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What Is An Inciting Incident in Writing?
The inciting incident of a story is the event that sets the main character or characters on the journey that will occupy them throughout the narrative. Typically, this incident will upset the balance within the main character’s world.
In classic detective films like The Big Sleep, for example, the inciting incident is the detective being asked to take on a new case. In moments big and small, an inciting incident changes the life of a character, and the ensuing story is the fallout from that change.
What Is The Purpose of an Inciting Incident?
An inciting incident exists to launch a story. If Shakespeare had begun Romeo and Juliet somewhere in the midst of the young lovers’ courtship, the story might have been entertaining, but it would have lacked the emotional stakes created when the two protagonists first lay eyes on each other in the play’s inciting incident.
The inciting incident inspires the protagonist’s central motivations throughout the story. In Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the protagonist Charles Marlow finds his motivation when he learns about a Mr. Kurtz, in the story’s inciting incident. The story goes on to detail Marlow’s obsessive quest to find Kurtz, and the horror he encounters when he finally finds him. Every event that follows within the timeline of the story achieves its significance insofar as it relates to Marlow’s inciting action.
3 Types of Inciting Actions in Literature
As a general rule, inciting actions fall into one of three categories.
- Causal inciting actions. Inciting actions involving a deliberate choice made either by the protagonist or about the protagonist. This deliberate choice informs all story elements to come. An example of this is Luke Skywalker’s recruitment in the original Star Wars film from 1977. The inciting action is the first step in Luke taking the archetypal “hero’s journey,” as famously described by Joseph Campbell. Learn more about the hero’s journey here.
- Coincidental inciting actions. Inciting actions stemming from random chance, coincidence, or a protagonist “being in the right place at the right time.” In C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, the children inadvertently stumble upon a magical land through a portal in the back of a wardrobe. This chance discovery leads to all subsequent actions in the story.
- Ambiguous inciting actions. Inciting actions that occur under circumstances that are not fully explained. The audience is left to guess whether the protagonist is placed in her situation by choice or by chance. Such inciting actions are common in thrillers and mysteries like The Sixth Sense, and the true story is rarely revealed until the very end of the film.
3 Tips For Using Inciting Incidents in Your Writing
A compelling inciting action can be the difference between a gripping story and a forgettable one. Here are three techniques to make sure you’re writing the most effective possible beginnings to your stories:
- Keep to your timeline. To make your reader or viewing audience emotionally invested in an inciting incident, make sure it takes place during the timeline of the story you’re telling. When an inciting action is a past event that others make reference to, it lacks the visceral truth of an incident that the audience has experienced.
- Let your inciting action stimulate something sustainable. Your inciting plot point should drive a character to behave a certain way throughout the narrative. Make sure that the driving force will be sustainable throughout the full course of your story. A detective driven to solve a complicated case will sustain throughout the story. A man bitter about not getting the last slice of pizza could potentially be funny, but it won’t sustain a particularly long story.
- Make your inciting action cause a noticeable shift in your character. A compelling inciting action will make your character take actions she would not have otherwise. In The Fugitive TV series, Dr. Richard Kimble loses his wife to murder and, worse still is accused of that murder. These traumatic events change Kimble, and they launch him onto a quest so compelling that it sustained four full seasons of television.
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