What hooks a reader into a book? What is it that grabs their attention and makes them keep reading, turning page after page long past bedtime? Chances are, it comes down to a deceptively simple plot device: the inciting incident.
A great inciting incident can elevate a kind-of-okay story to one your readers can’t put down. By contrast, a lackluster inciting incident can cause your reader to set your book aside before the story really gets going. So how do you find the right one for your story?
Keep reading to learn what an inciting incident is and how to write one that will engage readers, with some inciting incident examples from literature.
What is an inciting incident?
An inciting incident is an event that occurs early in your story which creates a radical and irreparable shift in your protagonist’s life, setting the plot and the other story elements into motion. This key event creates a distinct “before” and “after,” and once confronted with the inciting incident, your characters’ world will never be the same.
A strong inciting incident will be something the protagonist can’t ignore—something with a personal stake. They’ll be forced to react to this sudden and cataclysmic change, and this is what carries them along their journey. For example, a sudden death, disappearance, or discovery that upsets the status quo is a common inciting incident.
As a writer, you should have a clear sense of what your story’s inciting incident is. If you’re not sure, that may be a sign that your story’s opening is too unfocused, and that your story might have a hard time grabbing your reader’s attention.
The two types of inciting incidents
Someone (most commonly thought to be John Gardner) once said that there are only two foundational stories: A hero goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. There’s some solid evidence to back up this claim, except that neither of these are really complete stories—they’re inciting incidents, or events that get a story moving.
If you’re struggling to find your story’s inciting event, see if your story arc begins with one of these story structure frameworks. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
“Hero goes on a journey”
The hero’s journey is a tale as old as time. In these types of stories, the protagonist is forced to step outside his or her comfort zone and face new, unexpected dangers.
This “journey” simply means going to an unfamiliar setting. This could be a new job, a support group, immersing in a new culture through an exchange program or marriage, or a new challenge like a school project or workout routine. The hero begins a new stage of life that is different from the one they had known until that moment, and which will present a range of different challenges that force them to adapt and grow.
In this case, your inciting incident is the moment that launches this journey. These stories begin by your hero making an active choice to try something new.
“A stranger comes to town”
Sometimes, the inciting incident is a result of an unexpected force catapulting into your protagonist’s life. Often the “stranger” is the antagonist of the story—for instance, if a serial killer begins stalking the streets, or a new political leader comes to power with controversial new ideas.
However, the stranger who arrives on the scene can be positive, too—for example, many romance novels begin with a handsome stranger walking into the main character’s workplace and troping their way into their heart. A stranger could also be someone like a young woman arriving on their birth parent’s doorstep two decades after being given up for adoption, or a new teacher at school who decides to nurture the main character’s potential.
In these stories, the stranger’s arrival prompts a reaction from the main character. This reaction sets off the chain of events that becomes your plot.
Inciting incident vs. first key plot point
A fair bit happens in the first few chapters, or even the first few pages, of a novel. There are a number of events that set things into motion during the first act, including the inciting incident and the first key plot point. However, it’s very easy to confuse the two.
The danger is that if you conflate these two early plot points, what can happen is the beginning of your story can become vague, muddled, and unfocused. A good way to think of it is that the inciting incident is the event that sets the protagonist on a new path, but the first key plot point is the point of no return.
Consider this story opening: Your main character receives a game-changing job offer for a mysterious new tech company. It’s kind of weird that they didn’t offer it to someone more qualified, but the money’s good so your main character isn’t asking the gift horse too many questions. Suddenly, on their first day, they stumble over a dead body in the hall.
What’s the inciting incident? Hint: it’s not the murder. The inciting incident is the job offer, because that’s the moment that sets the protagonist on a new journey. The murder is the first key plot point—the event that raises the stakes and locks the character into the story.
How to create a compelling inciting incident
Now that you know a bit more about what an inciting incident is and why it’s important in a story, let’s look at some things to keep in mind when writing a strong, engaging inciting incident that gets the wheels of your story turning.
Ask yourself: Why now?
You’ve chosen this moment on this day to begin your character’s journey. Why now? Why not two weeks ago, or two weeks later, or last year? If your inciting incident doesn’t occur until several chapters in, you might be starting your story too early. If your inciting moment is a family death that happened three months prior to the start of your novel, you might be starting your story too late (or you might need to choose another inciting incident, such as the delivery of a will).
If you can’t pinpoint exactly what’s special about these opening chapters, you may not have a strong enough inciting incident. Think about what’s happened or is about to happen that will divide your main character’s life into a before and an after.
Ask your characters: Now what?
The inciting incident is a bit like an angry rattlesnake; you toss it into a room with your characters and watch what happens.
Your inciting incident radically upsets the status quo within your novel. It needs to be something the protagonist can’t walk away from. They’re forced to react, and in reacting, make a choice. Choices are what move the story forward.
If your characters can bypass the inciting incident and go on living in their ordinary world the way they always have, you may need a stronger inciting incident. It should be something that pushes your protagonist out of their comfort zone and into an adventure they never expected.
Why didn’t the mysterious tech company hire a more experienced candidate? Could it be that they’re planning on framing their new guy for murder? Or they wanted someone so desperate for money that they’d do anything to get ahead? And how did they know that the main character had just been sacked from his last workplace, when the protagonist hadn’t even told anyone yet?
A good inciting incident shines a light on a new way forward, but at the same time, raises some peculiarities that catch your reader’s attention. This is especially important in the mystery/thriller genre (more on genre convention down below), but any type of story can benefit from dramatic suspense. In any case, your inciting incident should always kickstart one big question for the reader: What’s the protagonist going to do next?
Consider the conventions of your genre
Some genres come with reader expectations about what a typical inciting incident looks like.
In romance, the inciting incident introduces your main character’s love interest—or puts them in a situation where unexpected love can bloom. In mysteries, the inciting incident is often a crime that’s been committed (although if you follow Agatha Christie’s five-act mysteries, the murder always happens in the middle). In supernatural horror, the inciting incident is often your protagonist arriving in a new setting—moving to a new town, going on holiday, visiting a creepy one-night-only theme park (ie. “Hero goes on a journey”).
That’s not to say that you can’t change these up and upend your readers’ expectations. But, it helps to know what these expectations are in the first place so you can give them a fresh spin.
Connect your inciting incident to your theme
Since you introduce the inciting incident early in your novel or short story, it’s a good place to start thinking about enhancing your story’s theme. The sort of questions raised by your inciting incident can be the same sort of questions your novel raises about its core message as a whole.
Some themes might include the dynamic between personal ambition and personal integrity, or the road to new love after a period of trauma. The inciting event that triggers your plot can allude to these larger ideas and get the reader thinking about them early on.
Inciting incident examples from literature
Let’s look at a few examples of effective inciting incidents from beloved novels.
The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan
This World War II-era novel introduces four women who are all in need of something—money, independence, or distinction in male-dominated industries. Suddenly a local radio program announces a very special cooking competition, which will award its winner a permanent co-host spot on the show.
After a short period of exposition, the novel introduces its inciting incident in the form of an opportunity that can change the fortunes of each of the main characters. This sets each of them off on their own personal journeys as they adapt to this new possibility, and make choices around it that shape the people they grow to become.
Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke
Some of the best “stranger comes to town” stories aren’t about strangers at all, but ghosts of the past the central characters thought they had forgotten. This fantasy story begins with a man arriving at the protagonist’s house, wanting to make a bargain.
The novel uses this inciting incident to hint at a shady shared past and introduce new elements that push the heroes out of their comfort zone and onto a new path. Once the old friend arrives, the protagonist is forced to make a choice that will upend the careful life he had built and change his world forever.
The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett
In one of the most distinctive noir novels of all time, the inciting incident occurs when an intriguing woman shows up at the private investigator’s office looking for help tracking down a wayward sister. Once the PI agrees to take on the case, he’s drawn into a much more complex web of dirty dealings than he could have imagined.
The image of a beautiful woman walking into a grizzled male hero’s life and knocking it squarely off center has become so entrenched in popular culture that it’s teetering on the edge of cliché… and yet, it never fails to capture the hearts of readers—or to get your plot moving.
Great stories begin with great inciting incidents
Every good story begins with that all-important inciting incident: the event that spins everything dramatically out of your protagonist’s control and sends them in a whole new direction. Without a strong inciting event to kick off your own story, you’ll have a tough time captivating your reader. Fortunately, these tried-and-true tips will give your book the compelling narrative drive it needs.