Friday, February 12, 2021

Story Structure: How the Inciting Event Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The opening scene isn’t the real start of your story. The inciting event is.

The inciting event is one of my two favorite turning points in a novel (the other is the midpoint). It’s that moment at the top of a roller coaster just before it tips forward and races into a spiral. It’s when all the fun and excitement you’d been anticipating while waiting in line is about happen.

Sure, the first line, the first page, and the first chapter get most the attention, but they’re only the first things readers see, not where the story begins. First pages are the setup for the real story, and the bridge that connects the opening scene to the inciting event.

And that’s when things really take off.

The inciting event is how the protagonist gets yanked into the novel’s conflict.

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).

If you don’t know what your inciting event is, odds are you’re having trouble starting your novel. Not knowing this key plot moment is like leaving your house with a suitcase, but not knowing where you’re going. Are you on vacation? Going on a business trip? Off to visit family? Without knowing the point of the trip, you don’t know what your next step is to get there.

The inciting event is why the story is happening.

Let's break down the basics:

Quick note: I’m using both book and movie examples here because the turning points are more clearly defined in movies, and they’re easier to watch and study than novels. But the same principles apply.

What it is: The inciting event is the moment when something changes for the protagonist that draws them onto the path that is, or will become, the novel's plot. If this moment didn’t happen, the story would not have happened.

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."
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson is offered a job translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (which leads to him opening the stargate and traveling to another world). This is also just after the opening scene (and the first scene with Daniel), and an example of an inciting event that happens right away.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Prim Everdeen's name is drawn to fight in the Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place (which puts her in the Hunger Games and in a position to trigger change in their society).
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart is chosen to go undercover at the American Miss Pageant (where she will find her inner strength and catch a terrorist to protect the contestants).

Something happens that the protagonist can’t ignore, and they find themselves involved in a problem they have to resolve.

When it happens: 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, but usually the opening scene problem leads to the inciting event.
  • In Stargate, it's directly after a prologue that shows the discovery of the stargate in 1928 Giza, by the father of the woman who later offers Daniel the translation job. We’ve seen what’s wrong in his life, and get a glimpse of how this job might change things for him.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's after Katniss and her bleak and dire world is introduced, and we see the characters who are important to her and the upcoming story (Prim, Peeta). We also see what matters to her, so we understand what it means when Prim is chosen for the games.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's after Gracie has made a mistake and been reprimanded by the FBI. We’ve seen her flaws, and her problem, and now we see the opportunity for her to fix those flaws and problems.

What its function is: The inciting event’s job is to be the bridge between the opening scene and the core conflict of the novel. It transitions the protagonist into the main plot by giving them 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 just might 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 as something 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?

The inciting event reminds readers why they picked up the book in the first place, and shows them what they can look forward to.

Why it’s important: The inciting event gives the story time to develop the characters, setting, conflicts, and stakes, and make readers care about the story. It often focuses on a smaller issue, so by the time the big conflict shows up, readers will be emotionally invested in the protagonist and their problem.
  • In Stargate, we're drawn in by the sneezy, 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 stoic 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.

In essence: The inciting event establishes the core problem and the key story elements readers will need to know to understand the story moving forward. It doesn’t give away all the details, just the basics to keep readers hooked.

(Here’s more on How to Find the Right Place for Your Inciting Event)

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 themselves in the right place for it to happen. Even if they’re just walking down the street when bank robbers burst out of a bank and grab them hostage, they made a decision to go to the bank that day and it was important that they 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 messed up and is given a chance to redeem herself by going undercover at a beauty pageant.

The protagonist finds themselves in a situation that will lead them to a bigger problem, and that gets the story started. They don’t need to be aware of the bigger problem down the road yet, they just know they have an issue they need to deal with.

(Here’s more on What a Coincidence! Creating Plots That Don’t Feel Like Accidents)

2. The protagonist can either choose to act and step onto the plot path to the core conflict, or can be dragged onto the path by greater forces.

There are two ways your protagonist can step onto the plot path—they choose to get involved, or they get yanked into it without their permission. It’s the only turning point in a novel where the protagonist is allowed to be reactive (not make a choice about what happens).

The Proactive Path: The protagonist will be in a situation that forces them to make a decision that puts them on the plot path. Maybe they step onto that path fully aware of what they’re being asked to do, maybe they think they’re doing the right thing, or maybe they have little choice and this is their best option.

The Reactive Path: The protagonist lands in a situation where an outside force pulls them into circumstances they never would have been involved in otherwise. Maybe they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe they have a past that just caught up to them, or maybe they’re simply a victim to a bigger issue.
  • In Stargate, Daniel is offered a job when he needs it most. He could say no, but he's both intrigued by the offer and desperate for work (proactivehe chooses to take the job).
  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss chooses to take her sister's place, knowing she could die in the Games (proactive—she chooses to volunteer).
  • In Miss Congeniality, Gracie 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 (reactive—she's doesn't want the case but has to take it).

However the protagonist gets there, they have to deal with a problem they can’t walk away from.

(Here’s more on Three Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel)

3. This action triggers the rest of the novel.

The trigger is the key distinction of 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, and that puts Earth in grave danger from aliens.
  • 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. As well as stop the villain from blowing up the pageant.

The protagonist accepts the situation and their actions create the rest of the novel’s plot.

(Here’s more on Actions vs Choices: Crafting Better Plots)

The right inciting event draws both the protagonist and the reader into the story.

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 them (the conflict), and how they'll benefit from going through this experience (the character arc).

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your inciting event. Is it doing all the right things to launch your story?

Here's the entire story structure series:
Does your protagonist choose their path, or are they pulled onto it?

**Originally published August 2014. Last updated February 2021.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. This is some really helpful information. I've read a few stories where the inciting incident takes a really long time to occur. Those were the stories that were difficult to finish due to the lack of being engaged.

    1. Great example of why this is an important moment.

  2. Great info. Contrived is a word I've seen in contest feedback. It seems to be a fine line.
    I'm going to check out your suggested links.
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. It really is. Sometimes we have to stretch credibility a teeny bit to get a plot point to work, but if we don't provide enough groundwork to make it plausible, it can come across as contrived.

      If you've been seeing that, you might try looking at your character's motivations. Make sure they have a logical and plausible reason for doing what they're doing. If it's more plot related, make sure that there are logical reasons for that event to happen.

  3. I never knew what this was until I read Plot & Structure. Thanks so much for this great explanation, Janice.

    1. Thanks! P&S is such a great book. That's the Bickham one I'm guessing?

  4. It's when Merryn steals a book with an evil god inside and opens up a whole can of worms! I get it woo.

  5. Tim Seabrook2/15/2018 10:37 PM

    Thank you. While I understand the principles, it is good to have examples that use the same films in each part to make easier to follow.

    1. That was my plan :) I felt if I broke it all down like that, someone could watch the movie/read the book and see where the moments fell. Glad it helped!