Written by JJ Barnes
The Inciting Incident is the moment that starts your story. Before this moment, your character is just living their life. You join them to witness a story happening, and The Inciting Incident is the thing in their life that launches that story. It signals a change in their lives and it’s the consequences of that change you’ll be exploring.
It’s important that the Inciting Incident transitions your Protagonist from passive to active. Rather than just reacting to change, your Protagonist should be driving it. Even if the Inciting Incident isn’t something they chose or caused directly, it should cause them to actively pursue a goal. They want something, and now they are going to go and get it. That’s the story you’re following.
I’ll explore different examples of The Inciting Incident in stories and why they work, and how you can use that technique in your own writing.
The Inciting Incident in Willow
At the start of Willow, the Protagonist Willow is living his life, looking after his family, and trying to get by as an outsider in his community. When the human baby, Elora, washes up on shore, Willow’s story begins. Whilst Willow doesn’t choose this inciting incident to happen, he hasn’t made a decision to become active in pursuit of a goal, he does become active. He is tasked with taking the baby home, and, after learning she is a princess being hunted by a wicked queen, to protect her.
Through the story, you follow Willow in pursuit of that goal. He overcomes challenges and fights to achieve his goal. By the end of the story, he is able to defend baby Elora, and, with the help of his friends, overcome the wicked queen.
How To Start The Unexpected Quest
If you’re writing your Protagonist going on a heroic journey, you might write an unexpected quest. As in Willow, this isn’t an inciting incident that is caused by, or wanted by, your Protagonist. And yet, it’s the inciting incident they need. Willow needed to go on this journey. Through it, he becomes strong and capable and more able to live his life successfully after he returns home.
When you’re planning the inciting incident in your own story with an unexpected quest, work out what your Protagonist is missing from their lives. Do they need to become stronger or braver? Is there a hidden power they need to find out about in themselves? The quest you send them on is just one part of the story. It’s accomplishing that quest and how it changes and impacts your Protagonist that is really key. It’s their story, it’s their journey, so focus on how it effects them.
The Inciting Incident in The Hunger Games
In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss becomes active when she volunteers as tribute, in place of her little sister Prim. Prior to that, she is living her life in the dystopian land of Panem, which is broken into districts. From each district, children are selected to take part in a battle to the death. Katniss doesn’t like it, but she accepts it. She isn’t trying to change anything about her life until Prim is selected to take part.
At that moment, Katniss becomes active. She has a goal, which is to survive in that immediate story. But it also activates her series long goal; to end the system. In The Hunger Games, you follow Katniss overcoming challenges and fighting to survive as she is motivated to accomplish her goal.
How To Start A Heroic Story
The stakes in a heroic story need to be high, because it’s in facing the risk of failure that your hero is found. When you launch your heroic story, make it clear at the inciting incident that your character is being brave. If the stakes are life or death, make it apparent immediately. Your audience will respect their bravery, and care about seeing your story through to the end.
It’s in her volunteering that you find Katniss’ heroism. She is driven to protect her sister to such an extent that she is willing to die for it. That bravery and love makes her a perfect Protagonist in a heroic story. You root for her because she’s a good person, and you understand why her goal matters; if she fails, she dies.
The Inciting Incident in Lilly Prospero And The Mermaids Curse
In Lilly Prospero And The Mermaids Curse, Lilly and Saffron become active in pursuit of their story goal when they meet the mermaids. Prior to that, they didn’t know what was happening or that mermaids even existed. When the mermaids tell them that they are being murdered and ask for help, Lilly and Saffron transition from passive to active. Their goal is to find the man responsible for murdering the mermaids, and to stop them.
As the story moves forward, things get more complicated and challenges are thrown in their way, but saving the mermaids remains at the heart of what the two girls are driven to accomplish. They have chosen to accomplish a goal and are motivated to see it through.
How To Start A Chosen Quest
Whereas Willow is foisted into pursuing his story goal, and comes to care about it on the journey, Lilly and Saffron choose to become active. When the mermaids alert them to what is happening, they have the chance to walk away. They could ignore what is being done and remain passive. It’s separate from them, the mermaids are not intruding on their lives.
Lilly and Saffron make the choice to become active and follow out their quest. They choose to put themselves in danger, choose to trust or mistrust others on the way. When you start your chosen quest story, make it clear your Protagonist could just walk away. By choosing to push themselves into the situation and take on that quest, they are making themselves active. Make sure that your audience understands why the quest matters and why they would choose to risk themselves in the pursuit of that goal. If it isn’t clear why it matters or why they want to do it, your story will lack impact.
The Inciting Incident in What Ivy Wants
In What Ivy Wants, Ivy’s story goal is not one she pursues aggressively. She isn’t sent on a quest, she isn’t having an adventure. She is active, but it’s an internal conflict rather than external. Ivy’s Inciting Incident occurs when she loses her husband, her job and her home on her thirtieth birthday. Prior to that, Ivy is living her life. There are things she is unhappy with, but she is not making active steps to change it.
When she loses everything, her story begins. But her main conflict is in herself. She is forced to go on an emotional journey of self discovery. Her story goal is to work out who she is and what she wants, and the obstacles she faces along the way are with herself. She is her own Antagonist. Her Inciting Incident puts herself in conflict with herself. Until she overcomes her own emotional problems, she cannot move on with her life.
How To Start Your Emotional Conflict Story
Your emotional conflict story may or may not have an external main Antagonist. Whilst Ivy faces antagonists in each scene, and has disagreements with characters around her, her main Antagonist is herself. A story of self discovery still needs an Inciting Incident, without a change in their lives they have no reason to go on this emotional journey.
For Ivy, losing her job forces her to start thinking about what she actually wants to do with her life. Losing her husband forces her to examine the truth of their relationship and whether she wants to be in it. Trigger a change in your Protagonists life, then force them to examine the truth of who they are. What matters to them, what mistakes have they made, what can they do to fix those mistakes? You will explore their interiority and feelings more than any external conflict. But you still need to have a reason why you’re doing this now in their lives.
Other Examples of Inciting Incidents in Stories
In Monster’s Inc, the story begins when Boo comes through the door. Prior to that, Sulley and Mike are happily living their lives. The arrival of the human child triggers the start of their story. You join them now because that story is happening and see it through until the resolution.
In Call Me, Maybe by Stephie Chapman, the inciting incident comes when Cassie finds her childhood crush, Jesse, on Facebook. Prior to that she is not in pursuit of a goal. After finding Jesse’s account, she becomes active. You join her ow in her life because she is in pursuit of a relationship with the man she loves and is willing to face obstacles and challenges along the way.
In The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe by CS Lewis, the inciting incident occurs when Lucy enters the magical wardrobe. Prior to that, the children have no knowledge of Narnia. Upon entering Narnia, their story begins. Mostly they are just reacting to events around them as they are unfamiliar with that land and its history, but their story is happening and you are following their experiences.
Your Inciting Incident?
Tell me the inciting incidents in your story, or your favourites from the stories you love. The best inciting incidents launch your Protagonist on their journey, and show your audience what they want and why. In that moment, your audience is told what they are showing up for and why they care about experiencing your story.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose