The Inciting Incident

inciting incident

The inciting incident: the incident that kicks off a chain reaction, leading the protagonist to the story-worthy problem.

The first action kicks off a chain reaction. A inciting incidentstory starts with the inciting incident, which should not be confused with just any bad situation. Just ask yourself: “What can I do to create a scene that will introduce my character’s real problem?”

Take John for example. John finds himself the filling of a metal sandwich after the car crash. He just regained consciousness. What lead him to end up here?

Was it the beer he had before he got into the car? Was it the lady that charmed him into drinking? Was it the decision to go to the pub after the break? Was it the break up? You can backtrack tragic events to John birth… actually his parents’ births… actually their parents’ births.. and so on.

The inciting incident is the moment the real story gets rolling and the audience will recognise that moment instinctively. A strong inciting incident has the climax embedded within it.

Example: Taken

Girl goes abroad with friend. Both get kidnapper. Father of girl gets kidnapper on the phone. Father warns the kidnapper of his specific set of skills and promises to use those skill to track and kill the kidnapper unless the daughter is set free. The kidnapper wishes the father luck.

The inciting incident, the moment the girl is taken and the father has a brief conversation with the kidnapper has the climax embedded within it. The story:The father does use a particular set of skills, does track down the kidnapper(s). The climax: the father kills them.

Requirements of an inciting incident
  • Leads to/ exposes / creates the story-worthy big problem
  • The problem (on abstract level) led to trouble before
  • The solution to the inciting problem contributes to solving the main problem
  • The character does not have many options to solve the problem
  • It is the first time the protagonist truly realizes he has serious problems

Tip: Use bridging conflict (also known as stacking) to lead the reader to the inciting incident and beyond. E.g., John argues with his wife about the household bills. He goes to work as a mechanic where hiss boss confront him with signing off on faulty cars. He has a financial crisis in the works and can’t afford to lose his job. His daughter has cancer so he spends all his money on treatments but none of them worked. A man approaches him, tells him about a new experimental treatment. John takes the risk but discovers the man is a fraud. He has to find a way to get his money back so his daughter can go back to the real doctors.

Edgerton, L (2007) Hooked: Write fiction that grabs readers at page one & never lets them go
Farland, D. (2013) Million Dollar Outlines.
Pressfield, S. (2016) Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit