What is The Inciting Incident in a Story? [Definition & Examples]

an inciting incident marked with caution tape

Key Takeaways:

The inciting incident is the part of a story that makes you think, “Woah, what just happened?”! It’s the unexpected event that kicks off a story’s main conflict and sets the main character(s) off on their new adventure!

Great examples are when Neo meets Morpheus in The Matrix or when Gandalf visits Bilbo in The Hobbit.

Click to go straight to my analysis of the best inciting incident examples!

In storytelling, the inciting incident is the moment that sets everything in motion in a good story.

It’s the event that kicks off the plot and starts the conflict. Without it, there is no story!

When I write, the inciting incident is one of the very first things I have in mind when I first come up with a story idea. To me, the start of the journey is critical to hooking in the audience and setting the stage for the rest of the tale. If it’s lackluster or boring, I have to go back to the drawing board.

This has been true for me regardless of the medium or genre, whether it was my horror novel, Iron Dogs, or my rom-com screenplay, The Unsent Letter, or any other work in between. In each case, I wanted to come up with a great way to upend my protagonist’s life and set them on a new path in an exciting or unusual way that also feels believable to the setting and genre.

In this article, we will discuss what the inciting incident is and give you some examples from famous books and films to help you understand it better.

We will also show you how to write the inciting event for your short story, novel, or screenplay.

Let’s get started!

What is the Inciting Incident in a Story?

infographic describing what the inciting incident in a story is

Let’s start with the inciting incident definition. In storytelling, it refers to the key event or circumstance that sets in motion the central conflict of the story. Without this crucial ingredient, the story would lack purpose and direction.

The incident occurs early on in the story, typically after the main character’s ordinary world is introduced, and its effects are felt throughout the entire plot.

It is often the catalyst for change, spurring the protagonist to action along a new path. Some would say that this is when the real story starts.

In some cases, it is a direct result of the main character‘s choices or actions. In others, it is an external force that throws the character’s normal life into chaos.

Regardless of its source, the inciting incident creates tension and conflict, driving the story forward and keeping readers engaged.

The Role of the Inciting Incident In Story Structure

The inciting incident of a story is the catalyst that sets the story in motion.

Typically occurring early on in the story, this pivotal event thrusts the main character on their journey, and it sets the tone for the rest of the narrative.

The inciting event can be something minor, like a character receiving a letter, or something big, like a natural disaster.

Regardless of its size, it must be significant enough to change the course of the story. Without this moment, a story would simply be a series of events with no apparent purpose or direction.

The inciting incident is what gives a story its structure and purpose. It is the hook that draws in the reader and allows them to follow along on the journey and see how the characters change and grow.

Freytag’s Pyramid

Freytag’s Pyramid is a visual representation of the basic elements of a good story arc. Outlined by German writer Gustav Freytag in his 1852 book Technique of the Drama, it has five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.

freytag's pyramid

The exposition is the story’s beginning when the main characters and setting are introduced.

The rising action is the section of the story when the tension builds and the stakes increase.

The climax is the dramatic turning point of the story when the conflict reaches its height and is resolved.

The falling action is the section of the story after the climax when the tension dissipates and everything is wrapped up.

The denouement (or resolution) is the very end of the story when all loose ends are tied up.

rising falling action in a story

Freytag’s Pyramid is a helpful tool for understanding how a story is structured and how to create suspense and tension.

While similar to the three-act structure outlined by Plato in Poetics, there are marked differences between the 3-act plot structure diagram and Freytag’s Pyramid, particularly in terms of the length of rising action, the point of occurrence of the climax, and the length of falling action (as illustrated in the diagrams above).

In either plot structure, the inciting incident is the plot point that acts as the transition from the introduction to the rising action on the pyramid.

RELATED: Check out my thoughts on why low stakes are killing modern Hollywood!

How to Write The Inciting Incident

inciting incident

Begin by acknowledging that the inciting incident is your story’s catalyst. It’s the twist or turn that disrupts your protagonist’s world, challenging them with a fresh problem they can’t ignore.

The inciting incident should be intriguing and raise questions the reader wants to be answered. It should also be relevant to the overall plot of the story. Here are a few steps to take when you are thinking about how to write your inciting incident!

Step 1: Inject Intrigue

Your inciting incident shouldn’t just introduce a problem; it should pique curiosity. Aim for a moment that leaves readers with questions they’re eager to have answered as they journey through your tale.

Step 2: Keep it Relevant

To keep your story flowing smoothly, make sure the incident feels like it belongs, fitting snugly within the big picture. Rather than being a momentary detour, it should stand as a consequential event that sets the trajectory of the entire narrative in motion.

Step 3: Embrace the Unexpected

Let your inciting incident be the curveball no one saw coming. It’s those unexpected turns that make readers lean in, eager for what’s next.

Step 4: Create an Emotional Hook

The inciting incident should not only engage the reader’s mind but also their heart. Make them care about the protagonist’s journey, forging an emotional connection early on.

Step 5: Lay the Groundwork for Conflict

Use this moment to introduce the central conflict or challenge that’ll propel your story forward. This conflict will become the backbone of your protagonist’s journey.

Step 6: Spring into Action

Think of the inciting incident as the starter’s pistol. It shouldn’t just go “click”; it should fire up the race, setting the energy and feel for the entire story’s run!

Step 7: Leave Them Wanting More

A gripping inciting incident will have readers biting their nails, itching to dive deeper into your story and hang out more with your cast of characters!

Bonus – Step 8: Review and Refine

Once you’ve penned down the inciting incident, step back and reflect. Ensure it acts as a magnet, drawing readers deeper into the heart of your story and paving the way for a transformative character arc.

Don’t forget to use the best book-writing software or screenwriting software programs to write and format the inciting incident in your book.

You can even use artificial intelligence (AI) story-writing software to help you come up with plot points, dialogue, and character development!

Stacked Books

The Importance of the Inciting Incident

Have you ever wondered what that special something is that nudges a story from everyday life into an unforgettable adventure? That’s the magic of the inciting incident! This moment is like the sprinkle of fairy dust that sets the plot really going. Without it, our story might just feel like reading someone’s uneventful diary.

Imagine the inciting incident as a friendly nudge, urging our main character to step outside their comfort zone. It’s that unforgettable twist or turn that whispers, “Things won’t ever be the same again.”

This golden moment does more than just add interest. It’s the heart of what makes stories so fun to read or watch. It’s that first drop on a roller coaster, ensuring you – the reader – are strapped in, eager to join the characters on their transformative journey.

Here’s a great video that I found from Jerry Jenkins – all about what exactly is an inciting incident!

What Happens After the Inciting Incident?

Ever had a life event that turned everything topsy-turvy? In stories, that’s the inciting incident!

After this pivotal moment, our hero’s journey truly kicks off. Suddenly, their comfy world isn’t so comfy anymore, leading them to face some daunting challenges and perhaps learn a life lesson or two.

The storyline? It’s like adding twists to a roller coaster ride. Hurdles pop up, tensions mount, and the stakes feel like they’re sky-high. Just when you think you’re at the story’s peak, BAM, an epic climax hits. Once the thrill subsides, the tale eases into a soothing resolution, answering those burning questions.

We wrap up seeing how our main character adjusts to their changed life, often with a mix of nostalgia and newfound wisdom.

How Do I Write an Inciting Incident for a Subplot?

It’s easy to get bogged down in the main plot of a story and forget about the secondary plots or subplots. But a good subplot can be just as important as the main plot, adding depth and intrigue to the story. So how do you write an inciting incident for a subplot?

First, think about what your subplot is about. What is the goal of the subplot? What conflict needs to be resolved? Once you know the purpose of your subplot, you can start to brainstorm possible inciting incidents.

An inciting incident is an event that sets the conflict in motion and creates tension. It should be unexpected and deliver a sudden jolt to the characters involved.

For example, say your subplot is about a secret love affair. A possible inciting incident could be one of the lovers being married to someone else. This event creates a sense of urgency and danger and throws the characters into a situation where they must choose between their feelings and responsibilities.

Remember, a subplot inciting incident should be unexpected, cause ripples of conflict throughout the story, and be tied to the main plot simultaneously.

With this in mind, take some time to brainstorm possible incidents for your subplot. Once you have an idea you’re happy with, write it into your story and see how it affects the characters and the overall plot.

Examples of an Inciting Incident

Let’s look at some great inciting incident examples in popular books and films.

Example 1: Star Wars

star wars

Luke Skywalker’s grand adventure in George Lucas’s iconic Star Wars began with a seemingly small decision: Luke persuades his uncle Owen to purchase a quirky little droid named R2D2.

Little did he know, this droid held the blueprint to the ominous Death Star! From this purchase, a domino effect begins: Luke meets the wise Obi-Wan Kenobi, discovers truths about his father and the mystical Force, embarks on a daring mission to save Princess Leia, and joins the brave Rebel Alliance.

It’s fascinating to think that without R2D2 rolling into Luke’s life, our hero might never have taken up his lightsaber to save the galaxy from the dark clutches of the Emperor!

Example 2: Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone

Harry Potter

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, young Harry Potter is living a miserable life with his aunt and uncle when he is visited by a giant named Hagrid. Hagrid tells Harry he is a wizard and has been accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

This event completely changes Harry’s life, as he is thrust into a world of magic and adventure. He makes new friends, learns about his magical heritage, and confronts evil forces threatening him. The moment he learns he is actually a wizard sets in motion an exciting and uplifting story.

Example 3: The Hunger Games

Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is an excellent example of an effective inciting incident.

The story begins with Katniss volunteering to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a televised event in which two tributes from each of the twelve districts in a dystopian world are forced to compete in a fight to the death.

This selfless act triggers a series of events that leads to Katniss becoming a symbol of hope for the oppressed people of Panem.

The Hunger Games is an exciting story that builds to a thrilling climax. It all starts with an emotional inciting incident that immediately tugs at the heartstrings and establishes Katniss as a heroine worth following.

Example 4: The Great Gatsby

silver ring on silver ring

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a novel set in the Jazz Age and tells the story of Jay Gatsby, a man obsessed with wealth and status, as told from the perspective of Nick Carraway, a newcomer to the world of the New York elite.

The inciting incident in The Great Gatsby occurs when Nick accepts an invitation to a lavish party thrown by his mysterious neighbor, Jay. Thanks to this decision, Nick arranges a meeting between Jay and Daisy Buchanan, a beautiful socialite married to Tom Buchanan.

It sets in motion the tumultuous love triangle between the three that propels the rest of the story.

Final Thoughts

A compelling inciting incident is the moment that sets your story in motion and gets your characters moving. It propels your plot forward and reveals the conflict that will keep readers engaged.

As you craft your next work of fiction, be sure to start with a strong inciting incident that grabs your reader’s attention from the very beginning!

Common Questions (FAQs)

Can I skip an inciting incident in my story?

Absolutely, you can choose to skip the inciting incident in your story. However, keep in mind that it’s often the spark that kicks off the action and grabs your reader’s attention.

Where is the inciting incident in a story?

The inciting incident is the pivotal event that jumpstarts the story’s plot, thrusting the protagonist into conflict. Typically, it appears early on—within the first few chapters of a book or the initial 10-20 minutes of a movie. However, it can occasionally emerge after we’ve become familiar with the characters and their environment. This moment, whenever it strikes, reshapes the narrative and lays the groundwork for the ensuing drama.

How long should the inciting incident be?

It’s not so much about how long the inciting incident is, but how impactful. Sometimes it’s just a quick moment or a few lines of dialogue, and other times it might take a scene or two to unfold. The main goal? Make sure it shakes up the protagonist’s world and gets the story rolling. It should be long enough to grab your reader’s attention and dive into the main action.

Inciting Incident of a story

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