John Truby, the author of Anatomy of a Story, once called the 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.”
Let’s discuss the story beat called the inciting incident or event. In this article, we’ll define inciting incidents, give some tips for writing an effective inciting incident, discuss when it occurs in a story, and look at some examples.
What is an Inciting Incident?
An inciting event is a story beat at the end of a story’s exposition or the setup where we learn more about the characters in their everyday life. An inciting incident is an event that, when it occurs, totally disrupts the protagonist’s ordinary life. This event cannot be reversed, at least not without considerable work from the main characters. In other words, the inciting incident is like shutting a door between the main character and their everyday life.
Inciting Incident definition
The inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion. It’s the turning point that takes the protagonist from their everyday life and throws them into the story’s conflict. The inciting incident is a point of no return that shuts the door to the ordinary world and transports characters into the extraordinary.
How to write an Inciting Incident
Here are six steps to writing a memorable inciting event:
Step 1: Establish Stakes
Before you do anything, you need to establish, for the audience, what the character has to lose or gain from the story’s conflict. Your character needs to have something at stake, something they stand to lose. That could be the character’s life, dignity, or maybe just their summer job. It doesn’t matter how significant the stakes are. What matters is that they matter to the character.
On the flip side, your character may start their journey at the absolute lowest point of their life, with nothing to lose. Designing a character at this low point is how you set up a classic “Cinderella” story. In a Cinderella story, the character may have nothing to lose, but they have everything to gain. In this way, the stakes are equally as crucial as they would be for a protagonist who could lose everything through the story’s conflict. We’ll discuss the Cinderalla story more when we get into examples of inciting events.
The inciting incident threatens to take away what is most important to the protagonist. 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 answer to that question is what you will show in your story’s exposition.
Step 2: Make it disruptive and irreversible.
Whatever your inciting incident is, make sure 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 beat is where your protagonist’s stakes come under threat.
This event isn’t something your character should be able to fix quickly. Like we said earlier, the inciting event is something that shuts your hero out of their everyday life permanently. This event could be dramatic or subtle- that doesn’t help much, I know, but that’s just the nature of inciting incidents. To help you out, let me give you some bullet points on what this completely disruptive event could be.
- A wealthy family loses all of their money after one wrong business decision.
- A person meets the love of their life on a train.
- A woman is hired at her dream job, but her boss is a terror.
- A man is visited by the ghost of his former business partner.
Whether your inciting incident is subtle or dramatic depends on the story you’re telling and the world you’ve built.
Step 3: Make sure it directly affects the protagonist.
An inciting incident should immediately push the main character out of their comfort zone. In a way, the inciting event is the worst thing that’s ever happened to the story’s hero. Take, for instance, the inciting event in James Cameron’s Titanic. In this movie, two characters share the role of the protagonist, Jack and Rose.
The inciting incident occurs when Jack, having never met Rose, saves her from jumping off the side of the ship. The two teenagers set off on a passionate love affair, which seems like a positive event, but look at all the trouble it causes both characters. Rose’s possessive fiance tries to frame Jack for a crime he didn’t commit, and Rose is forced to choose between her a life of wealth and comfort or being with the man she loves. All of this trouble is set off by Jack and Rose’s chance meeting on the deck of a doomed ocean liner.
Whether an inciting event is positive or negative from the viewpoint of your hero, like John Truby says:
“the hero has just gotten into the worst trouble of his life.”
Step 4: Make sure it happens early.
An inciting incident is the first climatic event of a story. This story beat is what sets off the action of the story and everything before the inciting event is set up.
Don’t drag out the setup or exposition of a story for too long. Give the readers or viewers just enough to understand your characters, what motivates them, and the world they live in. Show your character in their ordinary life, then use the inciting incident to smash that life to pieces.
There should be much action before the inciting event aside from the hook, or cold open, designed to grab the audience’s attention early. Even these hooks’ circumstances shouldn’t change the hero’s world or affect the story. Instead, a hook should hint at later conflict, and in many stories, the cold open doesn’t even involve the main characters.
Step 5: Frame it around a 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?
A great example of an inciting incident that introduces a story question comes from 1976’s Rocky. 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? Could he beat Creed and go from a nobody to a champion overnight? Or will Rocky embarrass himself on the world stage? Either way, the audience will is dying for the answers to these questions.
When writing your inciting event, and developing your conflict, think about the question your story will pose in your readers’ minds. Create a question that the reader must have answered.
You can learn more about story questions over here.
Step 6: Start a Conflict
Most stories need conflict. Although there are exceptions to this rule, read more about those exceptions here. Your inciting incident should start that conflict.
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.
You need to know the conflict before you learn how to set it off. 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.
When does the inciting incident occur?
An inciting incident is an event or series of events that happen in the first act of a story. There’s no exact science to placing an inciting incident; just make sure you’ve established your protagonist, their ordinary world, and what they stand to lose from the conflict.
The inciting incident effectively concludes the first act of your story because it sets off the conflict of your plot. Starting the second act, you’ll increase the tension until you reach your story’s climax and the conflict is resolved- read more about rising action here.
By placing the inciting incident at the end of your story’s exposition, you can transition seamlessly into the central conflict of your plot. And, if you’ve done an excellent job establishing the stakes, your readers should be invested in your character and motivated to read until the end.
Inciting Incident vs. a Cold Open
Sometimes a movie or story will start with a bang. A whole bunch of action 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 fundamentally. Usually, this is not the inciting event but an action sequence called a cold open or hook.
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 opening must occur at the beginning of the narrative.
The job of a cold open is to grab the audience’s 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 thrill the audience. A cold open may or may not have anything to the story’s plot. But, It’s a great way to get people interested.
On the other hand, an inciting event will fundamentally change the main character’s circumstances. The inciting event disrupts the character’s life and sets off the story’s conflict. Check out this classic example of a cold open from the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace.
Inciting Incident examples
Inciting Incident in Creed (2015)
The inciting incident in Creed is when Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed, decides to pursue a career in boxing. This decision prompts him to meet Rocky Balboa, the former world heavyweight champion and friend of his father, Apollo Creed. Adonis asks Rocky to train him, but Rocky turns him down and asks Adonis why he wants to fight- the story question.
After asking Rocky to train him, Adonis prepares for his first fight. Though he faces many challenges along the way, including doubts from those close to him, Adonis is ultimately able to step into the ring and make his mark as a Creed.
So, that’s all your questions answered about inciting incidents. Or maybe you have more questions- leave them in the comments! We’ll get back to you.
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