A successful novel must feature an event, known as the inciting incident, that irreversibly ignites the story.
The stronger your inciting incident, the more dramatic, compelling, and engrossing your novel.
A weak or nonexistent inciting incident means no reason for your main character to become heroic, or for readers to keep turning pages.
What is an Inciting Incident?
It’s something that irrevocably changes things for your main character. It more than upends his status quo — it forces him to act or face dire, life-changing consequences.
If he can merely choose to ignore whatever has happened and life returns to normal, that’s not an inciting incident — at least not one worthy of an entire novel.
Everything in a story should incite SOMETHING and compel readers to stay with you. The more setups (which naturally demand payoffs) you inject, the more riveted your readers.
Envision the inciting incident as the epitome of a book-length-worthy setup that demands the ultimate payoff. It changes everything for the main character, setting his course for the whole story.
Conflict is the engine of fiction and should flavor every page of your story. Your inciting incident should represent quintessential conflict.
Using Inciting Incidents in Your Story
A true inciting incident gives your main character an urgent task he must accomplish.
Don’t mistake merely dramatic incidents as irreversible spurs to action. When a young Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and discovers he has new abilities, he could choose to tell no one and never exhibit those. He would become a normal citizen with a huge secret. Maybe interesting, but no big deal.
But when his city — or his true love or his family or mankind — is threatened by something or someone his new powers could vanquish…well, that’s an inciting incident.
In The Martian, an accident convinces Mark Watney’s fellow astronauts he is dead. Leaving him behind forces him to stay alive until someone can rescue him — talk about the ultimate inciting incident.
Your inciting incident could be caused by a natural disaster, when your character must act or die. Or it could result from nefarious people or forces, making your character rise to the occasion or lose the family farm or see a loved one come to ruin.
5 Traits of a Strong Inciting Incident
1. It occurs early in the story
Regardless what novel structure you choose, your inciting incident usually works best when introduced early.
In a three-act structure, for instance, it will appear in act one.
The sooner your inciting incident happens, the better.
2. It disrupts the status quo
The life your main character knew before the inciting incident is now gone. There’s no way to go back to the way things were.
3. It’s outside the main character’s control
He doesn’t create it. It’s something he’s forced to react to.
4. It’s high-stakes, life-altering
Unless it threatens to change the main character’s life, your inciting incident won’t hold readers long.
5. It’s do or die
The main character has no choice but to accept the challenge. The alternative is unacceptable — someone dies, the world ends, he loses the love of his life.
The most common is not making the stakes high enough so the character couldn’t just decide to walk away.
If the consequences of failure aren’t the worst imaginable, your incident will not likely incite anything exciting enough to captivate readers.
Why You Need An Inciting Incident
More than just something to launch your story, an inciting incident also determines your main character’s arc — his growth and development from beginning to end.
Your inciting incident serves as the backbone of your story. Everything hinges on it.
Examples of Memorable Inciting Incidents
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Lucy’s adventure starts immediately when she discovers a wardrobe has no back wall and leads to Narnia. Of course, she could just turn and run away. But crossing that threshold becomes the inciting incident because she is soon enmeshed in all sorts of mayhem she cannot ignore.
The Hunger Games: When her sister Prim is chosen as tribute, Katniss immediately volunteers in her place, knowing Prim would have no chance to survive the games.
Star Wars: When Luke receives a message from R2D2 that contains the plans for the Death Star, he must rescue Princess Leia and save the galaxy.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Don’t mistake Harry’s learning he’s a wizard and landing a spot at Hogwarts as the inciting incident, because he could choose to remain in his status quo — distasteful as that might be. When he is forced to act against villains, there’s no turning back.
4 Tips for Writing an Effective Inciting Incident
1. Make it dramatic
After all, it’s the why behind your story. It will set the tone for the rest of your story and reveal your character’s qualities and motivations.
2. Make it urgent
If your character can walk away from a dilemma without major consequences, it’s not an inciting incident. The incident must light a fire under him!
3. Make it unexpected
Remember, the inciting incident is outside your character’s control. Keep readers on the edge of their seats.
4. Make it meaningful
While plot is what happens, your theme is why your story happens — the message you want readers to take away. Your inciting incident must buttress your theme, making your story more powerful and memorable.
Strengthen Your Novel with a Compelling Inciting Incident
If your story doesn’t grab readers from the beginning and keep them engaged, take a hard look at your inciting incident.
Are the stakes high enough, the challenge great enough, the conflict believable?
Make them so, and your readers will happily join you for the ride.