You are circulating at a gathering of fellow mountain climbers, listening in before joining the most interesting conversation.
Martha speaks: “Did I ever tell you about the time I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of sixty?”
(You think: Wow, there goes Martha again, bragging about her world travels and her fitness level. You keep walking.)
Dot speaks: “Did I ever tell you that when my husband died, just three weeks before our fortieth anniversary climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I went ahead and made the climb by myself?”
(Martha may have one hapless listener pinned, but you and many others flock to Dot, questions already forming in your minds.)
What’s the difference? [I’ll give you a moment here to go back and compare the two.]
Martha had an idea she wanted to do something, and acted on it.
Dot had a desire to do something, then something unexpected happened to complicate that, so she set a new goal and made a plan to enact it.
In other words, Dot had a story to tell.
Inciting Incident, defined
A story exists because something happens in a character’s life—the inciting incident—that upsets her equilibrium and arouses her desire to restore balance. As the protagonist seeks a story goal that will restore that balance, a related story-worthy question is raised in the reader’s mind: can the protagonist achieve her goal? By arousing both the protagonist’s desires and the reader’s curiosity, this incident creates an emotional bond between protagonist and reader that, if successful, will last until the goal is met and the question resolved at book’s end.
What this means for you: The story you write will start rocking and rolling—literally—when something happens to your protagonist that will rock her expectations in a way that requires her to start rolling: she’ll reshuffle priorities, set a new goal, and then create a plan to achieve it.
Is this important? Hell yeah. Look at the crowd reaction when Dot spoke! You want readers flocking to you, right?
They will hang with Dot’s story because they want to know: Will sixty-year-old, grieving Dot be able to complete the climb? And that won’t be their only question. They’ll also want to know: Why on earth did she do it? How did she summon the fortitude? What was it like? How did the climb change her?
And most importantly, the readers will ponder: If Dot could do it, could I?
Create that bond with your reader—through inciting incident, story goal, and story question—and your reader will want to stick with your book till the end.
Compare that to the question raised by Martha—oops, wait, there isn’t one. She already told us she made it. She hasn’t piqued our curiosity about her adventure.
Why bother identifying your inciting incident?
Determining the inciting incident is important to creating a strong, thoroughly interwoven story. Your first draft may have evolved from your imaginative meanderings, but your success at organizing story events into a structural spine that raises, dashes, and rewards expectation will determine how closely the reader will connect with it. And on a marketing level, the inciting incident will help you boil your mass of words down to a short pitch that you can use to interest agents, editors, and readers in your work. For this reason, pitches often begin with the inciting incident: “When her husband died just three weeks before their fortieth anniversary climb…”
What are the characteristics of the inciting incident?
To be effective, the inciting incident:
- must happen on scene (so should not happen in backstory or in summary)
- must raise a question (expectation) in the reader’s mind
- must inspire the protagonist to create and act upon a goal associated with that question
- must add the “spring” to the story arc by tying beginning to end, thus creating psychological tension
- must create a barometer by which the reader can measure relevant story progress
- must foreshadow the story in a way that makes the reader feel smart
If it took you a while to warm up your writing muscles at the start of your project, you might not find your inciting incident near the beginning, where it belongs. After all, the inciting incident is tied to the story question, not the chronology of your character’s life, and many first draft writers begin their novels too early. That’s why we use backstory: to weave in pertinent details from the character’s past that pre-date the inciting incident.
Tips on how to find your elusive inciting incident
Let’s consider this dilemma from Dot’s perspective.
Is the inciting incident the day Dot boards the plane for Africa?
Is it at her husband’s funeral?
Is it the day her husband died?
Is it the day he started to not feel well?
Is it the day Dot and her husband booked the anniversary trip?
Is it in a prologue, in which they scramble to the top of the mountain as a couple of twenty-year-old kids and he drops to one knee as if out of breath—and proposes?
Hmm. Come to think of it, a story is chock full of turning points beyond which nothing will ever be the same for your character. How do you know which one is the inciting incident?
- Fill in the blank: “It all began when…” Okay, maybe not “all.” When did this specific story begin? What happened that forced your character to take action that is driven by his desires and backstory motivation?
- Work backwards. After drafting the book, if you have a sense of what over-arching story question you’ve answered by telling your tale, go back and look for the specific incident that would have raised that question in the reader’s mind.
- Ask your characters. Try journaling in the first person voice of your protagonist or someone close to him—one of them might tell you something you need to know. (What is it, dear character, you really wanted? How must you change? What will apply the necessary pressures on you to make that change happen?)
- Apply an outline. As you peruse each outline-worthy event, ask: does this feel more like a story event (an obstacle your protagonist encounters on his quest for the story goal) or more like an inciting incident (the event that inspired creation of the goal)?
- Identify the dramatic imperative. Why must this story be told now, in the life of this character? The answer might point you to the inciting incident.
- Think: “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to my protagonist?” Here, of course, you’ll be considering the stakes—what would happen if your character fails to achieve her story goal, and the worst happens? The answer could lead you to understanding what it is your character truly desires. Which speaks to her story goal. Which can lead you back to the incident that incited your character to create that goal.
An inciting incident is story-specific
What can make an inciting incident tricky to craft is that it must incite this specific story.
Let’s say Dot wants to tell a story of grieving. The incident that would incite that story is the sudden death of her husband, just three weeks before the Kilimanjaro trip meant to commemorate the climb during which they met and fell in love, forty years ago. It raises a story goal for the protagonist (to survive the climb and restore her spirit), and a story question for the reader (Will climbing Kilimanjaro at age 60, revive Dot’s broken spirit?). The reader will keep this question in her mind, constantly assessing Dot’s progress.
Note how specific the inciting incident must be. If the climb hadn’t already been scheduled at the time of the husband’s death, the reader would not have linked the two; this linkage will be crucial to sustaining reader interest in the climb. If you included his death in the backstory, and we didn’t have access to Dot’s reaction to it, the incident would have less power for the reader. We never even met the man! As you can see, the story question needs to be strong enough to see the reader through to the end of the book. I think this one is.
What if Dot wanted to tell the story of a woman emerging from the shackles of abuse? Dot’s glad he’s dead—maybe she even helped it along a little. And by god this time she’s climbing that mountain by herself. The inciting incident would need a different flavor, don’t you think?
What if you want to write a triumph of the human spirit story. Maybe Dot’s husband had nursed her in some way—given her the diabetes shots she couldn’t bear to self-administer, say, because it seemed to prove her notion that she was a breath away from death. She only said she’d do the climb to humor him, and now that he’s gone, she’s off the hook. But she hears his voice, cheering her on, and decides to do it anyway. That incident would be different again.
Once you know what your character wants to achieve, what kind of story you want to tell, and what question(s) you want the reader to sit with for the length of the book, you should be able to craft an inciting incident that will send the story in the right direction.
Has your inciting incident ever remained elusive until late in the process? What did you do to nail it? And if anyone is up for some fun: With your favorite genre in mind, what kind of inciting incident would you create for your unique take on Dot’s Kilimanjaro climb?
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