The Inciting Incident

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 3/28/2008

As is the case with many things in writing, the term inciting incident seems to have more than one definition. The consensus is that the inciting incident is the event that causes the protagonist to take action. What isnít clear is where this event should take place and how we are to recognize it. I write this with the understanding that there are people who are going to disagree.

Some people have the idea that the inciting incident should take place on page one or very close to it. Perhaps the first scene shows a man and woman in the car, a driver runs a red light, killing the woman. The man goes into action, beginning a campaign to install red light cameras in his city. The traffic accident is a type of inciting incident, but can we really say that it is the inciting incident?

The problem I have with calling this first scene incident the inciting incident is that it isnít clear that it has caused the main character to change. We donít know what the man was like before. Perhaps he was adamantly opposed to red light cameras, but we donít know that. We could go back and reveal that later, but the crisis in the opening scene produces a new status quo. It might not be as interesting, but we could chop off the car wreck and show the man campaigning for red light cameras and it wouldnít change the story. That tells us that the car wreck is not the inciting incident.

If the car wreck isnít the inciting incident, then we must find another. Going deeper into the story, we may find that the manís efforts have convinced many of the city council. One of the supporters has a heart attack and dies, leaving an opening on the city council and upsetting the balance of support for his proposal. The heart attack is the inciting incident. If we were to remove it from the story, the proposal would pass easily, but if we leave it in, the proposal lacks support. This will cause the protagonist to jump into action either supporting a candidate for the job or running for office himself. The change is that he goes from a being a man on a mission to being a political leader.

It is nearly impossible for the inciting incident to occur on page one. The inciting incident is the first major turning point for the main character. It is hard for us to have a turning point until after we know where the character is going.

Inciting Not Exciting

Some people have the idea that the inciting incident must be one of the most exciting scenes in a story. Sometimes it is, but incitement occurs more on an emotional level. The inciting incident is something that causes the character to see a need for change. An inciting incident may be very low key, such as a phone call or an e-mail telling the character about something that has happened.

An exciting event can also serve as an inciting incident. Perhaps our main character is in a bank when some men rob it. Trapped inside, the men use the people inside as hostages. The status quo is that our main character is a hostage. One of the bank robbers may point a gun at a woman and say that if she doesnít keep quiet his is going to shoot her. This might incite the main character to try to diffuse the situation rather than waiting for the police to settle it.

Letís Think About It

After the inciting incident occurs, we donít want to jump right in to the change. We need time to understand the situation. Suppose the inciting incident is a job offer in another state. The main character isnít going to just jump at the chance, but he will give it some thought. In the bank scene above, we may already know that the main character is going to have to do something to face the villains, but he needs to think about the best way to do it, what it will cost if he does, what it will cost if he doesnít, among other things.

On the Emotional Level

The inciting incident should touch the audience on an emotional level. This is part of why the first page is too soon for it to occur. The audience should be able to feel the conflict within the character as he considers the change that must take place. When it occurs, the audience should either want to see the change take place or hope that it doesnít. What should never happen is that the audience fails to care whether the change occurs or not.

Final Thoughts

Every good story has an inciting incident that occurs somewhere in the first third of the story. It is this incident that moves us from the opening situation, however thrill packed that might be, toward another situation. Usually, it is something that is outside the protagonistís control and he must respond in some way. He considers the problem and then he chooses to take action.