The Inciting Incident | Elements of a Novel – Part 5

Inciting Incident: Elements of a Novel
Inciting Incident: Elements of a Novel

Welcome to Part Five of the Elements of a Novel Series! Today is all about the Inciting Incident! (ICYMI, here are the links to Part One: Creating Characters, Part Two: Choosing a Plot Structure, Part Three: Setting and World Building, and Part Four: The Beginning.)

The inciting incident is one of the most important elements of the plot structure. It’s responsible for hooking your readers into the story and kick-starting your plot. This post aims to break down what an inciting incident is, what makes for a good one, when it should happen, and some tips to help you with your own!

What is it?

The inciting incident is when you’re character’s life starts to change. This change can come as a result of a choice your character makes or as a result of something that happens to them, such as the death of a family member or a change in their circumstances. The inciting incident is what will make your character rise to the occasion, leave their normal life, and move to the main story arc of your plot.

What makes for a good inciting incident?

A good inciting incident should have a personal connection with your protagonist and (by extension) your reader. It should tug at something your character strongly believes in and/or wants to change. Because this element propels the plot, it has to be big and meaningful enough for your character to sign up for the rest of the story. Otherwise, your readers may not find your story to be belivable from the start.

There are two ways you can appeal to your character. First, is in a positive way. In this instance, you give your character a change that is seemingly positive. This will be something that your character will want to leave their normal life for.

One example is from Harry Potter. In this case, the inciting incident is when Harry gets his Hogwarts letter and learns he’s a wizard. At the time, this was a positive change for him. It got him away from his terrible aunt and uncle and into a world of magic. Harry finding his way into the magic world is what set the entire seven-book series into motion.

The second way you can appeal to your character is in a negative way. This can mean killing or endangering a family member, or forcing them to take a risk for their own or someone else’s safety. In this case, your character may not actually want to leave their world, but they’ll do it for the greater good.

A good example of this type of appeal is The Hunger Games. In this case, the inciting incident is when Katniss volunteers as tribute to save her sister. She doesn’t actually want to be in the Hunger Games, but she’s motivated to do so in order to keep her sister out of danger.

When should it happen?

When your inciting incident should happen can vary depending on the story, but generally speaking, you’re going to want it pretty close to the beginning. If you’re using a three-act structure, it generally falls towards the end of act one.

Because your inciting incident is responsible for both pulling your reader in and kicking you plot into gear, it’s typically better to introduce your inciting incident as soon as possible. However, it’s important to establish what “normal” is for your character. Some stories need more time than others to do this. Looking at the two examples above, The Hunger Games had its inciting incident at the end of chapter one, while Harry Potter took several chapters.

Sooner is always better, but don’t cut corners. If your characters are in a fantasy world, you may need to take a chapter or two establishing the world before you dive into your inciting incident. You’re better off taking a little more time to get to your inciting incident and ensure your reader isn’t confused.

And of course, you can always fix it later! On your first draft, you should absolutely take all the time you need. Maybe you have a lot of “normal” to establish and it takes you ten chapters to get to the inciting incident. If it feels like you story is dragging when you read over it, you can always tighten it up. That’s what revision is for!

Tips for an effective inciting incident

Focus on believability

It might be tempting to start your story off with a bang, but if you go too big, too fast, you run the risk or loosing your reader out of the gate. They’re not invested in your story yet, so if they are’t buying what you’re selling at this point, they’re much more likely to walk away now than the might be at chapter twenty. If your story seems too far fetched this early, your reader may see that as a sign of things to come and bounce before they get invested.

On the other hand, if your inciting incident is underwhelming or unrealistic, it might not seem like enough of a reason for your character to abandon their reality for your plot. This may cause your reader to walk away in a similar fashion. For instance, if in The Hunger Games, Katniss chose to volunteer to save someone who wasn’t her sister, it might not ring true to your readers. It simply doesn’t seem believable enough that an average person would sentence themselves to almost certain death for a stranger–especially if they hadn’t done so in the past.

This leads me to the tip.

Make it personal

One easy way to aid the believability of an inciting incident is to make it personal. In Katniss’s case, it’s because her sister was in danger that we so easily believed she would take such a risk. You can use this to your advantage in any number of situations. If you want a character to care about a mystery, it could be that someone they care about was hurt. Or it could be that the person responsible is still out there and could hurt your character or someone else.

However, how personal you need to make an inciting incident can often depend on the stakes of the story and the role of your character. If you’re writing about a detective catching a serial killer, the inciting incident may not have to be all that personal because the stakes are life and death, and it’s the detective’s job to catch such a person. But if the stakes are lower or your character is typically more removed from the plot arc you’re writing, giving them a personal connection is a solid, believable way to get them into the story.

Show clear advantages

It also helps to show clear advantages to your character making the kind of change the inciting incident is asking them to make. Jumping back to our Harry Potter example, not every eleven-year-old would see leaving home, their friends, and their current school to go to a boarding school as a good thing. But in Harry’s case, there were clear advantages. His family didn’t treat him well, he didn’t have any friends as a result, and he was going to a school that would teach him magic. Who wouldn’t say yes to something like that?

Even if you can’t put your character in a situation like Harry’s where they would want to leave their normal world, if you can put them in a situation where the advantages believably outweigh the disadvantages, it will likely be enough to convince your readers to buy into your inciting incident and get your plot off and running!

I hope this helps you create an awesome inciting incident for your novel!

Now it’s your turn: What are some of your favorite inciting incidents? What are some techniques you’ve used in your books? Tell me about it in the comments!

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