The inciting event is probably one of the easier things to write (because it's usually a lot of fun), and also one of the hardest to figure out (because we're not always sure where it is). It's when the story really starts and it's filled with all the promise and excitement of what that story can be. For some writers, it might be the only solid plot point they know going into the novel. It's the moment when things change for the protagonist and she's put onto the path that will become the novel's plot. Without this moment, there would be no novel.
Which is an awful lot of pressure to put on one poor little scene (and the poor writer).
Let's break down the basics:
What is it: The inciting event is the moment when things change for the protagonist and she's drawn into the main problem (core conflict) of the novel, or problems that will eventually lead to that core conflict. In movie terms, it's that scene just after the opening setup when the movie takes off and you think, "yeah, now it's gonna get good" and it will get into the reason you came to see the movie.
- In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson figures out the key to opening the gate (and thus go through to another world)
- In The Hunger Games, it's when Prim Everdeem's name is drawn (and thus be forced to fight in the Hunger Games) and her sister Katniss volunteers to take her place.
- In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart is chosen to go undercover at the American Miss Pageant (and thus has to find her inner girl to catch a terrorist and protect the contestants)
In essence: Here's a really cool plot idea, and here's the moment when that idea really gets going.
When does it happen: In the first 10-15% of the novel, typically within the first 1 to 30 pages (or 50 pages for longer novels). Sometimes it's the opening scene, sometimes that opening scene problem leads to the inciting event.
What's its function: It's job is to be the bridge between the opening scene and the core conflict of the novel. It transitions the protagonist (and the reader) into the main plot of the novel by giving her an interesting problem that leads to the bigger issues and themes of the novel.
- In Stargate, we see the struggling scientist who has theories no one believes, who might just have the key to solving a puzzle that could change the world. We wonder: can he solve the puzzle and open the gate?
- In The Hunger Games, we see the girl who breaks the rules to keep her family safe, who's headed for a place where these skills might save her life. We wonder: can she survive the Hunger Games?
- In Miss Congeniality, we see a lonely woman who despises all things "girly," who has to go undercover being what she can't stand to protect people she doesn't like. We wonder: will she fit in and will she change her mind about these women?
Why is it important: It provides time to develop the characters, setting, conflicts, and stakes, and get readers caring about the protagonist with a smaller problem, so by the time the big conflict shows up, readers will be emotionally invested in the protagonist and her problem.
- In Stargate, we're drawn in by the sneezey, geeky scientist who has theories no one believes, because we know he's about to be proven right. We want him to succeed.
- In The Hunger Games, we're drawn in by the girl who will risk herself to protect her younger sister, because we know she's about to be thrown into a horrific situation. We want her to survive.
- In Miss Congeniality, we're drawn in by the scruffy tomboy FBI agent who eats alone every night, because we know this fish out of water is going to face some hysterical situations as she tries to fit in. We want to see what happens, and if this will make her happier.
(Here's more on how the inciting event unfolds)
Things to Remember When Crafting Your Inciting Event
1. The protagonist is presented with a problem and an opportunity to act.
No matter how your inciting event unfolds, the protagonist did something to put herself in the right place for it to happen. Even if she's just walking down the street when bank robbers burst out of a bank and grab her hostage, she made a decision to go to the bank that day and it was important that she do it right then. Otherwise, it can feel contrived that the protagonist just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
- In Stargate, Daniel is giving lectures about a theory no one believes in, which brings him to the attention of the people who have the stargate.
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss is attending the lottery to see who will be chosen for the Games.
- In Miss Congeniality, Gracie has recently screwed up and is given a chance to redeem herself by going undercover at a beauty pageant.
(Here's more on creating plots that don't feel like a coincidence)
2. The protagonist can either choose to act and step onto the path to the core conflict, or can be dragged onto the path by greater forces.
In many cases, the protagonist will be in a situation where she acts in a way that puts her on the plot path. She did this to herself through her own actions. Maybe she steps onto that path fully aware of what she's being asked to do, maybe she thinks she's doing the right thing and is horribly mistaken, or maybe she has little choice and this is her best option.
However, this is one of the few moments in a plot where your protagonist can have events dumped on her head and it's okay. She doesn't have to make a decision to act if an outside force is pulling her into circumstances she never would have been involved in otherwise. Sometimes things happen and we get sucked in whether we want to or not.
- In Stargate, Daniel Jackson is offered a job when he needs it most. He could say no, but he's both intrigued and desperate.
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen chooses to take her sister's place, knowing what she's about to get herself into.
- In Miss Congeniality, Gracie Hart gets assigned to the case, even though she wants nothing to do with it and would rather pursue the case she was thrown off of.
(Here's more on how your characters can screw up their decisions)
3. This action triggers the rest of the novel.
The trigger is an important distinction with an inciting event. The action has consequences that ripple throughout the novel. If this moment did not occur, the novel would have turned out differently, or the plot would not have happened at all.
- In Stargate, Daniel accepting the job offer is what leads to him decoding the gate and traveling to another world where his theories are proven correct.
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss takes her sister's place, which leads to her going to fight in the Hunger Games, where she triggers a rebellion among the oppressed people of the nation.
- In Miss Congeniality, Gracie goes undercover and is forced to confront her feminine side, which leads to her discovering the strengths she needs to be the FBI agent she wants to be, and redeem herself for her past mistake.
(Here's more on how character decisions affect plot)
The inciting event launches the core story of the novel and ties the opening to the rest of the novel. But it also shows why the protagonist needs this problem to happen to her and how she'll benefit from going through this experience.
Have any question about the inciting event?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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