The Inciting Incident is probably the most important part of your story. It is what propels your protagonist off on his path and gives the novel its raison d’être. In Harry Potter, for instance, Harry’s letter from Hogwart’s becomes the inciting incident. He is determined to find out what is in that letter and it forces his Uncle Vernon to try and destroy it. That letter is finally delivered to him by Hagrid … and Harry finds out he’s a wizard. Talk about a life changing event!
The inciting incident is the event that throws the protagonist’s world out of balance and sets the story in motion. The plot is trying to get the balance back.
Knowing where to start your story is crucial. Inexperienced writers start with backstory and of course we know that is a fatal mistake. The reader will get bored quickly. Starting in media res is the best way to get your plot off with a bang. It means immediately plunging your hero into a crucial situation or in the middle of an action scene and then having him figure out how to extricate himself from the mess he finds himself in.
Here are other ways to conceptualize the inciting incident:
- it knocks the hero out of his everyday routine
- it is the event which sparks the fuse of your plot
- it’s something that MUST happen in order for your protagonist to do, or go, wherever she has to
- what is at stake?
Whom should the reader care about?
It is obviously the protagonist so, as a rule of thumb, introduce the hero right from the start. Sometimes, as in a murder mystery, the victim may be introduced first but make sure the hero is presented as quickly as possible so that the reader can become invested in the character.
How do we make people care about our protagonist?
We can do this by allowing the reader to see her in action doing something that reveals who she is. This makes the inciting incident a good place to start simply because the protagonist is reacting to something extremely important. Exposition, which is background information that must be given the reader, can be inserted later through dialogue and flashbacks.
The inciting incident does not have to be a negative thing like a murder: life can be unbalanced by winning the lottery or having a baby. It just has to be vitally important to the character. This is totally subjective – it has to be important only to the character, not necessarily to anyone else. It must be personal. Also, the inciting incident cannot happen offstage. The protagonist must be aware of it.
A story does not have to begin with the inciting incident but it should be foreshadowed. You can bring it in when the time is right, but it is best if you do it as early as possible.
Example of inciting incidents:
Wizard of Oz – The tornado that takes Dorothy out of Kansas and into Oz
Legally Blonde – When Warner dumps Elle instead of proposing to her as she expected
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – When Lucy hides inside the wardrobe and finds Narnia
Do you know what the inciting incident in your novel is?
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