The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: Inciting Event and Key Event

The first quarter of your story hinges upon two important and irreversible moments: the inciting event and the key event. I’ve saved our discussion of inciting and key events until this late into the series because these events can take place at any number of the structure points we’ve already discussed. Now that we’ve got a sense of the hook, the first act, and the first major plot point, we can see more clearly how and where the inciting and key events affect these moments.

Sometimes the key and inciting events are the same event (the Great Sebastian’s arrival in The Greatest Show on Earth); sometimes they happen one right after the other (the children arriving in Narnia through the painting and their subsequent joining up with Caspian in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader); sometimes the entirety of the first act separates them (the arrival of the prisoners in the camp and the digging of the first tunnel in The Great Escape), and sometimes one or the other occurs before the story proper even begins (the war in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood). Most authors are familiar with the idea of the inciting event as being the moment when the story “officially” begins and the character’s life is forever changed. However, we find a lot of misconceptions floating around about the inciting event, and many of them result from the simple fact that the “key event” is often forgotten altogether.

What are the key and inciting events?

In the words of Syd Field in his legendary book Screenplay, “the inciting incidentsets the story in motion … [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.” If we were to envision our story as a row of dominos, the inciting event would be the first domino. When we tip over this particular domino, we set the whole line in motion. Generally, the inciting event isn’t difficult to find. It’s the moment that changes everything for the main character and puts him on the path he will tread for the rest of the story. No need to get too specific about this. Obviously, every event in life is connected to an event that preceded it. If the character hadn’t been born (and if his parents hadn’t met, and if their parents hadn’t met), he would most certainly not be going on his current adventure. But unless you’re writing the next David Copperfield, his birth or his grandparents’ marriage isn’t likely to be your inciting event. Look nearer to home for the event that directly influences the plot.

Although the inciting event and the key event can sometimes be the same thing, they’re usually distinct. The key event is the moment when the character becomes engaged by the inciting event. For example, in most detective stories, the inciting event (the crime) takes place apart from the main character, who doesn’t become involved with it until the key event,
when he takes on the case. The key event is the glue that sticks the character to the impetus of the inciting event.

Spotting Inciting and Key Events Infographic

(Featured in the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.)

Where do the key and inciting events belong?

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryGenerally, we find two schools of thought on the proper location for the inciting event. Either it’s supposed to be found in the hook in the first chapter, no exceptions, or it’s supposed to be the first plot point at the 25% mark, no exceptions. I’ve subscribed to both these philosophies at one point or another in my career, and now believe them both to be far too dogmatic. The hook and the first plot point belong at their given spots, no matter where the inciting event ends up. Often the inciting event is the hook; often it’s the first plot point; and often it’s somewhere in between. What’s important isn’t so much nailing down your inciting event to a specific place in the story, as it is presenting the inciting event at the optimal moment. Sometimes that means throwing the inciting event at the reader right away, and sometimes that means holding off to give them the biggest bang for their buck at the quarter mark.

The key event almost always takes place after the inciting event, since its job is to build upon the inciting event and make it impossible for the main character to turn away from it. The earlier in the story you place your inciting event, the more time you’ll have to work in your key event. But if the inciting event doesn’t occur until the latest point (the first major plot point at the quarter mark), then the key event needs to occur promptly afterwards.

Examples from film and literature

The best way to get a sense for the differences between the inciting event and key event, as well as the proper placement of both in relation to each other, is to study them in action in the works of the pros. Let’s examine our chosen books and films.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): The arrival of the Bingleys and Darcy in Meryton is the inciting event that starts the chain of events moving irreversibly. But the main character, Lizzy, doesn’t become involved with the inciting event until she meets and is rejected by Darcy at the Meryton assembly dance. This is the key event.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): This classic movie uses the entirety of its first act to leisurely introduce and build its characters. Its inciting event doesn’t occur until the first major plot point when George’s father dies of a stroke. This is the moment that forever changes George’s life and sets the subsequent plot points in motion. But until George made the decision to take his father’s place as Executive Secretary of the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan, he could have walked away at any point. His decision to stay in Bedford Falls constitutes the key event because it officially engages him in the plot.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): The inciting event that starts the plot rolling in this science fiction classic is the invasion of the Formic aliens eighty years earlier. Without this invasion, Ender (as a third child) would never even have been allowed to have been born. This event takes place long before the beginning of the book and is discussed only in retrospect. The key event that draws Ender irrevocably into the battle is his brutally efficient response to the bully Stilson, which prompts Col. Graff and the International Fleet Selective Service to requisition Ender as a Battle School student.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): Again, here we find the inciting event taking place before the film opens. After the opening credits, the viewers are informed that the British Admiralty has instructed Captain Jack Aubrey to intercept the “French privateer Acheron en route to Pacific intent on carrying the war into those waters… Sink, burn, or take her as a prize.” But not until the key event when the Acheron attacks the HMS Surprise during the opening sequence do the characters become inextricably entangled in the events of the plot.

Takeaway value

In studying the placement, use, and relation of the inciting and key events in our examples, what can we learn about integrating these important story moments into our own books?

1. The inciting and key events need to take place within the first quarter of the book, probably either in the beginning chapter or at the first major plot point, but we’re free to choose the moment best suited to our stories.

2. The inciting event sets the line of plot dominoes in motion.

3. The key event pulls the main character into that plot.

4. The key event almost always follows the inciting event.

5. Sometimes the inciting event can take place prior to the beginning chapter, but, for maximum effect, the key event should take place within the story proper, so the reader can experience it.

The integral relationship between the inciting event and the key event will power your entire story. Don’t settle for anything less than the most powerful and memorable combination you can come up with. Place them strategically within the first quarter of the story and use them to engage your reader just as irretrievably as you do your main character.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the First Half of the Second Act.

Tell me your opinion: Can you pick out the inciting and key events in your work-in-progress?

Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 4: The First Plot Point

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Interesting. I’ve never been able to dissect the stories I write to determine what’s what or where things occur. I don’t plan them…I just write them as they come to me.

  2. The great thing about instinctive storytelling is that it’s often spot on. We instinctively realize the elements required in a great story. Learning to recognize them consciously is just taking our gut instinct a step further.

  3. This is awesome. I love your examples. I’m sort of in the middle of creating this in my story. My inciting incident happened in chapter one and the key event will be coming by about page 35-40. I’m almost there. That’s less than 1/4 into the story but works for my manuscript. This is a great series on plotting. thanks so much.

  4. Less than a quarter of the way works just fine for the key event, so long as you give readers a major plot point at the quarter mark. Glad you’re enjoying the series!

  5. Great post, and I love the examples. In the first draft of my WIP, both the inciting event and the key event happen in chapter 1.

  6. You’re in good company with the likes of C.S. Lewis and Peter Weir!

  7. This was a very interesting post and it´s actually very helpful to build the full structure of the story!

    Thanks!

    Have a great day!

    xoxo

    M.

  8. Thanks for reading! Understanding story structure gives us the tools to not only craft stronger stories, but also to diagnose story problems along the way.

  9. Yes, a story is very likely doomed when we forget how important structure really is.

    M.

  10. My inciting even and first plot point are (probably) the same thing. The key even could be considered when my protagonist’s mentor makes her focus on dealing with the aftermath of the inciting event, or one of two violent events before the inciting event. But my protagonist only reluctantly joins the action, so it’s possible to say the key even doesn’t happen until the final quarter. At some point, I’ll have to have somebody who thinks in term of structure to look at my synapsis and tell me 🙂

  11. @Meryl: Many authors write (and write well) without a thorough knowledge of structure. That’s why I’m always recommending authors to trust their guts! But the more we understand consciously, the more deliberately and efficiently we can put it into practice.

    @London: Chances are good that your key event is so closely related to your inciting event that it’s difficult to tell the difference. If it doesn’t happen until the final quarter, then your character wouldn’t be involved in the plot until then. If she is involved earlier (and she undoubtedly is), then you know your key event took place earlier.

  12. Katie, this is so apropos for me right now – feels planned! The story I’m working on is so complex that it was really begging for a guide more refined than my instincts. Thank you so much for posting these! I’m enjoying and gleaning from all them immensely.

  13. If we’re writing stories that are too complicated for us (so to speak), it means we’re pushing ourselves. And if we’re pushing ourselves, we have to be growing! Kudos to you for stretching yourself to your limits. I’m so glad you’re finding the posts useful!

  14. Katie, thank you for this post. As an aspiring (sometimes feels like expiring – that sound is my head banging on the keyboard) writer, I’ve struggled with determining where my inciting event occurs in my WIP. While reading your post, I realized the event occurred before my first chapter. Throughout the first quarter of the WIP, my characters refer to the “fire on Sunday” and “the fiasco of a festival.” Hints are sprinkled here and there, but they don’t divulge all that took place that day until later in the book. But that precipitating event set the stage for my protagonist. Thanks to you, what I thought was my inciting event (around the quarter mark) is actually my key event (That sound is me, breathing a sigh of relief!) where my protagonist accepts the challenge of saving her town.

  15. Anonymous says:

    By Jove! I think I’ve got it! In my MS, the inciting event is when she meets ‘him’ for the first time, and it completely throws her, because at first blush he’s not the guy you’d want anything to do with. And the key event – and it’s in the first quarter of the book, too – is when she opens her door and allows him into her home – her safe, sacred and private place. Thank you for these great tips. Lisa Pedersen, @UrbanMilkmaid

  16. Oh, yes! Just as many people can cook without a recipe. We´re not all that lucky 😛

    And in the other hand, it´s true we have to follow our guts. But if we want to write, we have to read. And I think there is where those guts come from. We can somehow get a grip on the subject 🙂

    xoxo

    M.

  17. I look forward to your posts each week on structure. I’ve read several books and everyone seems to interchange inciting incident with the first plot point or the point of no return. Separating the two helps. I’ve never heard of the key event.
    What your saying is the key event is the point of no return for the protagonist? Right?

  18. @Richard: We have all these names (and sometimes different names for the same things) for the parts of a story. Sometimes it can get ridiculously confusing. But, really, a story can’t exist without an inciting or key event. If you have a story, then you can rest assured you have both of these important events.

    @Lisa: Sounds like a spot-on analysis to me. Although every story has its own requirements, I’m personally very fond of lining up either or both of the events at the first major plot point. When we can do that successfully, we can really give readers a one-two punch at that all-important quarter mark.

    @Meryl: Absolutely agree. Reading widely and voraciously teaches us good story structure through sheer osmosis.

    @Alice: The key event isn’t necessarily the “point of no return” in the same way that the first major plot point is. The key event doesn’t have to be earth shattering, and, depending on the story, the character could conceivably still walk away *after* becoming engaged. The point of no return is when he makes a decision, following the first major plot point (more on that next week), from which there’s no turning back even if he wanted to.

  19. The way you describe the key event sounds exactly like I’ve come to understand the first plot point—it’s the event that engages the protagonist irreversibly with the plot. But if the key event happens before the first plot point, then what is the difference between the two? What’s left for the first plot point to achieve?

  20. Thanks, K.M.!! I hadn’t realized the key event and the inciting incident were separate things. I loved how you explained them.

  21. I’m not sure if I should be upset, or thank you ^_^ Obviously the latter, but my fiancee and I had a fairly arduous two hours after reading this post with attacking my plot, and I had to come to grips with my novel’s ugly birth and painful, deformed growth. See, I first wrote it with no conflict in mind, just plot; years later, now I’m trying to wrestle a conflict from the existing plot. But it’s all good: my “guts” didn’t lead me too far astray, and a unified conflict-driven plot is near with only a couple hours of revision needed and mostly near the end of the book. But yes, an identifiable inciting event and key event have risen from the muck: the former resides in the first few pages as the main character is dissatisfied with his position in life; the latter at the end/beginning of chapters 2/3 when he is thrust out of the castle, into the world, and has the ability to do something about his dissatisfaction.

    Great post, and thanks!

  22. Great explanation of the difference between the inciting incident and the key event, two things I’ve kind of lumped together in my mind. In my first novel and the sequel I am writing, the inciting event happens before the book starts, and the key event happens at the beginning of chapter one. In another WIP, the inciting incident is the hook, and the key event doesn’t happen until the end of chapter two.

    Thank you, too, for the reminder that this “rule,” like so many in writing, is really a guideline. But understanding the guideline and why our instincts are often right helps too. That’s why I greatly appreciate Articles like this.

  23. @Ben: Often, the key event *is* the first major plot point, but not necessarily. The key event is the moment when the character engages with the plot, and as we can see in the examples I’ve cited, this moment can take place anywhere in the first quarter of the book. The first major plot point, on the other hand, always occurs around the 25% mark and is marked not only by a dramatic moment in the plot but by a subsequent irreversible reaction by the protagonist. For example, in most cop and legal dramas, the key event occurs early, when the detective or lawyer takes the case. The first major plot is usually a different event entirely, one that escalates the stakes, and prevents the protagonist from being able to walk away. It’s usually the moment when the case becomes personal.

    @Traci: I didn’t realize it either for a long time, but once you can see the difference, you also see all the intricacies involved in the inciting event.

    @Daniel: As someone who has spent the last few years wrestling with a novel that suffered from lack of planning in the early stages, I feel your pain!

    @Suzanne: Thanks for stopping by, Suzanne! The moment I realized the inciting and key events were separate was a bit of an epiphany for me. Thank you, Syd Field!

  24. Yes! I just learned about this at a conference with Martha Alberson this weekend. She had us go through our beginning scenes to find the Key Event.

    I was just so grateful I had one! Thanks for these tips and examples.

  25. The best part about discovering story structure is being able to pick out the individual pieces from our works-in-progress. It’s always exciting!

  26. At first this post made me anxious. But then I realized that I had done just what you said in my WIP. I don’t know if you remember working on my regency months ago, but I completely rewrote it, because the inciting event was NOT the breaking of the engagement between my heroine and the character who becomes the bad guy. (This is now in the backstory) The inciting event was in the then second chapter: the bet made between the duke and his best friend re: seducing the heroine. The key event takes place several chapters later when the duke (the hero) realizes that the heroine’s first fiance was his adjutant and best friend during the Peninsular wars (before he was killed), and he therefore takes on the job as her protector from her violent second fiance. Am so glad I followed my instincts on this. I didn’t know why the other beginning was wrong for the story, I just knew it was. Thanks so much for this series.

  27. Actually, I have a question. The former post was about my WIP that is being beta read now. This is about my current WIP. Can you have two inciting events if you are telling the story from two points of view? In this RR, I have the hero being rejected by his childhood sweetheart when he needs to marry to claim his inheritance. So you know he needs to find a wife. The second chapter features the heroine railing against her dead father for tying her inheritance to her marriage. So you know she needs to find a husband. The key event is, of course, when they meet. Of course, endless complications arise. However, does it make sense that their marriage is not at the end of the book? The way I have it plotted now is that the marriage occurs in the first 1/3 of the book, but both think it is a marriage of convenience, while being secretly in love with one another. Thanks, Katie.

  28. @G.G.: Yes, it’s absolutely possible to have one or more inciting event, when the characters’ arcs are widely separated in the beginning. In such cases, the key event will usually unite the two, as you’ve done in your story. And, yes, I think it can work perfectly in a romance to have the leads marry early and then fall in love afterwards. In fact, I think those are often some of the most romantic stories.

  29. Great points to remember! Graduating with an MFA in Script & Screenwriting and moving to creative writing (novels), it’s easy to forget these things or classify them as only screenwriting tools. But story structure is story structure no matter the medium. (Of course, there are always exceptions).

  30. Novelists can learn a lot from screenwriting. Aside from the fact that we live in a society that thinks in terms of film (which means we first and foremost need to understand the differences between the two media), we can also find the concepts of structure much easier to grasp in film, since the two-hour format makes it possible to digest in one sitting.

  31. I love these posts. I always mentally review my WIP to make sure everything works with what you’re advising. It almost feels like the inciting incident is plotty and the key event is more character driven. The former makes us want to turn the page but the latter makes us invested in the character’s role in the plot. Would that seem on target?

  32. Excellent way to put it – and that’s why the inciting and key events must work hand in hand. Keeping plot and character connected is the name of the game.

  33. Well, I’m a newcomer in the field of writing a novel and thanks to all those who are sharing their knowledge, skill and creative wisdom for people like me as it is very rare in our society to find such practical and applicable guidelines.

    I find even the comments so much worthy of learning.

    Thanks and best wishes!

    Saalik Siddikki

  34. Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you’ve found the information useful in your writing journey.

  35. …feverishly taking notes…

  36. J.T. Kho says:

    Very great stuff. K. M. Thanks.

    I’m currently watching Master and Commander to be able to catch up with the elements as it’s being discussed.

    If you’re a fan of kung-fu movies I would like to recommend IPMan starring Donnie Yen. I believe it’s a wonderfully made film with the elements of story structure properly placed.

    You’ll appreciate dissecting it. 🙂

    Thanks a lot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for the recommendation! I keep seeing that title round and about, but haven’t watched the movie yet.

  37. Thank you! This is really well explained. I have almost finished writing my story but studying this is giving me a lot more confidance and helping me to see problems and solutions. At this point in the process I don’t know what I would do without it! Thanks!

  38. Hannah Killian says:

    Question: How many pages in is the Inciting Event supposed to be?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No rule. It can be very short scene or encompass chapters. All that is important is that it is a significant and obvious turning point in the plot.

  39. Charlene Gibb says:

    This is all very helpful, K.M. Thanks you so much for everything you do to help us aspiring writers!

    Plot – inciting incidents, events, plot points. I just can’t seem to wrap my head around it. I was wondering if you have read “The Nest” by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. My WIP is the same type of contemporary fiction. If you have, is it possible for you to break that book down into these plot requirements? The only example above that I have seen is “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Or, perhaps “The Girls”?

    If not, that’s perfectly fine. I’m sure my brain will eventually get in tune with all these graphs I’m colouring.

    Have a great weekend!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m afraid I haven’t read either of them. But be sure to check the Story Structure Database. You can find a drop-down menu with various genres in the right-hand sidebar. You might find something you’re familiar with.

  40. Charlene Gibb says:

    Wow! That was fast. Thanks for the link, K.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You bet! 🙂

      • Hi KM Weiland. According to your inciting incident and key incident theory, will you agree with me that in Stephen King’s Misery, the INCITING INCIDENT is -The snowstorm-blizzard while the KEY INCIDENT – is the accident.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          I haven’t ready the book (or seen the movie), but from what I know about the plot, that sounds reasonable.

Trackbacks

  1. […] my soon to be released book, Dot and Scribble Fall into Adventure, the inciting incident involves a character named Hudson painting or drawing an adventure scene. Here’s an […]

  2. […] IV. Introduce The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: Inciting Event and Key Event  […]

  3. […] Your first act should probably hook us in, backfill to keep us engaged, have your first big plot point happen, and she argues, pivot on the inciting event and key event. If your character is a swinger, then your key event can actually be a key event. Hey. I had to click to find out what the heck that means (2). […]

  4. […] K.M. Weiland says the following: “The key event is the moment when the character becomes engaged by the inciting event. For example, in most detective stories, the inciting event (the crime) takes place apart from the main character, who doesn’t become involved with it until the key event, when he takes on the case. The key event is the glue that sticks the character to the impetus of the inciting event.” […]

  5. […] K.M. Weiland says the following: “The key event is the moment when the character becomes engaged by the inciting event. For example, in most detective stories, the inciting event (the crime) takes place apart from the main character, who doesn’t become involved with it until the key event, when he takes on the case. The key event is the glue that sticks the character to the impetus of the inciting event.” […]

  6. […] The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: Inciting Event and Key Event by K.M. Weiland published March 25, 2012 […]

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