Inciting Incident: Definition, Examples, Types, and How to Start a Story Right

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How do you start a story? You might have heard that you need to start with a bang, that you need to hook the reader with deep conflict in the first few pages. But what does that actually mean?

The answer is the inciting incident, one of the six structural elements of plot used to tell an effective story.
Inciting Incident

In this article, you'll learn the definition and different types of inciting incidents, see how this plot point actually works, and ways to use them in your stories.

Let's get into it!

Note: This article contains an excerpt from my new book The Write Structure, which is about the hidden structures behind bestselling and award-winning stories. If you want to learn more about how to write a great story, you can get the book for a limited time low price.
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Definition of the Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is an unexpected event in a story that upsets the character's status quo. This begins the story's movement, either in a positive way or negative, that culminates in the climax.

In other words, a situation comes out of nowhere, throws the main character into turmoil, and creates a problem that they have to spend the rest of the plot trying to solve.

As Robert McKee says, “The inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in your protagonist's life.”

This unexpected disturbance also complicates the character as they attempt to achieve a scene goal, or want, and that character will spend the rest of the story attempting to achieve it.

Examples of the goal might be to escape a terrifying natural disaster, to get revenge for the murder of a loved one, to get together with the romantic interest, or even to explore a new worldview opened up by the event. Depending on the plot type (which you can read more about here), this story might be an internal goal or an external goal. But the goal is always created by the inciting incident.

Other story structure frameworks call this inciting incident by different names, including:

  • The Call to Adventure (The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell)
  • The Hook (Seven Point Story Structure by Dan Wells)
  • The Problem (A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller)
  • Inciting Event
  • Exciting Incident
  • Inciting Moment

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 used to capture the reader's attention in the first pages of a story. The inciting incident does not need to occur in chapter one, like the hook.

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.

Also, credit must be given to Robert McKee, for popularizing this term, and for Shawn Coyne's Story Grid for expanding our understanding of it.

An Event Must Meet 5 Criteria to Be an Inciting Incident

Inciting incidents have five criteria:

  • Early. They occur early in the story, sometimes in the first scene, almost always within the first three to four scenes.
  • Interruption. They are an interruption in the main character's normal life.
  • Out of the protagonist's control. They are not caused by the character and are not a result of the character's desires.
  • Life-changing. They must have higher-than-normal stakes and the potential to change the protagonist's life.
  • Urgent. They necessitate an urgent response.
We'll talk more about how this unexpected event works in creative writing and screenwriting, but first, let's look at how the inciting incident 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

In most cases, the story starts with exposition, but the inciting incident is the second element and the moment when the plot begins.

How Long Is the Inciting Incident?

It is technically only 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 plot structure 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:
A character is in a zone of comfort,
But they want something.
They enter an unfamiliar situation,
Adapt to it,
Get what they wanted,
Pay a heavy price for it,
Then return to their familiar situation,
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.

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

Stories come in many different shapes, called story arcs (read our complete story arc guide here).The inciting incident's job is to begin the movement of the plot along the actual story arc, whether up or down.

Some stories have events that begin movement in a negative direct, like Die Hard orThe Martian. For John McClane, the protagonist, terrorists coming to his wife's Christmas party was hardly a positive thing. In the same way, for Mark Watney, getting stabbed by an antenna and then stranded on Mars was just the first problem in a long series of problems.

Other stories have events that create positive movement. In most love stories, it takes the form of a “meet cute,” a moment when the main couple first meet and have an emotional connection.

Others are less clear at first. In Chinatown, the inciting incident is when small-time private investigator Jake Gittes gets a new, lucrative case following Hollis Murray, the apparent husband of Evelyn Mulwray. For Jake, this looks like a great opportunity, but it quickly becomes into a major problem when it turns into a murder investigation.

It is true that problems always result from the inciting incident, but they don't always look like a problem at first. In other words, whether positive or negative, the inciting incident is the story driver, the thing that sets the story in motion along the story arc.

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.

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

Take a Second to Practice Identifying the Inciting Incident

Hopefully by this point in the article you're feeling better about understanding what the inciting incident is and how to apply it in your own story.

Let's take a moment to practice identifying the inciting incident by looking at the opening scene in Dreamworks' How to Train Your Dragon. If you haven't seen the movie, this scene is the Exposition of the entire story (and an exceptional one at that)—but every scene (like every story) needs the six elements of plot.

Keep in mind that the Inciting Incident doesn't have to be long. It might be only a brief moment!

Either way, screen this clip and jot down what you think the Inciting Incident is. You can find the answer at the bottom of the post.

How to Train Your Dragon: Opening Scene

The 10 Types of Inciting Incidents With Examples

Depending on the type of story you're writing, the type of inciting incident will change as well.

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.

These invitations come from different sources. For example:

  • A victim (in the case of Luke Skywalker's invitation from Princess Leia in Star Wars: A New Hope, or Katniss's need to save her sister Prim in The Hunger Games)
  • A mentor (in the case of Frodo's invitation from Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter's invitation to Hogwarts from Hagrid)
  • 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. This leaves 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.

Examples 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
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  • 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.

Examples 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.

Examples include:

  • 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.

Examples 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.

Examples include:

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

This type also works for versions of the love story involving platonic relationships, the “buddy story” subtype, for example when Nick Carroway first meets Jay Gatsby at a party in The Great Gatsby.

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 includes some kind of betrayal, usually an infidelity.

Examples include:

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

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.

Examples 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.

Examples 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.

Examples 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.

Examples 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?

The Inciting Incident in How to Train Your Dragon

Did you say it's when the dragons show up? Then you'd be right!

The dragons arriving in Berk disturb the quiet explanation of Hiccup's island and throws the Vikings into action. Although not every scene will have an actual dragon as an Inciting Incident, you do need something that disrupts the main character's status quo like the dragons do for Hiccup.

Note: there are actually two inciting incidents in that scene, in the scene itself (e.g. Dragons!), but also for the story as a whole: Hiccup shoots down the Nightfury. (This off the main plot of the story.)

Did you guess something else? Don't worry, mastering the six elements of plot takes practice. We're fond of that around here. I'm confident you'll get it!

If you want to practice writing inciting incidents that work, try to do it in a scene first. Check out my guide here.

Key Ideas About the 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.
  • They have five criteria: they interrupt status quo, they're early in the plot, they're out of the protagonist's control, they're life-changing, and they're urgent.
  • They are not synonymous with a hook.
  • They are an unexpected interruption. This is not the same as the desire/want/goal, which every scene needs, but it does interfere with the protagonist getting this desire/want/goal.
  • They can be positive or negative as long as they interrupt the status quo.
  • Problems always result from them, but they don't always look like a problem at first.
  • They are tied to the core value in your story.
  • There are ten types of inciting incidents based on the six core values.

The Write StructureNeed more plot help? After you work on practicing this structure in the exercise section below, check out my new book The Write Structure which helps writers make their plot better and write books readers love. Low price for a limited time!

Get The Write Structure$9.99 $5.99 »

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 practice box below for feedback. And if you post, be sure to give feedback to at least three other writers.

Happy writing!

Enter your practice here:

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. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

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64 Comments

  1. Bruce Carroll

    Thanks, Pamela.

    I’m pretty sure you’ve been following my story about Akiko, and I’ve already posted the inciting incident from that story, so I won’t repeat it here. (It will be published next month on Inkspired anyway, for those who want to read it.) It is funny you chose the image of sparking a story, since the inciting incident in Akiko’s story is a fire.

    I think you left out an important way an inciting incident can occur. It can occur by accident, by the protagonist’s choice, or by the antagonist’s choice. For Akiko, it is definitely the last one. Someone intentionally set fire to the Olsen’s home, killing Akiko’s foster parents and prompting her to flee San Francisco.

    A bit of advice to writers, especially new writers: the inciting incident is what starts the action of the story. Things should get progressively worse after that.

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Bruce,
      I am excited to read Akiko’s story. I have enjoyed reading the excerpts you have shared here.
      Thank you for pointing out the antagonist may cause the inciting incident as well. Those naughty antagonist’s.
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
      • Bruce Carroll

        Exciting update: Inkspired named Akiko #StoryOfTheDay. Looks like I’ll have to finish the book.

        Reply
        • Rose Green

          Good luck with the book, Bruce!

          Reply
    • Judi Gregoroff Plante

      My inciting incident occurred by one of my antagonists. And I sincerely pray that things should not go down from there. That didn’t happen in my life, but come to think of it, things did get progressively worse for most of the time period of my memoir. But It didn’t stay that way. Another revelation, thanks Bruce.

      Reply
  2. joncarllewis

    I’m struggling with what should be the inciting incident of my love story/coming of age novel. Is the inciting incident the moment James meets the homophobic man of his dreams (which happens in the first paragraph), or is it the moment (about 25% in) when James comes out to this man as gay?

    Reply
    • EmFairley

      I would say the latter is more inciting than the first. That said, I’m intrigued by brief detail and would love to read it

      Reply
      • joncarllewis

        Thanks, Em. I appreciate that. I’ve followed you on Disqus to stay in touch!

        Reply
        • EmFairley

          Thank you, Jon. I’ll reciprocate now

          Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Jon,
      Without having read your story, I am not sure which is the inciting incident. It might be where James meets the man of his dreams. Does he start to behave differently? Does meeting this man prompt James to change his behaviour? The meeting between the two men might start an internal conflict for James about how he identifies.
      Making when James admits he is gay to the man he met is part of the middle build of the story.
      I recommend The Story Grid and Story, as good resources to know what scenes to include in a love story.
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
      • joncarllewis

        Thanks! I’m due for another read of both Story Grid and Story. Steven Pressfield of the Story Grid just released a podcast on structuring love stories today!

        Reply
        • Pamela Hodges

          Hi Joncarllewis,
          Thank you for letting me know about the podcast. I will listen to it.
          xo
          Pamela

          Reply
    • Dey

      Hey Jon,

      So, for the inciting incident, it seems you are looking at events on either side of it. You know the inciting incident is the event that changes the character’s actions. So meeting the man doesn’t change James and coming out IS the change, but what is the event that forced James to come out? THAT’S your inciting incident.

      Reply
  3. EmFairley

    Thanks Pamela.

    I’m preparing to write my next book and have already written a detailed outline of one of the key points in the story. While it’s not the first so called inciting incident it is a spark to what will follow.

    Em xoxo

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello EmFairley,
      How exciting to be starting a new book. You are creating worlds and people. I hope you are well.
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
      • EmFairley

        Thank you, Pamela. I’m good, thank you. I hope you are?

        The writing is a slow process right now, but I’m making progress and staying on target. Thankfully 🙂

        Reply
        • Pamela Hodges

          Hi Em,
          All is well. Working on moving the painting studio back in the house from the garage. Getting to cold to paint outside. And working on several small stories. Memoir, and thriller.
          xo
          Pamela

          Reply
          • EmFairley

            I’m glad you’re moving back into the warmth. The stories sound great! I’m a little behind on my reading list, but as soon as I get finished with Pooh’s book, I’ll get the review posted

            xoxo

  4. Jason Bougger

    This is perhaps one of the most important things for new writers to understand. Without an inciting incident, a plot has no purpose and the novel has no reason to take place.

    One question, however, is how soon do you think the inciting incident should take place? I’ve heard some writers say to push it as close to the beginning of the novel as possible, while others have said it’s okay to build up to it.

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Jason,
      From what I read in “Story” by Robert McKee and “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne, there are no hard and fast rules to where the inciting incidence occurs, beyond it occurring in the first 25% of the book or movie. McGee on page 202 of Story, gave the example from Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” The first sentence is the inciting incident, “One day Gregor Samsa awoke to discover he had been changed into a large cockroach.”
      Back story, or building up to the Inciting Incident must make sense to the story you are writing. Perhaps consider if some of the back story could be told in the build up to the Inciting Incident, so it is part of the story, and not just details.
      If you spend more than half the novel building up to the Inciting Incident, you might find the readers have stopped reading.
      How long will they read before they get the pay off? Where the story really starts?
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
      • joncarllewis

        All that freedom about where to place the inciting incident is scary!

        Reply
  5. Anu Raag

    For best impact, The Inciting incident should be Big, Distinct or Memorable.

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hello Anu Raag,
      Great points! Thank you for sharing your suggestions.
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
  6. Joe Volkel

    I poured myself a nice hot cup of coffee, grabbed a whole wheat cream filled donut and settled down to read the morning paper. On page 10, dangling below an ad for Cialis was a small article, rather innocent looking. As I read this news item I spit my mouthful of coffee halfway across the kitchen. Glaring at me in small type was the devastating news – “Wendy’s plans to use Turkey Bacon on their Baconater sandwich.” Oh the humanity!

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Joe,
      Turkey Bacon, now that is an Inciting Incident. Coffee all over the floor and bad news about a sandwich. What will you do? What action will you take?
      Thank you for stopping by.
      Did you pour yourself another nice hot cup of coffee?
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
      • Joe Volkel

        Thanks for the reply Pamela. Your article got my mind roaming into the deep abyss of culinary intrigue. Unfortunately, lately I can come up with a decent opening line and then my story falls flat on it’s face. I am trying to practice working them out. Maybe I should write up a little synopsis of the whole story based on that first scene. I will get around to it soon. I recently joined the procrastinators club, but they keep putting the first meeting off. : -> 0
        PS: I have fun here.

        Reply
        • Pamela Hodges

          Hi Joe,
          Glad you have fun here. Maybe a little synopsis would help your story from falling flat on it’s face. Some people like to plan and some people like to go “with the muse,” and see where their story takes them.
          Let me know how it goes with your story after you attend your first meeting of the procrastinators club. The sad part about waiting is your readers have to wait to hear what happened the Baconater sandwich.
          xo
          Pamela

          Reply
  7. Christine

    Doesn’t it seem there are often two inciting incidents that come together to start out so many stories? As in, Romance, scene one: HE decides to stop at “some place” to buy/ hang out/ check/ visit xxx. Scene two: She stops for a snack/ trips/ her car has a flat tire right in front of “someplace.” Or vise versa. And there they are. “Oh, hello.”

    One real life story that comes to my mind happened this way. Scene one: a violent sex offender out on parole gets restless and starts prowling. He goes out for a drive and is drawn —by the evil urge within him, you could say— to an all-girls college in his state. He pulls into the parking lot and waits. Scene two: one of the young women attending this college has such a bad headache she decides there’s no point trying to finish out the day. She needs to be home in bed. So she heads for her car.

    One part is incomplete without the other — and I feel these two scenes must open the story. So which would you label the inciting incident? In actual fact, this story was told by someone involved in the search for the missing girl, so maybe you’d say the “inciting incident” was when they got the call to come search?

    Reply
    • Pamela Hodges

      Hi Christine,
      After reading your comment I went back and read the section on Inciting Incident in “Story” by Robert McKee. He said that occasionally “an Inciting Incident needs two events: A setup and a payoff.”
      He used the example of the movie JAWS. The setup is a shark eats a swimmer and her body washes onto the beach. The payoff is the sheriff discovers the corpse.
      You are right in the real life story you described, you need both parts of the story. (Very sad story) If the story is about the person involved in the search, their Inciting Incident would be the phone call. Wouldn’t it? As that is when their life changed.
      hmmm, what do you think?
      xo
      Pamela

      Reply
      • Christine

        Like so?

        Eyes still fixed on the figures on the computer screen, Barb frowned and reached for the jangling phone. She had to leave for her meeting in half an hour and this was the third phone call. When would she ever get their monthly budget laid out if people kept interrupting her.

        She glanced at the Caller ID screen, then sat up straight in her chair. The Forest County Police wouldn’t be calling to pass the time of day. She pressed the Talk button, averting her eyes from the distracting computer screen. “Hey, Tammy. What’s up?”

        “We need your counseling skills, Barb. A 19-year-old girl went missing from River Bend College yesterday. One of the teachers says she saw this girl walking in the parking lot around 11:30 am, likely going to her car, but she hasn’t made it home. Her family’s contacted everyone she knows and no one’s seen her. Now they’re worried sick.”

        “I would be, too. Any leads?”

        “We’ve got a number of the guys out searching around town, the local hangouts and such. And we’ve notified the boys from Forestry, in case she’s wandered into the national park and gotten stranded.”

        Barb raised her eyebrows. “Wandered?”

        “That’s the word we’re using now. We can always hope she’s lost herself somewhere, or in hiding even, but the family isn’t buying it. They could really use your counseling skills about now. Will you talk to them, go over the “what ifs”? Try and keep them upbeat and hoping, but prepare them, just in case…”

        Barb sighed. “Sure. Let me grab a pen and you can give me the address.” She shut her computer down. Her family budget woes seemed so trivial at the moment.

        Reply
        • Pamela Hodges

          Christine,
          Yes, like so. The dialogue and descriptions really make me feel like I am in the room with Barb. The phone call is when her life changed.
          I would love to read more. Please keep sharing your writing.
          xo
          Pamela

          Reply
  8. TerriblyTerrific

    Very good article. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. Janet F. Guererra

    This is great, thank you!

    Reply
  10. Roberta

    Thanks for the article. I have to say I always have trouble coming up with a good inciting incident, especially if I try to plot it. I just come up with some reason for the couple to meet while I write. But sometimes it’s a weak inciting incident.
    My NaNoWriMo project will (hopefully) be a collection of short stories/novellas set in the same small town. It’s sweet romance. I guess my inciting incidents will be when the different couples meet (most likely by chance, but I haven’t decided yet)?

    Reply
  11. Deena

    Hi, Pamela. Can you give an example of and ending that is both reasonable and inevitable, AND surprising? Thanks. Deena

    Reply
    • Bruce Carroll

      I’ll take a stab at it.

      Consider the movie, “My Girl” (1991) (It was written as a screenplay.) The ending is REASONABLE. The kinds of things depicted in the movie could really happen. In fact, the major events of the film have happened to many people.

      The ending is INEVITABLE. The pain of the death of a loved one decreases with time (although the sense of loss remains.) Writers improve with practice. (Vada’s poem at the end of her class has much deeper emotional impact than the one at the beginning of her class.)

      The ending is SURPRISING. In the course of the movie, Vada loses the three male figures who matter the most to her. Thomas J. dies. Her father has never taken her seriously, and in the moment she most needs him, he is emotionally unavailable. She discovers the school teacher on whom she has a crush is engaged, and realizes (consciously this time) that he sees her only as a child, and despite her fantasies, the two of them will never be married.

      But the surprise is she reclaims all of these characters in some sense. Each has a new place in her life. She has not only memories of Thomas J., but his influence on her character as well. She memorializes him in her poem. Her father opens up and has the one talk with Vada she most wanted: A talk about the death of her mother. And she gives her teacher, Mr. Bixler a hug and begins to think of him as an older man and her teacher. At the end of the movie, Vada even has a new best friend. The changes in her life are even symbolized in the streamer on her bicycle handle. She lost it earlier in the film, but in the final shots we see her and her new friend riding their bicycles, both streamers on Vada’s handlebars. These last shots do not show them in close-up and do not mention them at all. Did she find the missing one? Did she buy new ones? The answers to these questions matter less than the fact that her life is new.

      This is probably not the best example, but it is early in the morning, and I am supposed to be somewhere else. I’ll keep this question of yours in mind, and see if I can come up with better examples.

      Reply
  12. James Noller

    I am really curious which stories in the article aren’t true! Obviously the cat ones are true… My guess would be the one about the bank manager flying to Brazil and the toaster burning the house down.

    Reply
  13. Sal Rosagrata

    Without knowing it I had just run 12km from where I was 2 mins ago to the site of the explosion. I was exhausted, my breathing was so rapid I couldn’t even talk. When I finally caught my breath, I was shocked at what I saw a construction wearhouse was well alight, people were watching the entire sence occur in front of their eyes but luckly the roof was only on fire I thought the wearhouse was well ablaze. In the building I heard the fainted of cries for help, I wasn’t sure if everyone heard it so I decided to something brave and courageous but also very stupid I walked through buring materials not scared of the fire then walked into the wearhouse with little protective gear only a gas mask and a bottle of breathable oxygen while onlookers just stood and watched in shock and disbelief that I was risking my life as a hero to save workers who were trapped inside. My body and clothes were completely burned and torn but I just carried on trying not to focus on the pain and focus on what I was doing – Saving as many workers from the fireball before it is well alight and a completely destructed and devestated even if that meant putting my life on the line. Around 2 hours past when I first walked into the now fireball and I manganed to save 30 workers from burning alive but I couldn’t save everyone – 15 workers, 3 supervisers and many others have died from smoke inhalation I needed to get out as well before I became one of the fatalities too I was about to turn around to leave before a flashfire hit me and knocked me down burning from head-to-toe but I didn’t give up and think I was going to die, I kept going and before I knew I manganed to escape just before the whole building burned down. I was completely burned and injured but I manganed to save lives that is the main thing it matters if anyone wants to be a hero.
    Is this what it is meant to be like? I’m happy to hear feedbacks to make my writing better

    Reply
    • Evelyn Sinclair

      I love it when someone CHOOSES to do something brave and your protagonist certainly does. Is this part of an ongoing story?

      Reply
  14. Luna

    Thud thud.
    There was a knock on the door.
    “Hold on, I’ll answer.” Dan quickly dashed towards the door. But he suddenly broke his speed midway, making a loud creek with his sneakers against the white floor.
    “What’s up?”
    He bent down to pick something, hesitant.
    “…Luna? Do you know this person named…Skip?”
    “Who’s that?”
    Luna stood from her wheelchair and staggered towards him.
    “They wrote a letter for both of us.”
    He handed her an envelope sealed with red sealing wax. It seemed to be important. She carefully tore it open.
    “You know that the letter might’ve been cursed, right?”
    Luna shrugged it off.
    Inside the letter was a short list of alphabets written in brilliant gold ink. The handwriting was rather small.

    To Luna Whitehunter,

    So..this is an invitation to a grand magic school’s exam. Not a lot of people get this. Let’s say, the school director had this planned out for about three hundred students to participate.If you want to participate, your town hall will be holding the examination on April 11th next year. The school only accepts 95 people. So, good luck.

    We hope to see you then.
    -Skip

    “Are we going?” Dan asked.
    “Well, sure. Why not?” She answered.
    “When we get in, let’s find this person and tell’em we didn’t even need luck to pass this thing.” Luna smiled.

    Reply
  15. Miko

    I’ve been working a lot on plotting recently, and I have to say, sometimes studying short plots can be extremely helpful. I’m a cartoon-a-holic so I’d advocate those, but really, any short story that you like which has a beginning, middle and end is worth studying and breaking down into storybeats.
    At any rate, my advice is DON’T GET HUNG UP ON THE INCITING MOMENT!
    It’s super trivial. Some of the greatest stories can start with a character being bored and just wanting to do something. Other times a group needs some help so our protagonist helps them. The inciting moment could be a group of friends disagreeing. Just pick one and go.

    Reply
  16. Christine

    I’m fining your post enlightening — again. Having written the story of a twelve-year old’s summer adventure for NanoWrimo in November, I had the feeling that something was missing. Reading this about needing an inciting incident makes me realize what’s lacking to kick off my tale.

    Opening scene shows a girl and her older brother on the train, off to spend the summer (of 1957) with their widowed aunt, helping her with her first-year market garden project. No real conflict. So I’d better start a little earlier — or use a flashback — showing her having her own ideas of summer fun. Then when their parents tell them, “Forget all your own plans. THIS is what you’ll be doing this summer,” my protagonist offers some resistance to the new plan.

    A side issue: One thing I don’t like in modern novels is they are so repetitious on the angst. The protagonist’s fears, resistance,self-doubt, grief, suspicions, etc., that start with the inciting event may be replayed too many times through the story. I wish writers would give readers credit that we do get how he/she feels; we don’t need it hammered home. I suspect if writers would delete most of those rehashes of angst a lot of books could be shortened by 30%. I may show my character’s initial resentment at being sent where she doesn’t want to go, but I won’t have her seething about every few pages all summer long.

    Reply
    • Evelyn Sinclair

      I like this. Your story resonates with me – reminding me of childhood dilemmas during holiday times.

      Reply
      • Christine

        Thank you.

        Reply
    • Rose Green

      Yes, readers definitely deserve some credit! Something (that may be) similar to what you describe is the size of the hobbits in Lord of the Rings. We know that hobbits are smaller than humans but Tolkien doesn’t remind us all the time. He just drops in a hint here and there. We need to keep in touch with the characters’ reality, but we don’t (as you put it) need it hammered home. I hope that makes sense!

      Good luck with your story.

      Reply
      • Christine

        Thank you. I just read a book where the main character is learning to be a Private I, but she’s so full of self-doubt and insecurities in general, very germ-conscious, etc —and we hear about it every few pages — that I sure can’t see her morphing into a great private investigator. Nor do I want to read more of the same in the second book in the series.

        Reply
  17. Katrina Dinouti

    I have a novel I have been playing around with in the outlining stage, this shed some light on the subject of where my incident comes back after a bit of story building and seeing how much later it is than it could be.

    The incident is where my protagonist comes home after a long journey collecting beasts I end up calling “Inner Demons” because they alter emotions of whom they live inside. But when he gets home he finds his master dead on the floor of the house. In turn his partner manipulates him to release these Inner Demons and he does so because he thought it would bring his master to life but only left him in a weakened state as these demons are how he functions in day to day life.

    Reply
    • Rose Green

      Sounds like an interesting story. Good luck with it.

      Reply
  18. Evelyn Sinclair

    My protagonist is relaxing on the balcony of her luxury home in the tropics. She is trying to decide whether to read another book or take a dip in the private swimming pool. She hears a distant rumbling. it’s similar to the sound of the freight lorries that struggle to climb the hill beyond the private estate. She is subconsciously waiting for the gear change which will indicate the lorry has reached the summit. However, the “rumbling” continues for an exended period of time, and on opening her eyes she observes a plane approaching up the valley. Curiosity compels her to watch the progress of the plane as she does not live on a flight path. As the plane draws nearer she sees the door of the plane opening and something like a tennis ball falling out.. It suddenly takes her just three seconds to realise that what she saw was no tennis ball. It was a bomb! And the plane was heading for the nearbyelectricity power station – a bombing raid was in progress. Panic stricken she ran and hid in the space below the staircase, hoping against hope that the house would not be hit. Thoughts and fear galloped through her head. Was her husband safe at the power station? What about the village close to the station, and there was also a leprosy settlement nearby. How many casualties would there be? How would people get to a hospital? Then she paused and thought – there were no explosions!! What on earth was going on, and how could she find out – if she dared come out of hiding.

    Reply
    • Judi Gregoroff Plante

      I think I’m in a different place than I thought. But I’m glad I’m here. This sounds like a great and helpful learning center.

      Reply
      • Evelyn Sinclair

        It’a great site to be part of. Great prompts to inspire and great community for encouragement.

        Reply
      • Rose Green

        Isn’t that life? Good luck with your writing.

        Reply
    • LilianGardner

      An exciting story piece, which gripped me. I’m curious to see what happened after the bomb dropped. Will you tell us more?
      Best wishes for your writing.

      Reply
      • Evelyn Sinclair

        Thanks Lilian. The comment is based on reality and part of a memoir I hope to write. I plan to use the challenge which is approaching to get things under way.

        Reply
        • LilianGardner

          I’m looking forward to read from where I left off. I must know more about the bomb.
          Happy writing!

          Reply
          • Evelyn Sinclair

            The truth? The one bomb fell, missed the power station and ended up in the jungle. No-one was injured. Meanwhile the BBC world news reported a successful raid and ten square miles around the station razed. The reporter was based 500 miles west of the location targetted.

          • LilianGardner

            Excellent finish!

          • Rose Green

            Truth is often stranger than fiction, they say! Good luck with your writing.

          • Evelyn Sinclair

            Thank you for reading.I’ve taken the 1000 words a day challenge this week and my ‘book’ has grown to the 12000 word point – all going well

  19. TerriblyTerrific

    Makes the story good! Thank you!

    Reply
  20. Judi Gregoroff Plante

    I don’t need to join a group to make me write, but I do think being part of a group like this will make my writing time more fun. I’m a few days from 78. But I’ve been writing on my memoir for over 6 years. If I had known some things that I’ve learned in the last couple years, my book would be a New York Times Best Seller right now!! Seriously, I’ve learned so much from those like Joe here, that I’m planning on launching my memoir about the middle of April. Health challenges like both carpal tunnel and replacing my thumb, both in the same surgery on my right hand and I’m right handed. I took a long needed break and learned to color some beautiful art, work just for adults to color, with my left hand. I plan on rewriting some of my earlier work, in this seven day period, which I need to tie my book together. That is where I need prompting. I think we can encourage each other to write and to feel accomplished. Glad to meet all of you.

    Reply
    • Judi Gregoroff Plante

      Yup! I’m truly in the wrong place at the right time. I think I will stay awhile. Are some parts of what is written by us okay to post? If so approx. how many words. Sorry i don’t now where I am, so I probably sound way off track.

      Reply
  21. David H. Safford

    Great post, Pamela! I’m reading The Story Grid now, too, and while I’m not that far in, it’s already on my “All-Writers-Must-Read-This!” list!

    Reply
  22. Rose Green

    The inciting incident in my WIP – a murder – happens just before the start of the story. The opening scene is my MC – the local police chief – investigating the murder scene. What makes this murder different is that the victim is the local ‘nice guy’, the one without an enemy in the world. Over the course of the novel, however, we encounter a series of potential suspects; our victim’s life wasn’t as clear cut and rosy as it appears. The resolution is the solving of the crime; the surprise is that the guilty party is (hopefully) the last person the reader expected.

    A secondary inciting incident is when my MC’s best friend decides to leave. How will she cope without her friend’s ear to bend every five minutes? Well, there is a potential romantic situation!

    I really love this story and its characters. I just really need to knuckle down and edit the thing!

    Reply

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