What is the Inciting Incident Definition?
The inciting incident is a ball of chaos that spins into the story and knocks the protagonist’s life out of balance. It puts the events of the story into motion and introduces the reader to the global conflict in a compelling way. It is the first of the FIVE COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING.
The inciting incident sets up the rest of your UNIT OF STORY and establishes the arena in which the CONTROLLING IDEA of the story operates. The reader expectations are grounded by the inciting incident and draws the audience into the flow of the narrative.
2 Categories of Inciting Incidents
Every inciting incident falls into one of two categories:
- Causal – An active choice by an AVATAR. Examples include a wife leaving her husband, a man enlisting in the Marines, a dentist molesting a patient he’s put under anesthesia.
- Coincidental – Something unexpected, random or accidental happens. Examples include a poor man winning the lottery, an unexpected typhoon, a piano falling out of a window and killing a man’s dog.
There are times when an inciting incident is at first ambiguous to the reader. For instance, at the beginning of a CRIME STORY it may be unclear whether a death was caused by accident or by AVATAR action. However, this is not a third category because the reader always eventually discovers that it was either causal or coincidental.
3 Placements of Inciting Incidents
The inciting incident can appear in one of three places in the UNIT OF STORY:
- Immediate – At the very beginning of the UNIT OF STORY. This immediately hooks the reader into the action but forces them to quickly acclimate to the ALTERNATE WORLD.
- Delayed – Later in the UNIT OF STORY (though still towards the beginning). This immerses the reader in the ALTERNATE WORLD before having to process the inciting incident.
- Off-page – Before the UNIT OF STORY so the reader begins in medias res — in the middle of things. This increases the narrative drive by dropping the reader in the middle of the story, but requires more work to acclimate to the ALTERNATE WORLD and events.
4 Rules of the Global Inciting Incident
The most important inciting incident you must choose is the event that kicks off your global story.
There are 4 rules to ensure you pick the right one for your story.
1. Genre Conventions
There are GENRE OBLIGATORY MOMENTS that dictate the global inciting incident a story must have. A CRIME STORY begins with the discovery of a body or other inciting crime. A LOVE STORY begins with a lovers meet moment. An ACTION STORY begins with an attack or the threat of death.
2. Create Imbalance
The inciting incident must knock the protagonist’s life out of balance. The imbalance is so big that it forces the protagonist to take steps to restore equilibrium.
3. Invisible Elements
There must be an element of the inciting incident that the protagonist does not fully understand. The protagonist underestimates the impact it will have on their life along with the change required to set their life back in order.
4. Point to the End
The inciting incident must promise and connect to the ending of the story. The ending of the story must be both inevitable and surprising in the context of the inciting incident.
Inciting Incident Examples
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Handmaid Offred arrives at her assigned family to be impregnated.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – The cousin of a man’s long lost love moves next door to him.
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville – A young man gets a job on a monomaniac’s whale ship.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – A fighter pilot can’t get grounded for being crazy because he says he’s crazy and crazy people don’t know they’re crazy.
- Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – Guy meets Bruno on the train.
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – Hazel is forced to go to a cancer support group.
Inciting Incidents Throughout the Story
Be sure to mix up the categories and placement as the story unfolds so the story does not become repetitive.
What’s Next After the Inciting Incident?
In response to the inciting incident, the protagonist develops a strategy to correct the imbalance and get back to the status quo, but they still operate under their established cognitive frame until the strategy fails when the protagonist reaches the TURNING POINT PROGRESSIVE COMPLICATION (Commandment Two).
- The Five Commandments of Storytelling by Danielle Kiowski (Portions of this article have been taken from this book.)
- In-depth Course: The Five Commandments of Storytelling
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