conclude the first act of your story because it sets off the conflict of your plot. Starting the second act you’ll increase the tension scene by scene until you reach your story’s climax and the conflict is resolved. 

By placing the inciting incident at the end of your story’s exposition you can transition seamlessly into the main conflict of your plot. And, if you’ve done a good job establishing the stakes your readers should be invested in your character and and motivated to read until the end.

More tips on writing Inciting Incidents

Make it Disruptive

Whatever your inciting incident is, make sure that it disrupts the normal flow of your protagonist’s life. The inciting incident should completely upset the order you established in the 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, Think about the inciting incident in the film Rocky.

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If you’ve never seen the film the inciting event occurs when Apollo Creed, the heavy weight champion, decides to give Rocky Balboa, a relative unknown, a chance at his title. So how does this event disrupt Rocky’s life?

Imagine the pressure of having a single chance to achieve the greatest success of your career. Rocky has the opportunity to completely transform his life for the better. He has 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

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It goes without saying- your story needs conflict. Sorry to harp on that point, but it is the point of storytelling.

Well, not always . Check out our article on the four part structure if you want to learn about stories without 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’ll know how to set it off. And hell, it wouldn’t hurt to know the resolution to your story either. Find a good story structure like the hero’s journey or the three act structure to follow. Or, pick up our workbook The Story Writing Workbook for a step-by-step guide to structuring your story.

Art of Narrative Workbook

Frame it around a Gripping Story Question

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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 underdog, take advantage of this unlikely opportunity? Or- Could he beat Creed and go from a nobody to a champion overnight?

When your writing your inciting event, and developing your conflict, think about the question your story will pose in your readers mind. Is it a strong one? It better be!

You can learn more about story questions over here.

Continued Reading on Inciting Incidents

John Truby The Anatomy of Story

“Taking as his examples Jaws, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tootsie, The Great Gatsby, The Godfather, Chinatown, and A Christmas Carol, among many others, Truby illustrates in The Anatomy of Story…what makes a great story and how to create that story, focusing on plot and premise, theme, characters, moral development, and crafting the kind of ending that brings readers and audiences back again and again.” 

– Truby.com

Write Your Novel From the Middle James Scott Bell

“…what if it’s not the beginning or the end that is the key to a successful book? What if, amazing as it may seem, the place to begin writing your novel is in the very middle of the story?”

– JamesScottBell.com

The Payoff- K.M.Allan.com 

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):

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