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The Inciting Incident: Get Your Story Started the Right Way


The inciting incident has been addressed numerous times in literary blogs and writing advice forums—to most of us in the field, the concept of the hero's journey and the steps along that journey are old, and oft-repeated news. Today, we'll call into question some of the dubious advice offered regarding the concept of an inciting incident, and I'll put forward my idea of what the myths are regarding this element of your novel, and how you can build a better inciting incident.

Not a hook

First: your inciting incident is not your hook. There are a thousand blogs which group these two together, and that is a disservice to their readers. Though most good narratives—even slow ones—have a strong hook, the inciting incident is not used to draw your reader into the novel. The inciting incident is the moment when your reader decides not to put down the novel, near the latter stages of your initial plot developments. A primary example of both a powerful hook and a strong inciting incident, can be found in the hobbit. The hook, for The Hobbit, is Tolkien's wonderful description of a hobbit hole:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

This is a hook for two reasons. It opens the novel, and it draws the reader in. It causes us to ask questions almost immediately—and for these questions, we do not have ready answers. What is a hobbit? Why do they live in holes? Why do they value comfort? These are the things first-time readers of Tolkien might ask themselves. The same can be said of perhaps the most memorable hook of all time: Herman Melville's Call me Ishmael from Moby Dick. Here we might ask the questions: Who is Ishmael? Is this his proper name, or only the name he goes by? If this is not his real name, then how can I trust that he will be an honest narrator?

The inciting incident of your narrative is different than the hook
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in the 1956 film adaptation of Moby Dick

These are powerful hooks because they establish some of the fundamental traits of the world, and they make a reader want to turn that first page. For instance, Tolkien establishes that hobbits live tranquil, idyllic lives, comfortable lives. We know this by the end of the very first paragraph of the first page. This establishes the status quo, but it does not incite. It establishes the world wherein the story takes place but does not tell us why the story should happen.

Inciting incidents disrupt the norm

The inciting incident in The Hobbit is the coming of Gandalf and the thief's mark which he etches on Bilbo's door. This triggers a number of sudden changes in Bilbo's life. It introduces him to dwarfs, who immediately disrupt his organized and meticulous home. It pushes him into becoming a recruit on a quest which he had previously known nothing of, and it elevates his status—he is given the title of "thief." These changes are particular to the story of The Hobbit but their nature is not. No matter the novel, the inciting incident represents the primary action which changes the protagonist's life significantly enough that an interesting story can be told.

It is hard (perhaps impossible) to think of a story that does not have an inciting incident. Take for instance the elevator pitch for Fight Club: A blue-collar worker becomes disillusioned with capitalist society and starts a pseudo-anarchist community. The inciting incident is when he becomes disillusioned with capitalist society. It would be impossible to tell the story without this element—the inciting incident is a prerequisite to what comes after. This is why an inciting incident can sometimes be called a "turning point." The same is true of every narrative that I can think of: I challenge you to name a narrative without an inciting incident.

The incident exists because stories necessitate change

In response to the above challenge, we might turn to narratives that begin with much of the story already told—narratives that plunge their readers head-first into the action, without explaining the particulars of the narrative before-hand. These have become typical in the modern literary landscape, so much so that slower-building narratives like those offered in Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer have become the exception to the rule.

Even action-packed opening scenes are not inciting incidents
An action-packed opening scene is not necessarily an inciting incident

Still, these action scenes in the opening of novels are not inciting incidents. They plunge us directly into the firefight, but in so doing, they establish this action-packed scene as the norm. Thus, there will exist a pause in the fighting, or an alteration in (or intensifying of) the action of the first scenes, which marks a departure from this norm, and is thus the inciting incident of that novel. By definition, inciting incidents must exist because stories necessitate change, and the inciting incident is whatever happens in the novel which creates this change. So, why is discussion important, if writing a novel will inevitably result in the presence of an inciting incident?

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Though no story can function without an inciting incident, all stories benefit from addressing that incident directly and refining it so that the nature of the incident and its effects are clear to the reader. These give the narrative a strong direction. Just because every story has an inciting incident, doesn't mean all inciting incidents are created equal. So, what can we look for in a good inciting incident? I believe there are two major attributes: the relationship between the incident and the reader, and the ability of the incident to carry the plot forward.

The incident should be the plot's backbone

A good inciting incident should fuel your plot. Some incidents provide more oil for the fire than others. For instance, compare the incident of a paper plane being thrown in class versus a fatal car crash. Each could produce a narrative. In a quiet school, either could disrupt the status quo: The first by causing a disturbance to a sedate class, and the second by creating an atmosphere of mourning in the school. Though neither is objectively better than the other (we can tell a good story with both), the fatal car crash is, in most cases, subjectively more impactful.

Your inciting incident should fuel your plot
A good inciting incident is one that fuels your plot

For this reason, consideration of your inciting incident can be grouped with consideration of your plot. If we choose a tragic inciting incident, then the resulting narrative will be working against the tone established by that incident. A comedy, for instance, will have an uphill struggle against the inciting incident of a fatal car crash, whereas a horror or tragedy will be complemented by the incident. Of course, this is an oversimplification, and contrast or attention to the incident could paint it in a drastically different light. For instance, the car crash could be darkly humorous in a story about a student coming to class as a zombie. In any case, the incident should fuel the plot and give the writer room to tell a story, and it should shift the tone of the story noticeably.

The incident should be closely tied to the narrative

Finally, in good literature, all elements of a narrative support the themes of that narrative. If it is at all possible, the same should hold true of an inciting incident. Though you could theoretically use any moment as your inciting incident, there is more power in using thematically linked elements. For instance: If your narrative will address the issue of poverty, then the loss or inheritance of a great deal of money could serve as a strong turning point. By contrast, if you intend your narrative to address the issue of poverty, then a fatal car accident is less likely to accomplish this goal, and will usually not accomplish this goal as authentically. The reverse, of course, might be true of a story where the central theme is coping with personal tragedy, where a fatal car accident might motivate a character towards introspection.

Dread it, run from it, it still Incites

There is perhaps some form of experimental fiction wherein an inciting incident is not of primary importance in a narrative—where it is obscured, or possibly even where it is absent. Still, for most fictional narratives the inciting incident is worth time and attention to detail. It is inevitable—your narrative must contain some form of conflict, and the inciting incident provides this conflict by disrupting the status quo. Embrace the chaos this causes. Rather than a subtle inciting incident, consider a cataclysmic event that drives characters to their extremes.

Finally, remember that an inciting incident causes change and disrupts the status quo, but that this new reality can become a new status quo, and the secondary arc of your novel may require a new inciting incident to stay fresh. If the first inciting incident was the rise of the dead, then perhaps a new inciting incident is necessary to disrupt the status quo and create new tension or lead toward new characterization. If you feel your work is dragging like AMCs The Walking Dead (pun intended), then consider introducing a new inciting event and following through with a new story arc.

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