What is an Inciting Incident?
The inciting incident is a key component of almost every novel, but you may not be familiar with the term or even sure whether you’ve written one! James Scott Bell writes, ‘The power of your story is directly proportional to the readers’ experience of it, and the readers’ experience is directly proportional to the soundness of the structure.’ There are lots of structure templates out there. Most will include an inciting incident (or trigger), which leads to a story goal (or quest) and kicks off the journey of the novel. This is one of the most important parts of your structure to get right, as the inciting incident should get your readers invested in the story. Also, it will usually be mentioned in your elevator pitch, so it’s key to selling the book.
Finding Your Novel’s Trigger
Some novels include more than one key conflict, so it can be hard to figure out what your inciting incident is or, if you’re still outlining the book, what it should be. Start by thinking about your story goal. If your novel is about a psychiatrist trying to find a new therapy for grief, what is the event or happening that launches her into this quest? Perhaps she herself experiences a loss. Maybe she witnesses the breakdown of a client for whom counselling didn’t do the job. You might have a sequence of events that leads your protagonist into the journey of the novel, but one event needs to rise above the others.
Making it Significant
To maximise the impact of the inciting incident, you want to make it feel like a significant moment, not just another plot point along the way. One part of this is making the action itself as dramatic or emotionally resonant as possible, but you also need to give the scene a sense of atmosphere that matches up to the action. If the mood of the chapter is already tense because of your descriptive language/attention to detail, the reader will be ready for that plot punch. Make sure you don’t rush on too quickly after this point in the story arc. Writing some of the aftershock, allowing your protagonist to process what’s happened, will lock in that sense of significance.
“Make sure you don’t rush on too quickly after this point in the story arc. Writing some of the aftershock, allowing your protagonist to process what’s happened, will lock in that sense of significance.”
An inciting incident can be positive or negative. In a romance novel, it might be the moment the protagonist meets their love interest, whereas in a crime novel, it will very often be a murder. Either way, there needs to be conflict. In a romance, the protagonist might feel instant attraction to the love interest, but she knows her family will disapprove … or she’s sure he doesn’t fancy her back … or she finds out he’s moving to another country. The bigger the odds against your protagonist, the more the reader will root for them in their quest.
Positioning it Within Your Opening Chapters
Another point to consider is when the inciting incident should occur. Usually, a novel will open by showing the state of things before the inciting incident comes to upset the balance of the protagonist’s life. It has become more popular in recent years to place the inciting incident at the very beginning, but if your novel opens with the inciting incident, you’ll need to make sure you’re feeding in enough information about your character’s ordinary life, offering a sense of who they are, what they’re missing, etc. Some writers do the opposite and spend the majority of their opening chapters on the stasis – if you’re working with an 8-point story arc, you might think it makes sense to dedicate an eighth of the novel to each point, but really the first three points of the arc (stasis, inciting incident, story goal) should come in quick succession so the reader is propelled into the story, rather than left relaxing in your protagonist’s everyday!
If this is your debut novel, you need to think about how the opening chapters will be received by literary agents and publishers. Most agents will request three chapters or 10,000 words. Try to get your inciting incident within this section, with enough room for the story goal too.
“Most literary agents will request three chapters or 10,000 words. Try to get your inciting incident within this section, with enough room for the story goal too.”
Author Donald Miller says, ‘The inciting incident is how you get (characters) to do something. It’s the doorway through which they can’t return, you know. The story takes care of the rest.’ A strong inciting incident should mean that the story starts to write itself – it will leave your protagonist with a number of hoops to jump through, conflicts to overcome, to either restore the equilibrium of their life or get them to some newly envisaged height. As you continue your story arc, remember this moment, the moment that everything changed.