Written by JJ Barnes
I’m going to explain what the “Inciting Incident” is in your story, where to put it, what it’s used for, and how to write it. I’ll be referencing the film The Matrix as an example of a really well written inciting incident.
The Inciting Incident Triggers the Start of Your Story
The inciting incident is the event that triggers the start of your story. Prior to the inciting incident, your character was living their life, but not in active pursuit of their story goal. The inciting incident triggers the change. It sets them into active motion, from passive.
In The Matrix, it’s when Trinity sends Neo the message to his computer telling him to follow the white rabbit.
Lock the Conflict At The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident serves to lock the conflict between your protagonist and your antagonist. From this point you are following them both in pursuit of something, and trying to stop the other from winning.
Because Neo is the Protagonist, the conflict that is launched by the inciting incident is the conflict between Neo and the Matrix itself. The Matrix is essentially a character in its own right.
The conflict lock between Neo and the Matrix is triggered by Neo being sent on the journey to discovering the Matrix so he can do something to change it and expose it. The Matrix does not want anything to change and wants to carry on as it has been. They both want something, but they can’t both have it. The Matrix can’t both be exposed, and continue to exist uninterrupted.
Pursuing a Goal
You want your Protagonist to be a person, or at least a robot, so the inciting incident causes them to make a choice to pursue a goal. By making an active choice to go after what they want, they are choosing to begin their story.
Until the inciting incident in The Matrix, Neo following the girl with the white rabbit tattoo, he is not involved in the story and is not pursuing his goal. He has no knowledge of the Matrix and no connection to anything that is happening. He has not been set against The Matrix. But the moment he goes to follow the white rabbit, he is on his path and we are following his story.
Where Does the Inciting Incident Go?
You can spend some time with your characters prior to the inciting incident. Show them existing in their lives and what may be missing, so when the inciting incident happens you understand why they make the choice to go after that goal. Use that time to let your audience connect with an understand why they become active now, why they are motivated to accomplish their goal.
However, you shouldn’t spend too long prior to them becoming active because that’s not your story and that’s not why your audience has come to your work. It needs to go in the first act; in a book it should go in the first couple of chapters, in a film it should go in the first ten pages.
Examples Of Inciting Incidents
A lot of stories will spend time with the antagonist or with the villain of the story before going to the protagonist’s inciting incident. For instance, in The Matrix you start with Trinity fighting agents and going out of the window. This allows the audience to see what is at stake for the Protagonist when their story is started.
In Lilly Prospero And The Mermaid’s Curse, I started the story with the Antagonist; The Harvester. I show him dragging a mermaid from the ocean, preparing to harvest her body parts to sell on the magical black market. This immediately tells you what Lilly will be set against, so when her story is triggered, the audience understands why it matters.
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