Got a great plot-twist in mind, but not quite sure how to get there? C M Taylor’s blog post will help you piece together your ideas and show you how to implement that all important inciting incident.
By C M Taylor
The catalyst. The plot-twist. Or, as we’re calling it here, the inciting incident is the pivotal moment when your protagonist is forced to change course. This blog post will give you all the tools you’ll need to create your own page-turning incident.
What is an inciting incident?
Put as simply as possible, the inciting incident is an event that occurs, in relation to your protagonist, near to the beginning of your story, which sets that story moving in a different direction.
The word ‘inciting’ is well used because the event which occurs incites your protagonist towards a new course of action. But note, it causes them to react. It does not necessarily cause them to act at this point, that may come later.
The inciting incident as we are calling it here has many names. Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero’s Journey calls it ‘The call to adventure’. Blake Snyder in his book Save The Cat refers to it as ‘the catalyst’. Scott Myers, host of the esteemed Go Into The Story blog and resource calls it simply ‘the hook’.
You can call it what you like, but in terms of how you tell your story, it has the same effect. It provokes the hero, it incites them, it creates a before and an after. The inciting incident is the gateway to the action.
And like all gateways, it leads from something and it leads to something.
The inciting incident leads from the before to the after.
It leads from the world that was to the world that will be.
Before the inciting incident, the world is as it was. The hero was about their normal business. They were doing what they normally do at work, at rest and at play. This is what Chris Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey calls ‘the ordinary world’. It is what Dara Marks in her book Inside Story refers to the as ‘the known world’. It is what Blake Snyder calls the set-up. Snyder says that, ‘in the set-up you have told us what the world is like and in the catalyst you knock that wall down.’
The known world is suddenly not the only world there is. There is the glimmer, the allure of the new world on the horizon, tugging away at the hero. Perhaps not yet compelling the hero to action but certainly disturbing them with the strong sense that their everyday world is fragile and temporary..
How soon should an inciting incident take place in my novel?
While there are strong tendencies and traditions, there is no programmatic answer to this question. It’s always a good idea to consider how you’re going to move your story on in the planning stages. Remember, most stories have an inciting incident that takes place very early on in the story, within the first 10-15% of elapsed story time, certainly within the first quarter of the story. But that does not have to be, because your story – its genre and tone – will dictate the nature of your inciting incident. I’ll explain…
Five tips to write a great inciting incident
The inciting incident is commensurate with your genre and theme
In The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, the inciting incident does not take place until a quarter of the way through the book. This is when the narrator of the novel meets the titular character for the first time and the relationship, which will define the plot’s course, commences. Now, even though this is an unusually long wait for an inciting incident, it is perfectly appropriate for the subject of the book.
The Great Gatsby is a work of apostolic fiction – where one person tells the story of an impressive other. The book is about being dazzled by money, is about money separating the rich from others and from consequence, and it’s about the mysterious nature of the titular Gatsby.
Dazzle, mystery, separation. What better subjects could justify holding off the meeting that incites the action than those? Holding off increases the allure, the anticipation, the yearning that are the subjects of the book.
The subject and genre of the book has dictated the timing and nature of the inciting incident.
Conversely, in the screenplay Juno by Diablo Cody, the inciting incident has already happened when the film begins. The titular Juno, a 16-year-old school student is already pregnant after a one-off dalliance with her best friend, Bleeker.
How can you have an inciting incident happen before the story starts? Well, remember that the inciting incident is a departure from the known world. Now in many stories, the inciting incident obliges the hero to leave their physical world in quest and so the backstory of the character – the known world – needs to be sketched to show what is being departed from. But in Juno, Juno stays at home throughout the film. The film takes place in the backstory. There is no physical separation. It is an existential departure.
The problem of the film for the main character Juno is how to integrate the unknown of the pregnancy into the known world. We see her friends, school, parents, home throughout the film. The contrast between the new world of the pregnancy integrating with the known world of the mundane high schooler is the subject.
If you are writing an adventure story, the inciting incident might be a physical summons in some nature, a push or a pull into a new physical world.
If you are writing a crime story the inciting incident is very often a crime, or villain, that is brought to the attention of the detective.
The inciting incident usually but not always is done to rather than done by the protagonist
The letter arrives. The stranger arrives. The murder is committed. The friend betrays. The partner leaves. The bank forecloses. The job ends. The aliens descend. The microfilm is stolen.
But this is not always the case. Take the film Her for example. The protagonist of that film conjures the inciting incident themselves by buying the software with which they are going to fall in love.
Whenever it happens, and whoever authors it, the inciting incident it seems designed to upset the status quo
As Robert Mckee says in his book Story, ‘The inciting incident radically upsets the balances of forces in your protagonist’s life.’
But that is not all. A great inciting incident, as Dara Marks says, ‘Prays on the inner conflict of the character established in The Known World.’ Harry Potter is already established as victimised and desperate to leave his known world before the letter from Hogwarts arrives. Luke Skywalker is already frustrated and bored on the farm before the message from Leia is transmitted from R2-D2.
The protagonist is already susceptible to the summons of the inciting incident before it arrives and the incident maps on to and accelerates the disintegration of the status quo.
Create questions for the reader
The inciting incident introduces the central problem of the story. How will Juno handle the pregnancy? What will the narrator learn of the mysterious Gatsby now he has made his acquaintance?
The protagonist is the avatar for the reader in the story and the summons for the unknown world creates mystery and urgency.
Generate some sense of urgency
The ticking clock of Juno’s pregnancy means the action is concertinaed by necessity. The jeopardy voiced by Princess Leia communicates to Luke that he needs to get his skates on. The inciting incident sets off the ticking clock – the known world is disintegrating and the unknown is beckoning.
And yet the inciting incident is just the call to adventure, it is not the adventure itself. It is the signal that the departure must be made, it is not the departure itself. The protagonist reacts to the incident they do not yet act on it.
In Joseph Campbell’s description of the underlying structures of narrative, what is followed by the call to adventure (our inciting incident) is the refusal of the call. At first, the new world which has beckoned the heroic character feels too onerous, too difficult, the cosy allure of the status quo, however dissatisfying, is stronger in the beginning than the summons.
As Dara Marks explains in Inside Story, humans only ever act to make radical changes when the risk of staying the same is greater than the risk of changing. When the inciting incident arrives, the risk of staying the same is still not great enough in many examples to justify definitive action. The inciting incident is the beginning of the story arc.
The inciting incident introduces the problem to be solved it is not the protagonist acting to solve the problem. Cinderella receiving the invitation to the ball is not the same as her attending.
Inciting Incidents: 8 Great Examples
In the anonymous 14th century chivalric romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the gigantic Green Knight interrupts King Arthur’s New Year’s feast at Camelot to issue the gathered nobles with a challenge.
In The 2015 Ridley Scott film The Martian, during a violent storm on the planet mars, botanist-astronaut Mark Watney is separated from his team. Believing him to be dead they take the difficult decision to evacuate without him, marooning Watney on the red planet.
In the 1992 film by David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross, based on the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1983 play of the same name, the inciting incident occurs when the salesman Blake is sent from head office to motivate a team of dysfunctional salesman. Insulting and subjecting them to profane abuse, Blake challenges the team to sell or be sacked.
In Homer’s 8th century BC epic The Odyssey, after the opening exposition, the hero Odysseus having being marooned in the known world of Ogygia for seven years, is visited by the Goddess Hermes who urges him to build a ship.
In the 1942 Michael Curtiz film Casablanca, small time crook Ugarte shows Rik the letters of transit which will allow two people to leave the occupied city. Ugarte is arrested, leaving Rik with the letters.
In Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy’s negative assessment of Elizabeth and his refusal to dance with her set in train the suppressed and combative emotions that will eventually see the two fall for each other.
Just to really demonstrate this sense of how malleable the call to adventure can be, it is often said that in the romantic comedy genre it is the meeting of the lovers that is the call to adventure or the inciting incident (a moment that aficionados of the form refer to as the ‘meet cute’), but it really does not have to be so. To take a couple of examples…
In the 1984 rom-com, Romancing The Stone, written by Diane Thomas, it is the arrival of a treasure map pointing to the possible whereabouts of her kidnapped sister Elaine which incites lonely romantic novelist Joan towards action.
While in the 1993 Nora Ephron directed and co-written romantic comedy masterpiece Sleepless in Seattle, the lovers do not meet until the final sequence of the film, and it is the Meg Ryan character Annie hearing the Tom Hanks character Sam talk on the radio about his deceased wife that incites the lovers to cross paths.
So, there we have it, a foolproof method to create an inciting incident. What do you think? Have we missed anything? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouseand let us know.
C M Taylor has been nominated for the British Science Fiction book of the year and published a number of novels, including Staying On, (Duckworth 2018), Premiership Psycho (Corsair 2011) and the Amazon best-selling Group of Death (Corsair 2012). Craig has also co-written a thriller movie script, Writers Retreat, which was filmed in 2014 and premiered at the Sitges International Film Festival, and he continues to be commissioned to write scripts for TV and film. C M Taylor is also a sought-after editor, working with a well-known publisher as well as working with Jericho Writers as a book editor.