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.
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!
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Definition of the Inciting Incident
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.
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:
- Inciting Incident
- Rising Action/Progressive Complications
- Dilemma (Crisis)
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
- 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.
- 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.
- The Haunting of Hill House
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pluck by J.H. Bunting (my forthcoming novel!)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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!
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.
Need 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!
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.