Why Today? The Importance of an Inciting Incident
By Michelle Barker
If you’ve read anything on novel structure, you will likely have come across the term inciting incident. But what is an inciting incident? It’s a key moment in a novel because it kickstarts the story. Some people call it the catalyst or disruption. In the hero’s journey template, it is the call to adventure. James Scott Bell refers to it as a disturbance. Regardless of the term you use, it’s the event that causes (or incites) your protagonist to change directions in one way or another. It’s the match that sparks the fire.
Does your novel have to have one? In some form, yes. And there are some helpful guidelines for what it should look like and how soon it should appear.
When a novel begins, one of the questions a reader is asking (whether they’re aware of it or not) is why today? Why is this story starting at this particular point, as opposed to another one?
This turns out to be an excellent question. The decision to start a story on a Tuesday afternoon at the supermarket shouldn’t be random. Wherever you decide to begin, try to choose a moment that is as close to the inciting incident as possible. You’ll want to leave a bit of room for stasis so that we glimpse the protagonist’s ordinary life before it gets knocked sideways, but your inciting incident should show up somewhere in the novel’s opening pages and certainly in the first act. If it doesn’t, your reader will get impatient and will start asking that question, why today?, out loud (although it might sound more like why am I reading this?).
So, how soon should it appear? As soon as possible.
What an Inciting Incident Might Look Like
The inciting incident is the only moment in a narrative when the story’s momentum is driven by something other than the protagonist’s actions or reactions. It is the one moment when they’re allowed to be passive in a novel. Something happens to them. It’s also one of the few times when a coincidence is an acceptable plot point.
It doesn’t have to be a huge event—a fire, an accident, a death. It can be small: a letter gets delivered; a new person arrives in town. But if it’s small, it must have the potential to snowball. It must have the power to upset the status quo. It should be important in some way.
Some examples from fiction:
- In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the inciting incident is the moment when Katniss’s sister’s name is drawn for the games and Katniss volunteers to take her place.
- In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it’s the arrival of swoon-worthy bachelor Mr. Bingley.
- In The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it’s the death of Mary’s parents.
- In Stephen King’s classic, The Shining, it’s Jack’s job offer to work as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel.
Not only does the inciting incident set the story in motion, but it also establishes the central problem that your protagonist will face in the novel. Katniss must now compete in the Hunger Games. Lizzy must endure her sister and Bingley’s courtship. Mary must find her place in a new home and with a new family. Jack, Wendy, and Danny must survive the cursed hotel as well as Jack’s alcoholism.
Now you begin to understand why this moment can’t be skipped. If your protagonist doesn’t have a central problem, that means they don’t have a goal. The protagonist’s goal is quite literally the engine that powers the story forward. Without it, your main character will seem aimless, and the novel will feel anecdotal and rudderless.
But a call to adventure doesn’t necessarily mean that your main character will leap off the couch to accept the challenge. More often than not, they do the opposite. Indeed, they likely won’t accept the call until they have no other choice. Once they step through the doorway of no return (another term coined by James Scott Bell), they must see the story through to the end whether they like it or not.
Your Choices Have Consequences
Once you decide on an inciting incident, you set in motion a chain of plot events that will culminate in the novel’s climax. Ideally, that climax will match the inciting incident in some way. In other words, you will have told the story that you’ve promised to the reader in your choice of inciting incident.
The opening of a novel represents a contract you make with your reader: this is the type of story we’re going to be reading, and this is what it will be about. The inciting incident is a key part of that contract. If your climax involves rescuing a kidnapped character, the inciting incident might be the kidnapping. It probably won’t be a storm or a romantic breakup (though anything can work in the right hands). But the point is: the pieces should line up.
Your inciting incident should fit with the genre you’re writing in, which also means it will strike a certain tone. If you’re writing horror, the inciting incident shouldn’t feel like it belongs in a romance novel.
The inciting incident must involve your main character directly. Don’t relegate them to the status of bystander—unless the inciting incident is something like being an accidental witness to a murder (as in the movie Witness). Ideally, the event should happen in the present moment of the story rather than being something that has already happened offstage—although, again, that can work if done skillfully. (The Great Gatsby and Moby Dick are two exceptions.)
The inciting incident does not have to be a negative thing. It could be a promotion. It could be the beginning of a love affair—as it often is in the meet cute moment in romantic comedies.
Whatever you decide, your inciting incident should be compelling in some way.
First Draft Obsessions
Because most writers know how important the opening chapter is in a novel, we tend to obsess over where to begin. Most of the time, this is a wasted effort. You won’t truly know where your novel should start until you’ve written a complete first draft. Often, you figure out the inciting incident by seeing where the novel ends up.
All of that is to say, get the first draft down on paper before you start obsessively rewriting your opening pages. Many novels die by Chapter Three because writers never allow themselves to leap into the void and just see what happens.
Of course, you could also just outline…
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.