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We’re here to talk about how to write a good inciting incident. 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 questions-
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 setup, or exposistion. Here, you’re giving your reader background information on characters, setting, etc. Will talk more about exposition later.
(Quick aside- The term Inciting Incident can seem redundant, so some people call it Inciting Event.)
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”
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. If not, then that action sequence is called a cold open.
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, or viewer, early.
This is why we see the use of a cold open. The writer wants to grab their audiences attention.
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.
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?
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?
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 jumpstart his fighting career, 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 his true goal- Adrian.
Once you establish stakes you can start thinking about your inciting event.
Put it in the Right Place
The 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. Though, many writers place the inciting event at the end of the first act.
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 set up 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 engaged and motivated to read until the end.
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.
You’ve probably already guessed what it is.
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?
It jacks up the stakes of his life to a million! 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
It goes without saying- your story needs conflict. Sorry to harp on that point, but it is the point of storytelling.
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.
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? 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.
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):
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby