The inciting event is a critical part of any novel. It launches the story and puts the protagonist on the path to resolving the plot. Unlike many of the classic turning points of plot, the inciting event has a wide range of where it can happen in a novel. This can cause confusion for a lot of new writers, since they’ll find multiple examples and articles on where the inciting event “ought to go.”
In general terms, the inciting event goes in “the beginning” of the novel. This can mean anything from page one to page fifty depending on the story and the genre. For example:
Murder mysteries and police procedurals often have a body on page one. The novel starts with the crime, and then readers get a chance to meet the protagonist.
Science fiction and fantasy novels often push the inciting event toward the middle-to-end of “the beginning” in order to familiarize readers with the world and setting. A certain amount of world building must be done to ground readers in that world and prepare them for the story.
Romance and contemporary novels often give readers a short introduction to the world and characters, but moves quickly to the inciting event.
Even within genres, where the inciting event falls varies. For example, some mysteries take several chapters to get to the crime, or a science fiction novel might launch the problem on page one.
(Here’s more on inciting event basics)
Pitfalls of a Misplaced Inciting Event
If the inciting event isn’t falling in the right spot, your novel can feel unevenly paced or completely out of whack. Common problems include:
A beginning that feels too rushed: Readers need a little time to ease into the story and get to know the characters and the world. Jumping in too soon can make them struggle to keep up. If they feel they’re missing too much, or the story is too much work to read, they’ll stop reading.
A beginning that feels too slow: If nothing is happening to hook readers and pull them into the story, they’ll also stop reading. Slow beginnings often focus too much on the normal world and everyday life of the protagonist, with no problem to solve and nothing interesting to learn.
Not enough groundwork to understand the story: Without the necessary details or background information to understand the story, readers can feel as if they don’t know what’s going on or why any of it matters. If they don’t care, they won’t read on.
Too much infodumping and backstory: The opposite dumps too much information into the story and bogs down the beginning with details readers don’t need to know right away. They’ll wonder, “When is the story going to start?”
(Here are five common problems with beginnings)
Figuring Out Where Your Inciting Event Falls
Since the inciting event launches the story, finding the right spot for it is crucial to a well-paced novel. If you’re unsure where yours should fall, ask:
What genre are you writing?
If you’re writing a genre that commonly puts the inciting event in a certain spot in the book, odds are that spot will also work for your story. For example, a murder mystery with a body found within the first few pages.
How large is the novel?
Beginnings are a percentage of the novel (roughly 25%), so a 60,000-word novel will have the inciting event much closer to the start of the book than a 130,000-word novel.
How much setup and world building is required?
A complex world or setting, such as a fantasy land or a highly technical or specific environment (say, a nuclear submarine) needs more description and explanation for readers to understand that world or setting. It’s common to find the protagonist dealing with a problem unique to that setting so readers can see how it all works before diving into the plot.
What needs to be understood before the plot can begin?
This varies by book. Only you know what your readers need before you trigger your plot. If you need more time (pages) to lay the necessary groundwork than what’s typical for your genre, take it.
Are the events leading up to the inciting event grabbing your readers?
In the end, this is the most critical aspect to consider. If what happens between page one and the inciting event isn’t grabbing readers’ attention, they’ll never get to your inciting event. If the opening pages aren’t compelling readers to read on, those pages aren’t serving your story. Hook the reader and keep them reading is the only advice that must be followed.
(Here are five ways to hook your readers)
The inciting event is the moment when the story truly starts, so it’s vital you find the best place for it in your novel.
Where does your inciting event fall?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, and the upcoming Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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