Written by JJ Barnes
The inciting incident of your story is the moment that triggers the start of your story conflict. I’ll explain how to write one well so your audience is hooked and wants to keep reading.
What Is The Inciting Incident?
The inciting incident of your story is the moment your Protagonist, your main character, becomes active. Prior to that moment, they’re just living their lives. They might be unsatisfied, or hoping for something, but they’re not taking steps to do anything about it. At the inciting incident, they become active and decide to make changes in their life.
Your Protagonist was alive before your story began, and you’re jumping into their life at this point for a reason. The reason is the story that is about to unfold. If they’re not doing anything then there’s no point watching them. You join them at this point in their lives to watch them living a story. The inciting incident is the moment which starts that story.
Examples Of Inciting Incidents In Story
In The Hunger Games, Katniss becomes active when her baby sister, Primrose, is called up as Tribute. When Katniss volunteers to go in her place, her story begins. Prior to that moment, Katniss was just living, but in that moment she becomes motivated. She is motivated to protect her sister and to survive. The story follows that journey.
In Alice In Wonderland, the inciting incident is the moment Alice chooses to follow the white rabbit. Prior to that moment she is just living, bored and unsatisfied with her life, but not doing anything. When she follows the white rabbit she becomes motivated to discover and have an adventure, and that is her story.
In Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven, there are two inciting incidents. The first is a flashback when Emerald is given a magic lamp by her grandfather. In that moment she is given the task of changing the world, which leads to her meeting the genie who she becomes motivated to save. In the present day, the inciting incident is when Abigail gets a vision of a girl in danger. From that moment they all become motivated to find and save the girl from the man hunting her down to kill. Prior to these incidents they were all busy living their lives. They weren’t motivated for the specific story goal that the book follows.
What Makes A Good Inciting Incident?
A good inciting incident should be clear and it should be an active choice. If your Protagonist is just reacting to things around them and not making any active choices, their story will be weak. This doesn’t mean they have to directly cause the Inciting Incident themselves. It does mean they have to make active choices because of it.
For instance, Katniss wouldn’t have volunteered as tribute if Prim hadn’t been selected. She is reacting to something else, but she then becomes active and motivated in her own right. If your Protagonist isn’t active but people around them are, your audience will be more interested in those side characters. Passive characters bumping along aren’t as interesting as the people actually driving the story forwards by choices they’re making.
Don’t let the Inciting Incident be vague. If you have them drifting along and sort of going after something, it won’t work. Their motivation needs to be clear for your audience to connect with it. If it’s not clear what they want or what they are trying to achieve, your audience will have no reason to root for them. If they don’t care whether or not your Protagonist achieves their goal, because your Protagonist doesn’t seem to care either, they have no reason to follow through with your story. An active goal with a clear motivation that drives your Protagonist forward is what you need to create. And that action is initiated by the inciting incident.
Where Does The Inciting Incident Go?
The inciting incident of your story can appear the moment your story starts, or it can appear a little way in. Ideally it will come by the end of Chapter One.
For instance, in Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit, Lilly becomes active when she meets Jeffrey the talking rabbit at the end of Chapter One. Until then she isn’t aware that her story is in motion. It’s the people around her who are active and not her. When she meets Jeffrey, Lilly starts to become active. She is no longer bumping from moment to moment and reacting. She is choosing to draw pictures which come to life and making choices based on that ability.
The time prior to the inciting incident, passive mode, is where you establish who they are. You show what’s missing in their lives and use it to explain why their story goal matters. For instance, Lilly is lonely in a new school and doesn’t feel like she fits in. She wants a community and to be special. When she becomes motivated to use her power and fit in with the other kids who have magic it makes sense. You can see why that goal is important to her because of how her life was prior to meeting Jeffrey. But if you leave them in passive mode for too long your story will feel slow and pointless.
In Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven, Emerald is given the magic lamp on the first page. It’s immediate. You don’t know yet why it matters, but you know she has been called to action and will be making choices based on receiving the magic lamp. The story unfolds and you connect with Emerald and understand the importance as she learns about it too.
Why It Matters
For your story to matter to your audience, your story has to matter to your Protagonist. If they aren’t invested in doing anything with their lives, your audience won’t be invested in watching them live. You’re jumping into their lives at this moment for a reason. So make them active, call them to action quickly with your inciting incident, and give your audience a story to experience.
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