Maximize Your Story’s Inciting Event

5 Ways to Maximize Your Story’s Inciting Event

Maximize Your Story’s Inciting EventThe Inciting Event is the moment your character’s world is forever changed. It knocks over the first domino in the line of dominoes that forms your plot. It sets off an irrevocable chain reaction that will eventually lead your character to the maelstrom of your Climax.

So how do you go about creating an Inciting Event that will fuel your plot and drive your characters forward? Let’s start by answering four important questions.

What Is an Inciting Event?

The Inciting Event is the first major turning point in your story, halfway through the First Act. It is the “Call to Adventure,” in which your protagonist has his first brush with the main conflict—and either refuses to take part (either momentarily in a short experience of doubt, or adamantly all the way to the First Plot Point, when he will no longer have a choice) or has the choice taken away from him via someone else’s refusal.

Either way, his encounter with the Inciting Event will set him on a path toward his irrevocable involvement with the main conflict at the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act.

First Act Timeline

What Isn’t an Inciting Event?

Your story will almost certainly include several important moments in your story before you get to the Inciting Event.

For example, in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, the Inciting Event—Emperor Aurelius’ invitation for protagonist Maximus to become the Lord Protector of Rome—doesn’t occur until after several important scenes, including a huge battle and the introduction of all the important characters. Even though the preceding scenes are important, they do not turn the plot and impact the character’s world by introducing him to the main conflict.

Gladiator Maximus and Aurelius Russell Crowe Richard Harris

The Inciting Event in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is the quiet scene, halfway through the First Act, in which Aurelius invites Maximus to rule Rome. (Richard Harris and Russell Crowe in Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, produced by DreamWorks.)

>>Click to read the full Story Structure Database analysis of Gladiator.

The Inciting Event is not your opening scene. The opening scene is your Hook, which draws readers into the story and sets up the first domino that will lead to the Inciting Event, halfway through the First Act.

Where Should the Inciting Event Occur?

The Inciting Event should take place halfway through the First Act, around the 12% mark. Setting it at this point in the story allows you to appropriately pace the introduction of your characters, their personal problems, and their Normal World, so readers will sympathize with the characters and understand the stakes when the Inciting Event turns the story irrevocably into the straightaway of the main conflict.

For example, the Inciting Event in Gladiator takes place after Maximus’s Normal World has been established via the opening battle and his interactions with the emperor and other important characters.

Russell Crowe Richard Harris Joaquin Phoenix Gladiator

The Inciting Event shouldn’t take place until you’ve had time to set up the story, including most of the important characters and settings. (Joaquin Phoenix, Richard Harris, and Russell Crowe in Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott, produced by DreamWorks.)

What Constitutes a Powerful Inciting Event?

Inciting Events are as widely varied as their stories. A good Inciting Event might be any one of the following:

  • A request for help from a friend, as in Ben-Hur.
Ben Hur Stephen Boyd Charlton Heston Horse

Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959), directed by William Wyler, produced by MGM.

Arsenic and Old Lace Cary Grant Window Seat

Cary Grant in Arsenic & Old Lace (1944), directed by Frank Capra, produced by Warner Bros.

Morgan Freeman, Casey Affleck, and Michelle Monaghan in Gone Baby Gone (2007), directed by Ben Affleck, produced by Miramax Films.

Driving Miss Daisy Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), directed by Bruce Beresford, produced by Warner Bros.

What all these Inciting Events have in common is that:

1. The Inciting Event Includes Movement

The Inciting Event is, first and foremost, a turning point within the story. A turning point requires movement, both within the plot and, usually, within the scene itself. Characters are always either doing something or being asked to do something.

2. The Inciting Event Directly Influences the Story to Follow

Robbing a bank may change the character’s life, but it’s not an Inciting Event unless the story that follows couldn’t have happened without that particular robbery.

3. The Inciting Event Creates Conflict

Because change is difficult for and even resisted by most humans, it almost always creates an atmosphere of conflict. The more change an Inciting Event creates or threatens to create, the deeper the conflict and the more intriguing the story will be.

4. The Inciting Event Grabs Readers’ Attention

Your entire premise turns around the Inciting Event, so go for something special. This is one of your earliest opportunities to create something truly special within the world of your story. Don’t settle for the mundane.

5. The Inciting Event Builds Up to the First Plot Point

Even if the Inciting Event doesn’t yet completely change your protagonist’s Normal World, it hints at the changes to come. Even as the character resists or outright refuses the Inciting Event’s Call to Adventure, from that point on, the story will be steadily and irrevocably building up to the “doorway of no return” at the First Plot Point (which takes place at the end of the First Act, at approximately the 25% mark).

***

The Inciting Event is a crucial part of your story’s early structure. Plan it carefully, set it up in the first eighth of your story, execute it with gusto, and then use it to build up to an unforgettable First Plot Point. Do all that, and you’ll have written the kind of beginning that irresistibly hooks readers!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What happens in your story’s Inciting Event? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This is an excellent post. Often there’s the push to place the inciting event up front. I think there’s value in what you discuss as creating contrast between life as a character knew it, and their world being changed. This exists in Gayle Forman’s “If I Stay.” May we link your post in our blog’s Friday round-up? I think it will be very informative for everyone!

    Thanks,
    Marissa

  2. Great advice! I especially like how you included specific examples and a bullet list of good things to include in an inciting event.

  3. Thanks for the advice! I’m not sure if my inciting incident grabs the reader’s attention. I’ll need to think on a way to make it special. Right now it’s pretty much just talking (though it includes all the other stuff you listed).

  4. Thanks for the tips. I’ll link this up so I can refer to it often. All your advise is very helpful! Thanks!

  5. @Marissa: Feel free to link it – and thank you!

    @Kat: Glad you found it helpful. Concrete examples always help me understand things better myself.

    @Jenn: Inciting events don’t necessarily have to be explosive. Readers aren’t going to be consciously waiting for the inciting event (most probably don’t even know that’s what it’s called). But the more memorable you can make it, the better.

    @Lynn: You’re welcome!

  6. Wonderful advice. I love the bullet list of criteria to include. Especially the tip that it can’t be inciting if it doesn’t change the events in the characters life. So true!

  7. It can be easy to mistake a dramatic even for an inciting event, but there is a keen difference.

  8. Great post! It is a little difficult to recognize when your story’s inciting event is, since all plot lines are different. Thanks for sharing.

    Tessa
    http://www.christiswrite.blogspot.com

  9. Usually (but not always) the inciting event can be found in your premise. For example, in my upcoming fantasy Dreamers, the premise is “a man who discovers that his dreams are memories of another world.” His discovery that his dreams are really happening is the event that forever changes his life and his perception of the world.

  10. An inciting event sounds very similar to a Quest. It when the MC’s path is decided and their life changes and they’ve formed some sort of goal. This is a great post. You’re blog is really helpful.

    -E.D

  11. Excellent post with valuable tips. Thanks.

  12. @Ezmirelda: In the Hero’s Journey archetype, the Quest is often the result of the inciting event. Heroes don’t always star their quests with the inciting event, but as soon as something happens that makes it impossible for them to turn back, you know you’ve hit it.

    @Lorna: Thanks for commenting!

  13. Always something intelligent and well thought out here!

    My “inciting events” are most always, it seems, something to do with displacement

  14. I think, more often than not, inciting events are all about displacement, emotionally and mentally, if not physically. If something wasn’t out of place in the character’s world, he wouldn’t need to be moving forward with the plot.

  15. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at this. Thinking of North by Northwest, the moment that Rodger opens his mouth to try to call his secretary and the goons mistake him for the spy who’s on their tail, Rodger’s life is not going to be the same. Most of Hitchcock’s films that I’ve seen follow a similar pattern, though they’re all unique.

    Hopefully, with my affinity for Hitchcock, a little has rubbed off on me and it shows through in my writing, but I may have to go back and analyze my own writings to see.

  16. Inciting events are usually particularly prominent in suspense movies. The main character takes a misstep and everything snowballs from there.

  17. To me the inciting event is the power behind the plot because of that domino effect. It gives the writer a REASON to write the story…if that makes sense.

  18. The domino effect is amazing. Once you knock over the right domino, the story practically writes itself!

  19. My inciting event occurs exactly at the end of the first chapter, Everything before that is familiarizing with the world I put the reader in, intro to characters, etc. Some of the set-ups for the inciting event are semi-red-herrings.

    The beginning of the second chapter explains why the event REALLY occurred.

    Two Questions:

    -At the end of Chapter 1, I explicitly state that this event will change their lives forever. I am proud of the prose but unsure if I should keep it because of the showing/telling golden rule.

    -Am I expecting too much from the reader to wait until Chapter 2 to get why the event is occurring?

    Thanks!

    http://twitter.com/TheTeainChina

  20. The answers to both questions depends largely on the specifics of your story. Personally, I tend to think that outright stating that the characters’ lives will be changed forever robs you of subtlety. But it depends greatly on the phrasing.

    Chapter two isn’t a long time at all for a reader to wait. And if they know the explanation is coming, it will probably keep them turning pages.

  21. This is a great breakdown of what makes an inciting event. I also like how you pointed out that a story doesn’t have to start with the inciting event. Trying to figure out where to start is always tricky.

  22. great post!
    It really reinforced my premise and inciting event in my new rough draft.
    Thanks for this!

  23. @Galadriel: I dealt with a similar “double” story arc in my upcoming fantasy Dreamers, since events conspired to change the hero’s goal about a third of the way in. However, there can only be one inciting event. As you said, the first event leads to everything that follows.

    @Stephanie: Beginnings are the toughest part of writing, IMO. Having the freedom to wiggle around the inciting event in deciding where to begin is always wonderful.

    @Kelly: Sounds like you’ve got everything working for you!

    @Kenda: You betcha. Glad it’s proving helpful!

  24. I think of the tarot card ‘The Tower’ when I plan an inciting incident- as in the meaning of The Tower- there need not be violence, death and literal destruction but something should happen to shake up the protagonist’s beliefs in his/her world

  25. We often think events in a story need to be earth-shattering, but if every event were earth-shattering in every story we’d lose the important power of contrast. Important events happen in quiet ways as well as loud.

  26. Glad I read this. I was able to say to myself, with relief ‘good! My novel has this component!’

    For myself, in the story I’m writing, I have the inciting event right at the start…but I can see the need for placing it elsewhere.

    And you’re right about the domino effect. Once you set things in motion, what happens next just sort of rolls out at your feet like a carpet…

    Though that doesn’t mean the writing is easy! Just a little easier…sometimes…

    Julie Johnson
    busywriting.wordpress.com

  27. When the dominoes *don’t* fall, that’s when we need to step back and ask ourselves where we messed up.

  28. This was so helpful to read. One of the best explanations of inciting event I’ve read.

  29. Thanks for stopping by, Deb!

  30. Anonymous says

    In all events this is very inciting…
    Jc

  31. Definitely! :p

  32. This is fantastic advice and very clearly explained – the examples given were really helpful in clarifying your meaning. Thanks so much for sharing.

  33. @Cassandra: Glad you found it useful!

    @Lynn: Will do! Keep listening/watching. 😉

  34. Hi KM

    Thanks for a lovely blog 🙂

    I arrived at a different understanding from James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure (great book!):

    – Inciting Incident: the opening plot element that imbalances the protagonist’s world and creates an initial conflict
    – Door 1: the action/event that occurs at the end of the Act 1 (in a 3-act structure)

    that will push the protagonist forward into Act 2 (point of no return)

    According to this, Inciting Incident is really the hook to the opening scene, and not necessarily the same as Door #1.

    In some instances, however, they may overlap.

    For example, in a mystery the Inciting Incident may be the crime (murder, theft, etc.) whereas Door 1 is when the protagonist’s accepts the case (investigator), is assigned the case (police detective) or somehow decides to solve the case (amateur sleuth). In the first two scenario’s the protagonist’s work and moral duty is what drives them into Act 2; in the third, it is another factor that must be established.

    There may be a lot of conflict and other plot elements between the II and D1. The investigator/detective/amateur may try to evade the case at first.
    (In fact, according the Hero’s Journey, the “call to adventure” [II] is usually followed by a “Refusal of the call”, whereas D1 would be the “commitment to the quest”).

    Did anyone else understand the two concepts this way?

  35. [Correction:]
    In the Hero’s Journey, D1 would parallel “Crossing of the First Threshold”

  36. I like that explanation a lot, since it puts the emphasis on the character doing something instead of just being a passive victim of circumstances.

  37. Cool website, I had not come across wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com previously during my searches!
    Carry on the great work!

  38. Thanks for stopping by!

  39. Thank you, that was extremely valuable and interesting…I will be back again to read more on this topic.

  40. I so glad it was useful to you.

  41. I just discovered this site. What a find! Thank you for such a helpful post.

  42. Glad you found me! And I’m glad the post proved useful.

  43. Wow, just found this post. It was amazingly helpful. I think this is the clearest explanation I have read of what an inciting incident really is. I was thinking the first exciting thing that happened in chapter one of my wip was my inciting incident. Now I may have to rethink it, because it really doesn’t change the main character’s life irrevocably. She could still return to the same old life. It definately needs more. Thank you for the insight.

  44. I gave this some more thought. Maybe I do have my inciting incident there in the first chapter; it just doesn’t become obvious till much later. The main character’s choice in chapter one resonates and affects every event afterward. It just isn’t stare you in the face obvious; it’s more subtle. Is that a bad thing? If the effects of the inciting incident are too subtle, will the reader lose interest? I will really have to go back and pick this apart some more.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The inciting event kicks the plot off, but the *key* event is what ties the protagonist into the plot. So sometimes the protagonist isn’t even aware of the inciting event right away – not until the key event draws him into the conflict. The example I like to use for this is a whodunit: The inciting event is the murder, but the key event doesn’t happen until the detective shows up to investigate.

  45. Wow…this was so helpful! I have had a novel languishing since last April and just haven’t, no matter what I tried, been able to diagnose what ails it. I think I know now…and, after reading this, I think I even know how to fix it! Along with everything you stated here, I think it is absolutely vital to know whose story it is! And that was my problem. I have two main characters, but it really is one characters story…and his is the inciting event I need to build on! Thank you so much! 🙂

  46. This is very helpful. Very true what you write about the inciting event needing to come after sufficient character development so that reader cares about who the incident is happening to.
    I’ve read books that hint at or prefigure the inciting event on the first page, but only enough to whet the reader’s appetite.

    The novel I am currently working on seems to have three inciting events: one for each of the three main characters. I think I should try to link these three events, or point to an early domino that has triggered all three.
    As you say, a story should only have one IE, or it looses a sense of unity.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Often, when you have several events that are all “technically” inciting events, you can string them together like dominoes, so that the latter ones are triggered by the first one, which becomes the “true” inciting event.

  47. Is the inciting event the event that begins the main plot? Could the inciting event take place before the hook?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Inciting Event is the first major turning point in the book, and, as such, it must take place halfway through the First Act at roughly the 12% mark. However, there can certainly be other important events that take place in the backstory and start the plot’s line of dominoes falling.

  48. Marissa John says

    In my story, Hero & heroine have had a weekend fling only to discover they are co-workers, team teaching a first year law class at a law school. Their reunion is extremely awkward given the “energetic” nature of their weekend encounter (told in a prequel novella). But, when given the opportunity to get reassigned, the heroine declines, realizing she’ll have to keep working with the hero.

  49. Tony Findora says

    Great post! It really helped me understand some things about the beginning of my WIP that really needed changed. Thanks! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You’re welcome! A correct understanding of the Inciting Event was really revolutionary for me too.

  50. Mauricio Luna says

    Does the Protagonist have to refuse the inciting event (call to adventure) every time?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What’s important is that you get a beat of resistance in order to complete the scene arc. That beat can be momentary, or it can span all the way to the end of the First Act. However, the protagonist himself does not always have to be the one refusing the Call. He can have it, in essence, refused for him by other characters who prevent him from accepting and/or provide good reasons for why he should reject it himself.

  51. Can the protagonist meet the antagonistic force in the hook? Does the inciting event always have to be where the protagonist first meets the antagonistic force or the conflict? Is the antagonistic force and conflict different?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Certainly, but the story’s main conflict won’t be narrowed down into a specific introduction until the Inciting Event and won’t be completely kicked off until the First Plot Point.

  52. DirectorNoah says

    Hi Katie,
    I’d like to ask you a few questions about my story structure.

    I’m a little unsure about the Inciting Event here. It takes place at the 12% mark, to allow time to introduce the protagonist, the Normal World and their key traits and problems, before it ushers in the main conflict.
    But can the Inciting Event happen almost at the beginning of the story, and can I still continue to set up the characters *after* this event happens, right until the First Plot Point?
    (The lead up to the First Plot Point is focused mainly on character building, suspense and tension in my story)

    Also, does the character’s Lie *have* to be shaken at the First Plot Point, or can it be challenged shortly afterwards in the next scene?
    Many thanks! ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The timing of the Inciting Event is important because it breaks up the First Act by providing that turning point halfway through. If there is no turning point halfway through the First Act, the pacing will be off and the First Act will likely seem overlong.

      However, don’t forget that the Hook in the first chapter *is* the first domino in the story. As long as you’ve still got that turning point at the 12% mark, you’re fine.

      The First Plot Point isn’t so much about directly challenging the protagonist’s Lie as it is moving him into an “Adventure World” where the Lie will no longer prove effective in helping him reach his plot goal (something he only slowly discovers over the course of the Second Act).

      • DirectorNoah says

        Ah, it makes more sense now, thank you!
        I think I’m getting the hang of story structure, but I’m finding the beginning is the most difficult to plan, as you’ve gotta set up the world and its characters without it dragging on, as well as keeping the readers hooked and interested with conflict at the same time.
        Thank you so much again for your invaluable assistance! ?

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  1. […] 5 Ways to Maximize Your Story’s Inciting Event The Inciting Incident: 7 Tips For Starting Your Story With a Bang Demystifying Plot Points and the Inciting Incident (2018) […]

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