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How do you start a story? You might have heard that you need to start a story with a bang, that you need to begin with deep conflict. Or perhaps you’ve heard literary agents say they want to be hooked by a story in the first few pages.

But what does that actually mean? How do you start a story well? The answer is the inciting incident, one of the six structural elements of an effective story.

Inciting Incident

In this article, you’ll learn the definition of the inciting incident, see how it works in a story, show the inciting incident types and examples, and imagine how to use it to write stories of your own.

Definition of Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is an event in a story that upsets the status quo and begins the story’s movement, either in a positive way or negative, that culminates in the climax and denouement.

Inciting incidents have four criteria:

  1. Interruption. Inciting incidents are an interruption in the character’s normal life.
  2. Out of the protagonist’s control. Inciting incidents are not caused by the character and are not a result of the character’s desires.
  3. Urgent. Inciting incidents necessitate urgent action.
  4. Early. Inciting incidents happen early in the story, sometimes in the first scene, often within the first three to four scenes.

Other story structure frameworks call the inciting incident by different names, including the call to adventure (Campbell), the catalyst (Snyder), the hook (Wells), simply the problem (Miller), and my favorite, the exciting force (Freytag).

The only term I don’t think is helpful is the hook, since it combines the inciting incident, which holds a structural place within every story, with the hook, a device to capture the reader’s attention in the first pages of a story.

A good story might not have a hook and still work as a story, but without an inciting incident, a story won’t move, and without movement it will cease being a story and become a series of events.

We’ll talk more about what the inciting incident is and is not. But first, let’s talk about how the inciting fits into the dramatic structure.

Where the Inciting Incident Fits Into Dramatic Structure

Before we go into more detail on what the inciting incident is and share examples of how it’s found in stories, let’s talk about the six elements of dramatic structure that are found in every effective story. They are:

  1. Exposition
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Rising Action/Progressive Complications
  4. Dilemma (Crisis)
  5. Climax
  6. Denouement

The inciting incident is the second element, directly after the exposition. It is also the moment when the plot begins to move. Prior to the inciting incident, during the exposition, the plot doesn’t rise or fall. It begins this process of change.

How Long Is the Inciting Incident?

The inciting incident is technically just a moment or a single event, and this moment is almost always set into a single scene.

While it may require several scenes to set up, those prior scenes are usually part of the exposition.

The Inciting Incident Is More Than a Desire or Need

Some gurus say that the character’s desire or need is enough for an inciting incident.

Dan Harmon, the screenwriter and creator of the show Community, developed a framework called the Story Circle theory. There are many things to like about this structure, which on the surface seems perfect for episodic stories like television sitcoms and also film series.

Here’s how Dan Harmon describes the basic structure of the Story Circle:

Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically.

Divide the circle again horizontally.

Starting from the 12 o’clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7.

Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.

Here we go, down and dirty:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Did you spot the inciting incident in there?

“But they want something.”

Here’s Donald Miller’s definition of story in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years:

“A character who wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it.”

Yes, desire is important in any story. It’s just not the inciting incident.

According to an article in Wired, Dan Harmon apparently got the idea for this structure after watching and rewatching the film Die Hard, among other things.

But is that how Die Hard works? John McLane just wanted something? And he got it?

No, the story doesn’t begin because of John’s desires. It begins because of an interruption. Alan Rickman and his German friends come in with guns and take everyone hostage. John may have wanted to live and to save his wife, but that comes later.

The inciting incident in Die Hard is an early, urgent interruption that is outside of the character’s control.

Sometimes your desires can become very urgent, can even interrupt you, but it is still in your control whether to take action on them or not.

Inciting Incidents Can Be Positive or Negative, But They Are Always Interruptions

Some story gurus call the inciting incident “the problem.” (Miller, by the way, has since changed his definition of the inciting incident to “the problem,” moving away from a character’s desire.)

Others call it something more positive, “the call to adventure,” for example.

But these definitions, while helpfully specific, contradict each other. Because the truth is that it can be negative in some stories (a problem) and positive (an adventure) in others.

Often they are both positive and negative!

Some stories have negative inciting incidents, like Die Hard. For John McClane, the protagonist, it was hardly a positive thing.

Other stories have inciting incidents that are largely positive. In most love stories, it takes the form of a “meet cute,” a moment when the couple at the heart of the story first meet and have an emotional connection—which sometimes looks like attraction and sometimes hatred.

This is an example of a positive inciting incident, a happy interruption.

It is true that problems always result from the inciting incident, but they don’t always look like a problem at first. In fact, they can sometimes look like the best thing that ever happened to a character.

Inciting Incidents Are Tied to the Core Value in Your Story

Different types of stories have, at their core, different values, and the value at the core of a story will alter the inciting incident.

This sounds more complicated than it is.

You may have heard that stories need conflict, but as we’ve said elsewhere on The Write Practice, the kind of conflict stories need is not just more arguing or car chases. The kind of conflict stories really need comes from values in conflict.

There are six core values that come into conflict in stories. Here they are mapped to the types of stories you might be trying to tell:

  • Action/Adventure story: Life vs. Death
  • Mystery/Thriller/Horror story: Life vs. a Fate Worse than Death
  • Love story: Love vs. Hate
  • Performance/Sports story: Accomplishment vs. Failure
  • Coming of Age story: Maturity vs. Naiveté
  • Morality story: Good vs. Evil

A love story, with the core value scale of love vs. hate, will have an inciting incident that looks very different than a fantasy adventure story with the core value of life vs. death.

Those inciting incidents will look still different than a thriller with the core value of life vs. a fate worse than death.

10 Types of Inciting Incidents

As writers throughout history have told millions of stories, these inciting incidents have grown to find similar structures, and even have gotten names based on how they work.

Here are the ten types of inciting incidents based on the six story values:

1. Call to Adventure/Death Plus MacGuffin (Action/Adventure stories: Life vs. Death)

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it,” the self-destructing tape says.

For adventure and action stories, the protagonists are invited to some kind of adventure or mission.

Sometimes they are invited by a victim (in the case of Luke Skywalker), a mentor (in the case of Frodo), or a villain (in the case of Mr. Incredible).

The person doing the inviting matters less than the fact that an adventure or mission is beginning.

A final version of this inciting incident is the “Death Plus MacGuffin,” when a minor character dies, leaving a clue or piece of a MacGuffin—which is a kind of talisman object that the protagonist has to hunt for over the course of the rest of the story.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • Crowdsourcing Paris by J.H. Bunting (that’s me)
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Disney’s The Incredibles
  • Every Star Wars film
  • And more!

2. Death of a Loved One/A Great Crime Against Me (Action/Adventure stories: Life vs. Death)

An alternative to the direct call to adventure is the “death of a loved one” inciting incident, which spurs the protagonist to get revenge or find justice.

Stories that are primarily revenge plots have a version of this. I call it “A Great Crime Against Me,” in which some horrible act is done against the protagonist, forcing him or her to vow revenge.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Braveheart
  • Batman Begins
  • Kill Bill

3. Show Me the Body (Mystery/Crime/Thriller/Horror story: Life vs. a Fate Worse than Death)

What’s worse than death? Being brutally tortured before you’re gruesomely murdered.

That’s what’s at heart in most thrillers, mysteries, or horror stories.

And nearly all of these stories, when they’re done well, begin with the discovery of a dead body, kicking off the search to solve the murder, or the hunt for/escape from the monster.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • Every detective story ever
  • Jaws
  • Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Occasionally, these types of stories don’t start with a dead body but with some kind of mystery. Most Sherlock Holmes novels, for example, don’t start with a body, but the structure remains the same.

4. The Haunted House/Forbidden Object (Mystery/Crime/Thriller/Horror story: Life vs. a Fate Worse than Death)

A type specific to horror stories is the “haunted house” or “forbidden object” inciting incident.

This is when the characters stumble upon something eerie, whether a place or an object, something they know they shouldn’t interact with, but they choose to do it anyway (or are forced to).

This eerie thing can be a place, an object, or even a person.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • The Haunting of Hill House 
  • Poltergeist
  • Locke & Key

5. Meet Cute (Love Story: Love vs. Hate)

The couple meets for the first time, and an emotional connection is made. Often something embarrassing happens. Frequently, they hate each other.

Whatever happens, sparks fly.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
  • Frozen (the inciting incident in the subplot)
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • Every Hollywood Romcom

6. Betrayal (Love Story: Love vs. Hate)

There are two types of love stories: one in which the couple gets together and the other in which the couple separates.

In the stories in which the couple separates, the inciting incident almost always include some kind of betrayal, usually an infidelity.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • Kramer vs. Kramer
  • Betrayal by Harold Pinter
  • Heartburn by Nora Ephron

Note: No one likes these stories, especially me, so that’s why there are so few examples. Sorry!

7. The Tournament (Performance/Sports story: Accomplishment vs. Failure)

In stories involving the performance of some skill or talent, or a sports story involving a sports team or individual, the inciting incident involves entry into some kind of tournament or competition.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • Pluck by J.H. Bunting (my forthcoming novel!)
  • Miracle
  • Remember the Titans
  • Paper Lion by George Plimpton

8. Here There Be Dragons (Coming of Age story: Maturity vs. Naiveté)

Coming of age stories often have an inciting incident involving something that is outside of the protagonist’s current worldview.

Perhaps it’s the existence of magic or the kindness of a stranger or an opportunity to enter a new social class.

Whatever it is, it throws the protagonist into confusion and shows them how little they understand the world.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • How to Train Your Dragon (film)
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Note: Since coming of age is rarely the main plot of a story, more often an internal plot, these will not usually be the main inciting incident.

9. Principal’s Office (Coming of Age story: Maturity vs. Naiveté)

Another approach to the coming of age story involves the character getting into trouble early on, often in a school setting. This forces the character to begin the process of reflecting on his or her life and making changes.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • Good Will Hunting
  • The Breakfast Club

10. The Temptation (Morality Story: Good vs. Evil)

In morality stories about the forces of good vs. evil, the inciting incident often involves some kind of temptation of the protagonist, asking them to betray their conscience for the sake of some benefit or greater good.

Stories with this inciting incident include:

  • The Dark Knight
  • Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

The Inciting Incident Is Simple: Just Throw Rocks

Whenever the idea of trying to tell a story gets too complicated, I come back to this one simple piece of writing advice that’s over 100 years old. You might have heard of it. It goes:

That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Just put your character up a tree so they can be an easy target for rocks. It’s not complicated.

Don’t get overwhelmed by all of the different types of inciting incidents or the terminology.

Just figure out how to put your character up a tree so that you can start throwing rocks.

Not too hard, right?

What type of story are you trying to tell? What is one of your favorite inciting incidents from other stories in that type? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

Let’s put the inciting incident to practice using the following creative writing exercise:

Choose one of the types of inciting incidents above. Then, in one sentence, outline it for a story.

Finally, set a timer for fifteen minutes and start writing your inciting incident scene.

When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section for feedback. And if you post, be sure to give feedback to at least three other writers.

Happy writing!

Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. You can follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).
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