Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

What the heck is the Inciting Event? That’s a question just about any writer can answer. The trouble is that sometimes we all have a different answer.

  • Is the Inciting Event the first thing that happens in the story?
  • Is it the moment that kicks off the plot and the conflict?
  • Is it the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act?
  • Is it something in between?
  • Is it something that happens before the story ever starts?

The chief trouble with identifying the Inciting Event is that the term is used rather wildly to apply to just about any of the above. One writer calls the Hook the Inciting Event, another calls it the First Plot Point. Argh! No wonder we’re all so confused.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165The confusion has grabbed me in its claws as well. In Structuring Your Novel, I wrote the following about the Inciting Event:

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 readers right away, and sometimes that means holding off a bit.

I admit it: that’s a little vague, isn’t it?

Since writing Structuring Your Novel, I’ve made some extremely interesting discoveries about the Inciting Event, which have helped me refine my own stories far more than did such vague notions. So let’s all advance our understanding of this frustratingly important moment in our stories, shall we?

First Act Timeline

The Single Most Important Thing to Understand About “The Inciting Event”

The most important thing you can take away from this post is this: There isn’t just one moment that can be called “the inciting event.” There are three.

The vast majority of confusion over this structural pillar is the fact that we find different writers referring to three very distinct moments in the story by the same name. I’ve been guilty of it too, if only because I hadn’t yet grasped the differences between the three. These three different story structure moments are completely different from one another and all equally necessary to your story.

The 3 Different “Inciting Events”

1. The First Moment in the Story

Probably the most common understanding of the Inciting Event is that it’s the first moment in your plot. This is the beginning of your story–possibly even the first sentence. This opening scene will introduce your main character and the main conflict. It’s the first domino in the line of dominos that forms your plot. It’s the beginning of your story. If you open before this moment, then you’ve opened too soon.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

It’s no wonder we think of this moment as the Inciting Event. “Incite” seems to indicate the match striking the tinder of our plot. Therefore, this moment necessarily has to be the starting point, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, this first moment in your plot is what starts the whole thing moving. But, no, this moment is more about introducing your story than inciting it.

What It Really Is

This first crucial moment in your story is more properly the Hook. There is, of course, more involved in the Hook than just this (namely, its responsibilities to grab your readers’ curiosity). But the Hook is the first structural moment in your story. It’s the first interesting moment, and, as such, it’s what flicks over that first domino and starts things rolling.

Where It Belongs

This opening moment–the Hook–belongs (surprise!) in the opening. It’s your opening scene–the first thing that happens in your story–possibly even the first line.

What We Should Really Call It

The Hook.

Examples

Bram Stoker’s Dracula opens with Jonathan Harker arriving in Budapest on his way to meet with his strange client, Count Dracula. This moment launches the plot (after all, prior to Harker’s meeting with Dracula, there is no story) and grabs reader curiosity.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

Stephen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with the famous sequence in which Indy–dogged by his nemesis Belloq–infiltrates the South American temple and steals the golden idol. The sequence itself has nothing to do with the main conflict, but it brilliantly introduces the protagonist, grabs the viewer, and kicks off the rivalry between Indy and Belloq.

Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha’s Ice Age kicks off with the subplot character Scrat, whose single-minded pursuit of his acorn causes the Ice Age.

2. The First Plot Point

Okay, so if the Hook is something different from the Inciting Event, then perhaps the Inciting Event is the all-important big moment that happens at the end of the First Act: the First Plot Point. The First Plot Point is where your story gets going in earnest. Something dynamic and irreversible happens at this moment. It kicks your character forever out of the passivity of his Normal World and launches him into a desperate series of reactions as he scrambles to gain some control over the conflict.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

Like I said, this is the moment where your story really begins. This is the moment that fully engages your character in the conflict. He couldn’t walk away now, even if he really wanted to. It’s definitely a moment that incites your character. But if this is the first incendiary moment in your story, then your pacing is likely to be pretty dull. Remember, the First Plot Point is going to take place around the 25% mark in your story. Something had to happen in between the Hook and the 25% mark, right?

What It Really Is

The First Plot Point is just that–the First Plot Point. It’s the doorway between the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. It’s also very likely to be the Key Event (which I’ll get into below).

Where It Belongs

The First Plot Point always ends the First Act. Optimally, it should be placed at the 25% mark.

What We Should Really Call It

The First Plot Point.

Examples

In Dracula, the First Plot Point is the moment when the dreaded Count arrives (via spooky shipwreck) in England. Lots happens prior to this scene, but this is the moment that irrevocably engages all of the main characters in their mortal struggle with the vampire.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the First Plot Point occurs when the Nazis burn down Marian’s bar, forcing her to escape with Indy to Cairo. Again, lots happened prior to this, but this moment irrevocably launches the main plot by bringing the two primary characters together and sending them to the primary setting.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

In Ice Age, the First Plot Point happens when Manny and Sid rescue the human baby and meet Diego. This launches their main story goal (return the baby to his father) and the main conflict with the saber-tooth tigers.

3. The First Act’s Turning Point

And now, at last, we reach the secret member of our trio of “Inciting Events.” This is a vital structural moment–and yet most authors overlook it completely. Halfway through the First Act, something happens–a turning point. Usually, this is the Call to Adventure (which the hero starts out by rejecting). It’s the moment when his Normal World is significantly rocked by the conflict for the first time. His world won’t yet be upended by that conflict (not until the First Plot Point), but we might think of it as the moment when the match is officially lit and held over the tinder of the conflict.

Why We Think This is the Inciting Event

Technically, most writers don’t think of this turning point as the Inciting Event for the simple reason that they really don’t think about it at all. But let’s think about it now, shall we? Aside from breaking up the potential monotony of the First Act and providing focus for the first quarter of the story, this turning point fulfills one of the most important roles in your story’s beginning.

The first eighth of the story (from the Hook to this turning point) is all set-up. Readers are familiarizing themselves with your characters, figuring out the characters’ goals, and learning the stakes. Readers need that time in order to get their bearings before the main conflict really starts heating up.

Then comes this all-important turning point at the 1/8th mark (around the 12% mark). It shakes everything up, redirects readers’ focus to the primary conflict, and sends the protagonist hurtling right for the deciding moment of the First Plot Point.

The next eighth of the story (from the turning point to the First Plot Point) is where you then start positioning the final pieces necessary for the main conflict, while ramping up the tension to lead right into the First Plot Point.

What It Really Is

This turning point doesn’t have a proper name other than the Inciting Event. It’s the moment that truly launches the main conflict. It’s inciting and (hopefully) exciting. When I talk about the Inciting Event (including in the Story Structure Database), this is the moment I’m referring to.

Where It Belongs

The Inciting Event–the turning point in the First Act–should optimally be placed at the 12% mark, halfway through the First Act. The timing is important because it gives you the space you need in the beginning of the book to get everything set up, and then provides the necessary space to build upon the Inciting Event before you reach the place of no return that is the First Plot Point.

What We Should Really Call It

The Inciting Event.

Examples

In Dracula, the Inciting Event is the moment (back in Budapest) when Harker first witness the Count’s unearthly powers when he sees Dracula crawling down the castle wall, upside-down.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Inciting Event occurs when Indy is summoned from his classroom and recruited by the U.S. government to track down the Ark of the Covenant.

In Ice Age, the Inciting Event occurs when Manny the mammoth and Sid the sloth meet for the first time.

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

How Does the Key Event Play In?

Screenplay Syd FieldThe final element in this intricate tapestry is the Key Event. What is the Key Event? Think of it as the missing half of the Inciting Event. The Inciting Event kicks off the plot; the Key Event is what then involves your character in the Inciting Event. In Screenplay, Syd Field describes it like this:

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.

As such, the Key Event will always take place after the Inciting Event and within the First Act. Almost always, the Key Event will coincide with the First Plot Point.

The Inciting Event (remember: that’s the turning point halfway through the First Act) brings the conflict to the protagonist’s awareness. But the protagonist still won’t fully engaged with the conflict. He may make a half-hearted attempt to resolve it. Or he may try to walk away from it entirely. Until the Key Event.

The Key Event is what sucks him irrevocably into the conflict. Sounds an awful lot like the First Plot Point, doesn’t it?

  • Dracula‘s main conflict is that of his preying upon the Englishwomen Mina and Lucy. As such, the Key Event occurs at the First Plot Point when he is shipwrecked in England, bringing the conflict right to their doors.
  • Indy’s Key Event is also his movie’s First Plot Point, since it is both the first time Indy has engaged with his Nazi antagonists and also the moment when he becomes personally involved thanks to his relationship with Marian.
  • Same for Ice Age. Up until the Key Event at the First Plot Point, Sid and Manny didn’t even know about the human baby’s danger, much less have any stake in helping him.

If we recognize the Inciting Event as this oft-overlooked turning point in the First Act, the entire structure of our beginnings becomes much clearer, much tighter, and much more effective. Take a look at some of your favorite books and movies. How are they using the time before the turning point to set up their stories–and then utilizing the turning point to tighten the focus up until to the First Plot Point? Even more importantly, how can you do the same in your own stories?

Tell me your opinion: What is the Inciting Event–the turning point in the First Act–in your work-in-progress?

Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is

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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. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!

    I have been trying to decide where my novel starts since I finished writing it in 2011. This post helped me nail it down. Finally!!! And it’s where I had it when I first started writing (with no plan whatsoever) in 2006.

    The other possibilities I considered are really the inciting event, key event, first plot point, and a lot of backstory – or as you put it, “clearing my throat…”

    Thanks again for the excellent explanations, K.M.
    Now I have no excuse for not doing THE final edit 😉

  2. This post is amazing! And the whole site, as well. Sorry for my English – it’s not my first language.
    While I wait for Amazon to deliver your book on structure, I actually have a question: the first chapter of my story, that I consider the hook, ticks almost all the boxes (character, main conflict, plot, a bit of setting, a big question – what happens next?). It misses on not being exactly a characteristic moment of the hero (like Luke Skywalker working on the farm, the Bennets discussing rich bachelors in their sitting room, etc).
    This is my problem: the hook is very powerful, and I’m sure it would work as a hook in capturing the reader’s curiosity, but it’s not “a day in the hero’s life BEFORE the inciting event”.
    It is some kind of an inciting event in itself, where another inciting event, what I consider the call to adventure, happens later on, arount the 12% mark.
    Is my hook still “the hook”, or should I add a different hook, like a day in the normal life of the hero?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re right on target. The Hook *is* the first domino in the line of dominoes that form your plot. You don’t want to start *before* the story, but it’s important to see the difference between that first domino and the actual encounter/rejection of the main conflict that occurs with the Call to Adventure/Inciting Event at the 12% mark.

  3. Becky Fettig says:

    I have participated in some Twitter contests recently where you submit 1-5 first pages of your MS along with your query. I’ve noticed that most editors or agents say the inciting incident needs to happen early, at least within the five pages ,or better yet, on the first page. Do you think they’re saying this due to the small sample submitted for the contest and they want to see a big bang? Or do you think stories have changed nowadays for readers who like each story to start with a high action event and never let go, therefore…..inciting incidents are happening earlier? Or are they using the term wrong, and mean the hook? Lol. It’s all so confusing but wanted your thoughts. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It all comes down to *which* inciting event is being referred to. What they’re talking about is indubitably the Hook, or the first domino in the plot. As I talk about in this article, the Hook/first domino is not the same as the Call to Adventure that happens at the turning point in the First Act at the 12% mark, when the protagonist gets his/her first serious brush with the main conflict.

      • Becky Fettig says:

        Thanks. I’m having a hard time I think because as you said in this wonderful article people use these terms loosely and interchangeabley

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yep, it can definitely get confusing. But once you have a clear understanding, in your own mind, of the structural principles of each, it makes it easier to figure out which one any given person is talking about.

  4. I was wondering, does this structure work for negative arcs?

  5. Thanks

  6. Hi! First of all. I love this site. So very helpful!

    But I’m still a bit thrown by the idea of the inciting incident being at the 12% mark. I feel like it’s very difficult to save it for that long when writing a novel.

    I wonder, if I may, give a very simple example of how I’m outlining act one of my novel to see if I’m playing too loose with the rules… I’ll spare most of details to be concise.

    1%- Protagonist is approached by a character he’s never met and given a proposition to help track down a character from his past (the antagonist). He refuses.

    1-12%- Deeper character intros. Protagonist agrees to help for superficial reasons (money that he desperately needs)

    12%- Protagonist finds out that the person he is tracking is a wanted fugitive. This mirrors the protagonist’s life in a very specific way and drastically alters his view of what he’s become involved in.

    25%- Protagonist locates the person but realizes that (for several reasons) he must confront him himself. He then leaves his “world” on a mission to find him.

    Now. I feel like I’ve played the rules too loosely because the “hook” could very well be the inciting incident as the protagonist essentially starts his quest there. But, even so, there is a distinct turning point at the 12% mark where he realizes precisely what he is doing and the first hint of the nature of the antagonist is presented.

    I wonder if this still works as a properly structured act one or if I should rework it. I just really struggle with creating a hook that doesn’t feel like an inciting incident.

    Thanks for your help! And keep up the great work! You rock!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Looks good to me. The Inciting Event at the 12% mark is, first and foremost, a turning point. It is the moment that turns the protagonist deeper into the conflict. Some stories *will* start very deep into the conflict with the Hook. This isn’t necessarily a problem as long as the timing still allows for the setup period in the first half of the First Act.

      • Thanks for the quick response! Your site has been so helpful! I graduated from the university of Washington with a degree in creative writing two years ago and have been desperately trying to master the art of structuring a story ever since. The pacing of act one is perhaps my biggest struggle and your guidelines have really helped me realize precisely why my opening chapters feel so off. I always have a turning point (which amazingly comes quite naturally) but I have a habit of diving right into the conflict too soon in order to provide a good hook.

  7. So in my story, the inciting event presents the protagonist with the option to investigate the place where he suspects his father is being held prisoner since he was kidnapped. Instead of going with one of his friends to investigate, he decides it would be safer to let the authorities handle it. Is this a suitable inciting event?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, excellent–and you’ve neatly included the refusal to the Call to Adventure, with your protagonist not wanting to investigate it himself.

  8. Tanya Grout says:

    Hi Katie,

    I just bought another of your books: Structuring Your Novel Workbook and… I am wondering what on earth I thought I was doing before! lol. Yikes!

    This has opened up so much more creativity for me. I am amazed. I am also really enjoying the process. I never thought that would happen.

    I wrote an outline for my last novel, but I had no guidelines so it was gruelling and I only followed it a bit. I basically knew my ending.

    The two novels I wrote before that I wrote “into the dark” on. I learned a lot but I really can’t put them out there. The first one took forever and I spent a long time revising it. It was exhausting.

    But your book really makes me hash it out so that I don’t leave anything unfinished or put little gems in that are going nowhere. It has really helped me deepen my plot and my characters and their relationships.

    After using this workbook I have to say that I truly do think writing novels is a craft and that there is a certain amount that I can learn about that craft. The rest is up to me. But I don’t have to figure it all out by myself.

    I also have been excited as of late to see both you and Steven Pressfield use similar terminology to the late Syd Field, and a similar structure as that used to create great screenplays. I studied his book Screenplay like a maniac and used it until I could relax a little. But I still always had my PP1 my PP2 my midpoint and crisis and inciting event.

    Now I feel like I can write “into the dark” within the context of a structure. This is more exciting because I feel that my next book will have a better chance at being pretty good. So much to learn. Exciting!

    So thank you 🙂

  9. Scott Herford says:

    Hi K.M,

    Not to be pedantic – Indiana Jones is a sort of protagonist but I asset that Marion Ravenswood is the movie’s ultimate ‘hero’ – while Indy doesn’t get what he wants “They don’t know what they’ve got.” – Marion gets Indy and they go for a drink ‘You know, a drink.” – the two things she’s always wanted.

    Best regards,
    Scott

  10. I like to think of the FPP as the “fall from grace”. For example, behind closed doors, the hero’s new bride kills a well-liked minister in a small town (Inciting Incident). The hero walks in immediately after, sees the dead body and his bride says it was self-defense. The hero realizes his bride won’t get a fair trial. So, the hero sends his bride away to develop her cover story while the hero tries to hide the body (key event). In the middle of disposing the body, the hero is discovered carrying the corpse and he goes on the run (first plot point).

  11. Bethany Terry says:

    JUST started writing my first novel (really anything besides self-development) last May and have been researching articles on better writing, when I found your blog and have fallen in love! Especially the Marvel examples!

    All of the lingo is difficult for me to grasp. I’m understanding protagonist and antagonist better, but trying to apply it to my story is confusing as there are multiple minor characters that shape and challenge my main character, as well as a villain to the love interest of the main character; so my love interest is also a main character in a way (or at least he is in my mind/heart).

    Plot, subplot, pinch points and plot points are so hard for me to understand. I aced Ancient Greek in college, but deciphering technical lingo makes me feel like I need examples a 5 year old would understand. 🙂

    PS – Thank you for sharing all your wisdom and knowledge!!!!

  12. Kerry Bowering says:

    What do you think about starting a novel after the inciting event? Or does this not work? Can you think of an example?

    I want to start my novel this way by using a hook so the reader is left wondering why she feels the way she does and slowly feed the information as to why my MC finds herself in the predicament.

    Many thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This can technically work in only two ways:

      1. If the story opens with a flashfoward and then returns to play out the timeline chronologically (Iron Man is a good example: it opens with a flashforward of the Inciting Event).

      2. You start deeply in medias res but still include a major turning point at the 12% mark, halfway through the First Act, that narrows the conflict and sets up the First Plot Point at the 25% mark.

  13. Does the inciting incident always *have* to include the protagonist’s refusal? Does the refusal of the call just make it more interesting? Is it just an obligatory part of the story?

  14. As always, you’ve helped a great deal.

  15. I do have a question: Would Cinderella’s step-sisters getting the party invitations and her longing to attend the part by considered her Inciting Event? I’ve always thought the fairy godmother was but that scene now seems to be the Key Event.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Depends on the adaptation. Look at the timing to discover what has been set up as the Inciting Event. The Inciting Event will take place halfway through the First Act; in a movie, that’s about fifteen minutes in. Usually, it’s the father’s death.

Trackbacks

  1. […] K.M. Weiland, author of the book, “Structuring Your Novel,” helps us understand the confusion in and around an inciting event in a story in “Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is” on Helping Writers Become Autho…. […]

  2. […] Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is and How to Study Plot and Character in Your Favorite Stories: 5 Easy Steps by K.M. Weiland […]

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