The opening events of a story are crucial in setting the tone going forward, establishing the direction that the plot and characters will take, and hooking the reader.
Inciting incidents are the most pivotal moments within the opening of a story. Find out a full definition, examples, and how to write inciting incidents in this blog.
Inciting incident definition
An inciting incident is a plot point that sets the main action of a story in motion. It forces the protagonist(s) out of their known world and into the unknown.
Inciting incidents can also be a hook for a viewer or reader. The story might start with an introduction that establishes the world and its characters, and the inciting incident then acts as a promise of what’s to come.
The function of an inciting incident
An inciting incident acts as a catalyst to force a protagonist to take action and set the events of the story in motion. It’s the necessary turning point to make the main character abandon their typical daily routine and kick off their character arc.
For readers, inciting incidents form the hook that signals the beginning of the main events of the story. It sets the tone and establishes the expectations for what’s to come.
Where does the inciting incident fit within a dramatic structure?
Inciting incidents usually occur within the opening sections of a dramatic structure. There are exceptions, as a story that starts in medias res can open with an inciting incident, but many dramatic structures will follow this general order:
Within a three-act structure, an inciting incident can form the end of the first act as it’s a major turning point that then leads into the main events covered by the second act.
Inciting incident examples
Inciting incidents come in all different shapes and sizes, from subtle moments that stir the protagonist into action and to drastic, lifechanging events that completely destablise their known world. Here are some examples of inciting incidents:
The Lord of the Rings
When there are multiple characters at play within a story, identifying one pivotal scene as the inciting incident can be challenging. With The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s story is at the heart of the fantasy trilogy and he follows a traditional heroes journey.
For much of the introduction, Frodo is passive. This changes when he is tasked by Gandalf with taking the One Ring and journeying to Rivendell. From this inciting incident, the responsibility is thrust into his hands and so his quest begins.
The exact moment that constitutes an inciting incident can be argued, especially when there are multiple plot points or character arcs that each get started at different points. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is the character at the centre of the story who is forced to take action.
The main inciting incident for him is when he returns to his home to find his aunt and uncle killed by the Empire. Before this, he rejects any call to action. It takes the discovery of his murdered family to witness the horror of the empire and destroy his home, giving him the necessary impetus to begin his quest to save Princess Leia.
In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the inciting incident comes in an early scene when the titular character encounters the three witches. They prophesise that he will become king, catalysing a desire within him to fulfill this prophesy.
Before this, it could be argued that he wouldn’t have these same ambitions, but this scene stirs that motivation and (after some encouragement from his wife) leads him to take action and murder the king in order to achieve his ambitions.
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Tips on how to write an inciting incident
Because an inciting incident provides a pivotal moment that leads a story in a new direction, it’s one of the most important aspects to get right. Here are some top tips on how to write inciting incidents within your own stories.
1. Create urgency
Stories can start slowly, with the opening scenes requiring exposition to introduce the characters and setting. But once the plot gets going with the inciting incident setting things in motion, the story needn’t feel slow.
After the introduction, a sense of urgency can help to engage readers and bring an increased tempo to the story.
For example, there could be a time constraint set for when the protagonist has to achieve their goal, or you could introduce an antagonist who challenges their progress throughout the rest of the story.
2. Set the tone of your story
An inciting incident plays an important role in establishing the sort of tone a reader can expect throughout the rest of the story. The pivotal event itself can act as an indication of what to come.
For example, the inciting incident of a horror story might involve a character being forced to travel to remote village, and their journey into an unfamiliar world could be immersed in an atmosphere of tension and read.
3. Establish all necessary details prior to the inciting incident
An inciting incident needs developing in order to work well. Even if your story starts en medias res your character needs to be developed so that the change of direction brought about by this event makes sense.
Part of this is understanding how it fits within the overall structure of the story, but it’s equally important to establish what change the inciting incident means for the protagonist.
Typically, they will be relatively passive at the beginning of the story. The inciting incident should then force them to become active so that their actions drive the plot forward.
4. Raise new questions
The purpose of an inciting incident is to force your protagonist out of their known world and possibly mundane lifestyle in order to take both them and the story into new territory.
Because of this, the reader should also be led away from the familiar world that is established in the introduction to the story. This should then raise questions about the direction the story will take and the character’s journey.