On Pacing and Structure (Part 9): The Inciting Incident

What is an Inciting Incident?

Whether you are writing a story using the The Hero’s Journey, The Three Act Structure, or the Five Act Format, all of them have to start somewhere. The Inciting Incident is where the plot of the story is kicked off. On a functional level, the Inciting Incident serves as the act break point between the static ‘Before’ section of the story transition into the active ‘During’ section of the story.

  • In the Three Act Format, the Inciting Incident marks the break between Act 1 and Act 2. The same is true of the 5 Act Format.
  • In The Hero’s Journey, the Inciting Incident occurs between two plot points: ‘The Call to Adventure’ and ‘Refusing the Call/Jumping at the Call.’
  • In the ‘Save the Cat!’ method of storytelling, the Inciting Incident occurs when the author introduces the ‘Catalyst’ plot point.
  • In the ‘Seven Act Format’ the Inciting Incident coincides with ‘Plot Turn 1.’
  • In ‘The Heroine’s Journey,’ the Inciting Incident coincides with the ‘Broken Family’ plot point.

What do all these formats have in common vis-a-vis their use of the Inciting Incident storytelling plot turn? The Inciting Incident usually serves to end the first major act of the story and begin the second act. (Where an Act is defined as the a cluster of related major storytelling beats.)

Examples:

  • (NOTE: As always, I will be using examples of my choosing. I advise you to try this out for yourself with stories of your own choosing. There’s no better tutor than first hand experience.)
  • Hero’s Journey: In ‘Star Wars: A New Hope,’ the Inciting Incident is when R2-D2 gives Luke the “You’re my only hope” message.
  • 5 Act Story: In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the Inciting Incident is when Romeo and Juliet initially meet.
  • Save the Cat!: In ‘Sabriel,’ the Inciting Incident is when the titular character Sabriel receives her dead father’s weapons, and then sets out to solve his murder.
  • 7 Point Plot Structure: In ‘Curse of Chalion,’ the Inciting Incident is when the protagonist Cazaril’s childhood employer hires him back after Cazaril washes out of the military with PTSD. His new job of tutor/secretary/bodyguard to Princess Iselle is the plot of the novel.

Now for some counter examples. It is not always true that the Inciting Incident marks the transition between the first and second acts.

  • The Heroine’s Journey: In ‘The Rape of Persephone,’ the story begins with Persephone being abducted. That abduction is the Inciting Incident.
  • Genre Mystery: Some mystery stories begin when the investigators show up to the scene of the crime and try to unravel what happened. The inciting incident- the murder- happens both offscreen AND before the book begins in these cases.

Based on these examples, we can see that authors usually utilize the Inciting Incident at the end of Act 1, but it’s not always the case. Delaying the Inciting Incident past act 2 is generally inadvisable. (Why do I say this? I’ve read several books which have delayed Inciting Incidents, and all of them were disappointing.) Nevertheless, in all these examples, the Inciting Incident is when the main plot of the story begins. Usually the Inciting Incident is when outside forces intrude into the daily, static life of the protagonist and force change to happen.


From here on out I’m going to focus on the more common ‘Inciting Incident as the Act 1/Act 2 bridge.’


There’s a narrative structure truism that one Act ends when the protagonist makes a decision which cannot be unmade. The Inciting Incident, as the Act 1/Act 2 bridge, can play into this truism.

Examples

  • In ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ Luke is roped into joining the Rebellion when his family was killed. He made the choice to go on an adventure with Obi-Wan and possibly get revenge.

But the reverse is also true.

  • In ‘Transformation’ by Carol Berg, the protagonist is a slave. The Inciting Incident is when the protagonist is bought by a new slave owner. As he is a slave, he never made a choice.

When using the Inciting Incident as the Act 1/Act 2 bridge, we need to inspect the foundations upon which that bridge is built. So let’s take a look at Act 1, and Act 2. To this end we will discuss three topics: Theme, Fatal Flaw and Status Quo.

THEME

When you write a book, you want your book to have a theme. If you’ve already written your book and you wrote it without thinking about a theme, you haven’t done anything wrong. When I write stories, I discover the theme of my stories in the process of revision. Then while editing, I double-down on that theme by adding more thematic elements to the book during revisions.

Example

  • I am presently writing a book whose theme is ‘Fatherhood.’
    • I discovery wrote this book, meaning I wrote this book blind without having an outline. When I started writing the book, I didn’t know my book would have a theme of ‘Fatherhood.’
    • After I finished writing the first few drafts, I noticed that I had ‘Fatherhood’ as a recurring element in the story.
      • The protagonist and his wife have children.
      • The protagonist and his father have a troubled relationship.
      • The antagonist and his son had a troubled relationship.
    • When I noticed these three recurring elements, I decided to double down on it and make it the story’s theme. I added more ‘Fatherhood-adjacent’ plot elements to explore the theme further. I re-wrote the ending to make the theme play into the finale.

Once you have identified your story’s theme, go back to Act 1 and foreshadow what your theme will be. From a structural perspective, the main purpose of a theme is to add foreshadowing to a novel.

Each act in your novel should reframe the theme, casting it in a new light. For example,

  • In my book, in Act 1 the Theme of Fatherhood is presented as a net-negative. The protagonist and his father feud, and the antagonist and his son feud.
  • In my book, in Act 2 the Theme of Fatherhood is cast in a new light. How? The protagonist learns that his wife is pregnant.
  • Then in Act 3, the Theme is cast in yet another new light. How? His wife dumps him, and she decides to cut him out of his children’s lives.
  • Then in Act 4, the theme is reframed yet again. How? The protagonist and his father reconcile their differences and become friends.
  • And finally in Act 5, the theme is resolved. The protagonist and his wife get back together, and the antagonist loses the final battle in part because of his unreconciled feud with his son.
    • AKA the protagonist wins the novel because he learns the lesson of the theme of ‘Be a good father,’ meanwhile the antagonist loses the novel because he fails to learn the lesson ‘be a good father.’

As you outline/rewrite your novel, I suggest you try something similar with your story. Try to identify your story’s theme, and change how that theme is staged in every act of your story.

Getting back on topic, try to incorporate the theme into the Inciting Incident in some way. I like to structure my stories so that the Inciting Incident is a parallel story beat to the climax at the end of the novel. If the protagonist fails somehow at the beginning of the novel, the protagonist should succeed at the end, usually due to some lesson they learned over the course of the story. That ‘lesson’ is the theme of your book.

  • Your protagonist should go from a state of (No Clue About Theme) to (Starting to Learn the Theme) to finally (Has Learned the Theme).

The Inciting incident is the point in the story when the protagonist begins the transition from (No Clue About Theme) to (Starting to Learn the Theme).

FATAL FLAW

The Fatal Flaw of the protagonist relates back to the story’s theme. If the protagonist’s flaw is pride, the story’s theme is humility. If the protagonist’s flaw is a gambling addiction, the theme must be learning self control. And on and on. In the best books the Fatal Flaw should not be some inborn physical characteristic (too short/too weak); it should be a mental or emotional trait which can be improved upon through hard work and storytelling.

Here’s the key: in Act 1, well before the Inciting Incident, you want to establish the protagonist’s Fatal Flaw.

I personally enjoy reading books where the Inciting Incident is a trauma or setback where the protagonist’s Fatal Flaw is somehow brought in, and shown to be a disadvantage. If they gamble, the Inciting Incident is when they gamble away their money and now have to do something risky to get it back.

To restate

  • In Act 1, establish the Fatal Flaw- perhaps showing why the protagonist likes that flaw and doesn’t want it to change.
    • In the example of a gambling addiction, show the protagonist win money.
  • In the Inciting Incident, the protagonist’s Fatal Flaw is the cause of their undoing, forcing them to go on an adventure.
    • In the example of a gambling addiction, show the protagonists losing all their money and having to go on an adventure to get it back.
  • At the end of the book’s climax, the protagonist will triumph over their fatal flaw, and succeed in the book thereby.
    • In the gambling addiction example, the protagonist now refuses to gamble ever again.

Here are some examples:

  • In ‘Paladin of Souls’ by Lois McMaster Bujold, the protagonist’s Fatal Flaw is ‘self hate,’ and the book’s theme is ‘rejuvenation through companionship.’ The protagonist heals her self-hate over the course of the book with the help of her companions.
    • The Inciting Incident was the death of her mother, her mother being the living avatar of the protagonist’s self-pity and regrets. With her mother gone, the protagonist could at last thematically move on from her regrets.
  • In ‘Lirael’ by Garth Nix, the protagonist’s Fatal Flaw is ‘self pity,’ and the book’s central themes are ‘finding purpose in work’ and ‘rejuvenation through companionship.’ The protagonist overcomes her depression with the help of her friends, and by keeping her hands busy.
    • The Inciting Incident was the protagonist’s aborted suicide attempt, saved by her family. Being embraced by her family thematically provides her the first does of companionship she needs after a loveless childhood.

Counterexample:

  • In ‘The Name of the Wind’ by Patrick Rothfuss, the protagonist’s Fatal Flaw is ‘pride,’ and the book’s theme is ‘self-destruction.’ The protagonist never overcomes his pride, and so the theme of self-destruction (apparently) comes to pass.
    • The inciting Incident in Kvothe’s life was the death of his family at the hands of the Chandrian. Their deaths drove him to leave his average life behind and become powerful- triggering his fall into ‘pride’ and thereby ‘self-destruction.’
    • Thematically, Kvothe is falling for the same trap as the Chandrian who killed his family: pride and a desire for power.

If you are writing a book, you do not have to interweave fatal flaws and themes into your inciting incident. However doing so will usually make your story more resonant and memorable.


Want to read the rest of this series? Here ya go.

  1. On Pacing and Structure (Part 1): The Basics
  2. On Pacing and Structure (Part 2): The Hero’s Journey
  3. On Pacing and Structure (Part 3): The Three Act Structure
  4. On Pacing and Structure: Easy Structural Tips and Tricks
  5. On Pacing and Structure (Part 4): Five Act Format
  6. On Pacing and Structure (Part 5): Save the Cat!
  7. On Pacing and Structure (Part 6): Seven Point Plot Structure
  8. On Pacing and Structure (Part 7): The Fundamental Principles- What is an Act, and How Do You Use Them?
  9. On Pacing and Structure (Part 8): The Heroine’s Journey

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