As you construct a story, it’s important to understand how to write an inciting incident. This is the moment that captures the reader’s attention and propels the main character into the plot of your story. Getting it right is essential, and that means understanding its role, the timing it requires, and how to make it compelling.
An inciting incident is the event that starts your story. If you think about some of the most successful stories you’ve read, you can probably identify the moment the action really began. Usually, it’s in the first couple of chapters or within the first act. It’s not always the first thing to happen in a story, but it’s the first thing that really matters.
Here are a few examples of inciting incidents from literature:
- In The Great Gatsby, Nick meets Gatsby for the first time.
- In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid tells Harry he’s a wizard.
- In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers meet at a ball and instantly fall in love.
You may notice that in some classic novels, the inciting incident doesn’t occur for several chapters. Often, readers will complain that it’s difficult to “get into” these books. Readers had different expectations when these books were written, but today, they expect you to grab their attention right away.
The way to do this is to place a hook right in the beginning of your story. This hook is the inciting incident. It drives your story forward, and it sucks your reader into the tale. Try to get the inciting incident into the first chapter of a novel or the first few paragraphs of a short story.
Knowing how to write an inciting incident is about understanding your reader. What will make your reader want to devour your book in one sitting? What does your reader look for in a story? Give your reader a taste of that right away in your inciting incident. These tips can help.
It’s tempting to include background on characters or information your reader might need to know later in the story, but your inciting incident needs to happen first. Bring in the background later in the form of flash-backs or memories, but start with the action. Start your story at the last possible moment, leaving the rest for later.
In many stories, the protagonist goes from being passive to making active choices. If your story is like this, a powerful external force can act as the inciting incident. Consider the tornado in The Wizard of Oz that literally sucked Dorothy into the story. Create your own tornado in the form of a strong external power that propels your main character on his or her journey.
One important tool for creating a great plot is increasing the urgency of the story with every event. If your inciting incident includes a sense of urgency, it will make your reader want to know what will happen next. Set the stakes high right away, but make sure you still have some room to raise them.
Beyond acting as the hook for your story, the inciting incident introduces the reader to how you’ll be telling this tale. If you have themes you plan to explore, lightly touch on them in the inciting incident. Similarly, the tone for this part of your story should match the tone you will use going forward.
The way you write can increase the tension and add drama to the inciting incident. Use these techniques to help:
- Include sensory details to make your reader feel like he or she is in the story.
- Use short sentences and quick action to convey a sense of drama.
- Bring in dialog to move the action forward quickly.
- Cut everything extraneous from the scene and stick to the action.
Readers love not knowing what will happen next. If you introduce uncertainty about your character, his or her fate, the setting, or another important element, your reader will need to read on to learn more.
An inciting incident needs to be unique to your story, but you can use these ideas to get your started:
- Your character discovers a secret letter.
- The protagonist accidentally injures or kills someone.
- A natural disaster occurs.
- The phone rings, and your character answers.
- A guest comes to your character’s home and causes upheaval.
- Your character loses his job.
- Something your character does makes her famous overnight.
- The protagonist gets a medical diagnosis.
- Something or someone your character loves disappears.
- Another character bullies your protagonist.
- Your protagonist opens a door (literal or figurative) and enters another world.
- Your character gets lost and panics.
Learning how to write an inciting incident is as important as writing a strong introduction for an essay. This is the reader’s first impression of your work. Make it a good one so the reader will stay with you throughout your story.