Inciting Incident in a Novel

lucyThe inciting incident
is probably the most important part of your story. It propels your protagonist off on his or her path and gives the novel its raison d’être.

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.

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Knowing where to start your story is crucial. Inexperienced writers start with backstory and 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. Of course, the worse the situation, the better your novel will be

Here are other ways to conceptualize the inciting incident:

  • it jolts your hero out of his everyday routinepunch
  • 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?

Who is involved in the inciting incident?

The story is all about the protagonist and his/her journey so the inciting incident must involve the hero of the story. 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.

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 is about something happening to someone. If nothing happens, you don’t have a story – you just have description. Stories do 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 especially when you are a new writer.

Example of inciting incidents:

Wizard of Oz – The tornado that takes Dorothy out of Kansas and into Ozoz
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
Hunger Games – When Katniss volunteers to be in place of her sister at the games
Star Wars – When Luke receives Princess Leia’s message in R2D2

Do you know what the inciting incident in your story is?

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