In this section, you will discover the definition for an inciting incident, what is involved in creating an inciting incident and how it can be used to create narrative tension. Once you have completed this section you will be able to identify or create inciting incidents, whilst also understanding how to use them to ‘hook’ a reader.

Why Just the Inciting Incident?

It might be letting light in upon the magic, but I think it is safe to say that the inciting incident is just the first element of the three act structure. You’ll discover more about the three act structure in 2.3. However, at this point, all that’s important is for you to understand that the inciting incident is the start point of the narrative framework. You are going to discover that we can ‘steal’ the inciting incident from the three act model and apply it to unstructured Classical Design novels with a high degree of success.
However, this does pose the question, if the inciting incident is part of the three act structure, why have a full section dedicated to the inciting incident but nothing else?
The answer is that the presence (or insertion) of an inciting incident is often a great first step in lifting a novel to a new level. As both a writer and editor, you may often find yourself in a situation where you know a novel needs help but you don’t want to jump fully into a rewrite. Under those circumstances, the insertion of an inciting incident might be the safest first step.
Let me explain more…
We will delve into this in far more detail in the coming sections, but the main role of the inciting incident is to set up narrative tension. This narrative tension is an open question that the reader must continue reading to discover the answer.
For example, in a classic crime novel, the police will discover a body in the opening chapter. This is the inciting incident. If the reader wishes to discover the killer, they must read on. The essential thing to grasp is that this will ‘hook’ the reader and ‘pull them into the book’. It will make your book more interesting and engaging.
At this point, I need a couple of words of warning. The first is that this explanation is a little simplistic, it is OK for now but there’s more to come. The second is that an inciting incident is not the answer to all problems. If the novel you are editing has no structure but is of Classical Design, then an inciting incident will help. It will provide a narrative ‘jump off point’, which will add structure to your story. However, it will not paper over any wider structural issues.

What Is an Inciting Incident?

Let’s start with a simple definition.
An inciting incident is:

An event that forces the main character to react and requires resolution.

This definition can be split down into three key elements:
1.   The time before the event, sometimes called the setup.
2.   The action required.
3.   The resolution.
In the following sections, we will look at each of these items in turn, before then looking to expand our knowledge to discover more about the inciting incident.

The Set Up

One key aspect to understanding an inciting incident is that prior to the incident the main character (protagonist) is living under one set of circumstances, once the inciting incident has occurred the protagonist is presented with a new set of circumstances.
The result of this is that the reader must be in a situation in which they are able to recognize the changing circumstances. There must be a visible and significant change in the circumstances. They must be able to see the before and after.
This means that for the inciting incident to have an impact, there must be some level of set up. In other words, the reader must be made aware of the main character’s initial set of circumstances in order for them to recognize the change.
This brings with it an inherent problem. If the writer presents too much setup, the reader will be left feeling alienated, and perhaps even bored, as the writer layers in backstory that is nonessential to the plot. This is a common problem for inexperienced writers, who feel that a large amount of setup is required for the reader to ‘get’ the story. This is rarely the case.
As a rough rule of thumb, the inciting incident must occur within the first twenty-five percent of the novel.
This means that the writer is always looking to balance setup with story. The shorter the setup the better it is for the reader. It is true that in some genres (for example fantasy and sci-fi) more setup is required than usual and this is fine. However, the less setup that is needed the better. In other words, the faster you can get the reader to the inciting incident, the faster they will be hooked.
It is possible that setup can be kept to almost zero. If you are writing in a world that the reader knows well, then you may need to present hardly any setup.
If you watch the Drama series, Bones, you will see a masterclass in presenting an inciting incident. The premise for Bones is that a team of forensic anthropologists investigates suspicious deaths. At the time of writing, Bones was into its tenth season. By this point, viewers are more than aware of the show’s premise, characters, and storylines. This means that it is not uncommon for the inciting incident (almost always the discovery of a body) to occur in the opening credits.
No need for setup – BANG – right into the meat of the story.

Action Is Required

The second element of the inciting incident is an event that forces the main character to take action.
The level of action is important. It must be significant. In fact, the action that is required must move the reader from one set of circumstances to another.
Here’s an example…
Let’s say we are writing a crime novel. Our main character is a homicide detective. The novel opens with him at home enjoying a week-long vacation. The phone rings and he answers to discover there has been a murder.
Here, the phone call (well actually the murder) is the inciting incident. The event will force the detective to react. This reaction will alter his circumstances. In this case, he will have to act to solve the murder.
One additional element to consider is the main character’s desire to taken action and, ultimately, resolve the situation. If your novel is to have the required drive, then your main character’s desire to act must never be put into question. They must hold a deep and understandable desire to seek action and resolution. The reader must ‘get’ why they decide to react and why they seek to overcome any obstacle placed in their way.
This is hardly rocket science. In fact, this type of event is normally present, even in unstructured novels. It is often the job of the editor to simply emphasize the inciting event and move its prominence within the story.
It may be stating the obvious but the inciting incident must occur within the timeline of the story, NOT in the backstory. The reader must ‘witness’ the event and become an active participant. It is essential in hooking the reader, that they are emotionally connected to not only the main character but the events that happen to them.
One final word, it is possible that the main character may decide on no action. However, simply by wilfully deciding to do nothing, this will still be an action that will alter the circumstances.
For example, let’s say our detective refuses to investigate the case. This non-action brings with it a new set of circumstances, which will alter the main character’s life.

Resolution

The final element of the inciting incident’s definition is that of resolution. In short, the event that occurs will present a set of circumstances that will require the main character’s actions to resolve. In fact, the narrative drive within the novel will become the resolution to the problem.
It is human nature, to wish to discover the conclusion to stories, solutions to problems and punchlines to jokes. Imagine a situation in which a friend had the habit of telling you the set up to a joke but not the punchline, this would become old very quickly.
It is this human desire for a resolution that we are exploiting with the inciting incident. We are setting up a problem, which requires resolution and then asking the reader to keep reading to find the answer.
Think about our detective story. The detective has reacted to the call by going to the murder scene. By the end of this scene, the reader will know about the murder, they will know the detective needs to find the murderer and they will be willing to read on to resolve the mystery.
One final word. Though the inciting incident needs to precipitate significant change, and it will create narrative tension, it may not be the key driving force for the story.
A great example of this is the film, Close Encounters of The Third Kind. In this film, aliens come to Earth and make contact with humans. The arrival of the aliens is the inciting incident and the resolution to what they want is the narrative drive to the film. However, what makes the film so engaging is Roy Neary’s (the character played by Richard Dreyfuss) collapse into madness (or so he feels). It is this character’s story that is what really lifts the film to the highest level.

Exercise

1.   Look at your novel carefully and identify any potential inciting incidents.
2.   If there is not an inciting incident present, then you will need to create a new action point. This will involve you assessing your current plot and determining if it can be manipulated to include an inciting incident.
3.   If there is an inciting incident, consider if it requires additional emphasis. Ask yourself: Is the incident prominent enough? Does it occur soon enough? Does the main character have sufficient desire to resolve the incident? Does the incident significantly alter the main character’s circumstances? Will the reader care?