The inciting incident is often defined as “the thing that kickstarts the story.” And that definition can lead to some confusion about what the inciting incident is.
Take the original Star Wars film. What kickstarts that story?
- An oppressive emperor spurring a rebellion?
- Darth Vader capturing Princess Leia?
- Luke’s finding Leia’s SOS?
- Luke’s tracking down Obi-Wan Kenobe?
- Luke’s finding his aunt and uncle dead?
All of these could be said to “kickstart the story,” which is perhaps why even seasoned writers make claims that there can be multiple inciting incidents or that it can occur before the story even beings.
But only one of the events in that list above is the inciting incident. Of course, one might argue, why does it even matter which of those events we call the inciting incident? And I would tend to agree that obsessing over the “correct” labeling of structural components is mostly useless. But in this case, I think a misunderstanding of the role an inciting incident plays within a story is akin to a misunderstanding of story altogether.
Main Character Involvement
Labeling the inciting incident the “kickstart” of the story is unhelpful because it doesn’t specify what’s starting. It doesn’t kickstart the problems within the story world. It doesn’t kickstart the antagonist’s involvement in the plot.
The inciting incident kickstarts the main character’s involvement in the story.
It revolves entirely and exlusively around the main character.
The problems in Luke’s world certainly begin with an oppressive emperor and the capture of Princess Leia. But Luke’s involvement doesn’t begin with those things. His invitation comes after Obi-Wan Kenobe sees the message from Leia and then invites Luke to learn the ways of the force and accompany him to Alderaan.
That’s our first criterion for what the inciting incident actually is. Main character involvement.
The Prologue Incident
I like to differentiate a “prologue incident” from an inciting incident. Some stories open with a scene illustrating or spurring the big, story-wide problem that will plague the main character.
Star Wars opens with Vader capturing Leia, emblematic of the empire’s oppression. Game of Thrones introduces the white walkers in its prologue, which will be the thing that threatens the existence of all humans within Westeros as the epic proceeds. The Matrix introduces the agents in its prologue, which, again, will plague the protagonists through the entire trilogy. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle illustrates the purchase of the poison that will be used in the murder of Edgar’s uncle (this story is basically a retelling of Hamlet).
All of these prologues establish very important problems.
But do they involve the main character?
Well, I would say they come to affect the main character, but in none of the scenes mentioned above does the main character play a role.
And even when a prologue incident does include the main character, as it does in Harry Potter (scarred by the man who killed his parents) or Batman (witness to his parents’ murder), those are incidents that establish a baseline within the story world and a source of the main character’s angst.
But the inciting incident doesn’t establish a baseline; it offers an escape from it.
Here’s where we start to get to the importance of the inciting incident to the whole of the story. The inciting incident is, as John Yorke phrases it, an “invitation to make a break with the old self that will be shed in the climax of the story.”
There are two important concepts here: the first has to do with the notion of the invitation; the second has to do with how the inciting incident reverberates throughout the story.
First: the invitation. I often stress the fact that the inciting incident invites. In the hero’s journey, it’s referred to as the “call to adventure,” and an important thing about a call or invitation is that it can be refused. In other words, it offers the main character a choice.
Harry is given no choice when Voldemort kills his parents. He is given a choice when he’s literally invited to Hogwarts.
It’s absolutely crucial to the inciting incident that a choice is presented. Not a commitment. That will come later.
Take Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Here’s the wikipedia summary of the very beginning:
As a thirteen-year-old boy, Theo Decker’s life is turned upside down when he and his mother visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, including a favorite painting of hers, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. There, he becomes intrigued by a red-headed girl with an elderly man. A bomb explodes in the museum, killing his mother and several other visitors.
In the rubble, Theo encounters the old man who gives him a ring and delivers an enigmatic message before dying. Believing that the man is pointing at The Goldfinch, Theo takes it during his panicked escape.
What’s the inciting incident there? Is it the explosion in the museum?
Ha! No. There’s no invitation there, right? It’s when Theo encounters the old man who points to the painting that we get an invitation and a choice.
Here’s the wikipedia summary of the beginning of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close:
Oskar Schell is a nine-year-old boy whose father, Thomas Schell, died in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The novel begins after the tragedy, with Oskar narrating. Since his father’s death, Oskar struggles with insomnia, panic attacks, and depression. He often describes the feeling of depression as wearing heavy boots, and deals with this by giving himself bruises. His relationship with his mother has also become strained, particularly as she has started dating a man named Ron, whom he resents for replacing his father.
One day, in his father’s closet, Oskar finds a key in a small envelope inside a vase that he accidentally broke; in the keyshop he finds the name Black and thinks this has something to do with the key. Curious, Oskar sets out on a mission to contact every person in New York City with the last name of Black.
Quiz time again: is the inciting incident the death of Oskar’s father? When does Oskar come upon an invitation? When does he make a choice?
It’s the key in the small envelope! That’s the invitation. That’s what spurs a decision.
The Narrative Purpose
And then that decision is going to reverberate throughout the story.
Again, the inciting incident is an invitation to make a break with the old self.
So Harry Potter’s inciting incident definitely isn’t Voldemort’s trying to kill him. The inciting incident is the thing that invites him to discover his new self. And since that new self is characterized by bravery, friendship, belonging, love, and knowledge of his magical roots, the invitation is to a community of wizards and witches who knew his parents and accept him as a friend (and Gryffindors happen to be characterized by their bravery).
The inciting incident is thus the point at which your main character is presented with an opportunity to change. It’s like the incident asks of the character, Do you want to find out who you really are? It may ask some other question (like Do you want to attend Hogwarts?), but the underlying question is almost always about the character’s true identity.
When Oskar finds the key among his father’s things, a question is posed to him: Did his father have some secret wisdom he wished for Oskar to unlock?
And in essence, the answer to that will be yes: Oskar discovers the extent to which other friends and family have also been affected by loss and that the key to healing is through connection. He will evolve from resentment to connection, from being closed to being open. And that openness all begins with a key.
The Third Way
So the inciting incident takes the character in an unexpected direction.
Of course, prior to the inciting incident, we certainly want the character to face some struggles and problems. It’s pretty boring if everything is going well. But those initial problems won’t be the ones that push the character toward change because those problems won’t be the ones that spur the character to face their own flaws.
I think of it like this: the very beginning typically has the main character living a life in which there is a struggle between two things (usually).
But the inciting incident shows up in the midst of this debate between thing 1 and thing 2 and introduces a third thing.
Harry Potter’s initial struggle is about how to handle the Dursleys. Fight them (with magic he doesn’t quite know enough about) or hide from them? But then the invite comes and a third way is presented: leave them. Find a better family.
In The Rosie Project, Don’s trying to find a wife via a questionnaire. Will it succeed or not? Then along comes the third way: Rosie with her Father Project.
In Princess Bride, will Buttercup find a way to survive her marriage to someone who is not her true love? The third way: she’s kidnapped and has to worry about surviving that instead.
In Game of Thrones: Will Ned Stark face the threat from the north or not? The third way: become the hand of the king.
In Hunger Games, Katniss struggles with helping her family survive via illegal hunting with her friend Gale. Can she keep this up? The third way: unite with Peeta to triumph in the hunger games.
Give your main character a desire and a struggle, and then swoop in with the inciting incident to deliver an invite toward an unexpected “third way.”
What about En Media Res?
As you likely know, “en media res” means “in the middle of things” and refers to the tactic of beginning in the midst of some ongoing action. I see short stories start en media res, seemingly lacking an inciting incident because it has happened on page 0 or before. Flash fiction certainly often lacks an inciting incident.
It seems the more you compress a story’s available space, the more apt you might be to cut off the inciting incident, leaving it to be described through backstory or merely implied via the action we’re witnessing. Longer works tend to have later inciting incidents. So in an epic series like Harry Potter or The Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), the inciting incident happens well into the story.
Can a novel have an inciting incident that occurs before page 1? I used to believe it was possible, but I’ve been wracking my brain for an example, and I can’t think of one. Let me know if you can.
By the Way
I’ve written before on the seemingly contradictory dual roles of the beginning—to both hook and present the “ordinary world.” Check out that article for more. And for a primer on novel structure, see my compendium of resources and my aggregate structure. Got a question about inciting incidents? Chime in in the comments, inquire in a more private format at The Woods, or email me.
Thanks for the clarity here of how the inciting incident functions in terms of the main character and the full story arc. I like the idea especially that to misunderstand how this functions is a kind of misunderstanding of the story as a whole. I’ve been trying to think, though, about some less adventure-focused stories… I’m thinking, for instance, about The Color Purple, where we might say that Celie is being *invited* to change many times before she actually begins to, or Wide Sargasso Sea, where Antoinette is in a sense fighting to stay who she is while her husband attempts to change her. I worry about an oversimplification of the story, in other words, by trying to nail down a core structure. On the one hand tools like this and the Hero’s Journey are really useful in terms of mapping out a story, but I fear a kind of cookie-cutter loss of nuance. What do you think is the best way to use tools like this without losing the individuality of a story?
I’m very skeptical of story structure templates, especially when we get into plot points and pinch points and all that. We can certainly say, though, that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. How many further elements can we add to that while still remaining universal to storytelling without hemming any story in to a structure that seems more suited to very external adventures? Can we say that stories have the five elements that Robert McKee and Shawn Coyne propose: inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, resolution? Would those five elements preclude nuance and variation? You ask some great questions here. I think the best way to use tools like this is to begin by asking the questions you’re asking (To what extent is this tool applicable to all storytelling and therefore to my story?), and then if you determine that it is universal, your story retains its individuality through its specific application of the principle behind the tool. One of the great ironies of writing is that the more concrete and specific a writer is, the more universal the writing tends to be.
I’m trying on as many ways to plot as I can. With each new one, I cherry pick the elements that trigger a response in me.
One method that’s proving itself to be useful, universally, is J Thorn’s Conflict, Choice, Consequence (in his Three Story Method). They can be used to view each narrative level: the overarching story, Act, Chapter, and scene.
one thing I’ve read is that the inciting incident should take place within the first 3 chapters. What are your thoughts, Tim?
I’m reluctant to give any sort of rule like that because chapter lengths vary and book lengths vary, but it makes sense that if the reader is encountering more than three chapters worth of establishing the stasis or “normal world,” it may throw them off what the real story is.
What Charlotte said! Thank you so much, Tim.
Tim, I get more from your articles than I have from decades of classes. Thank you.
Thanks so much, Charlotte!