Plot Essentials: Inciting Incident

Photo credit: justonlysteve on Flickr
As over the years I’ve become a definite plotter, I thought now was as good a time as ever to write about some plot essentials, starting with my favorite: the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is the moment or event that changes your character’s life and sets them on the journey that is the rest of the book. It’s when Harry begins receiving acceptance letters to Hogwarts, when Clary sees the Shadowhunters kill a demon in a club, and when Tris’s faction test results are inconclusive, making her divergent.

The reason I love the inciting incident so much is two-fold—firstly, it’s the very first thing I figure out when plotting. Usually the inciting incident is where my story idea comes from—it’s the spark that sets off the rest of the brainstorming that uncovers the rest of the book. Second, the inciting incident is the first real taste of what to expect from the rest of the book.

The inciting incident is, by no means, an optional plot point. Without a life-altering event to catapult our characters in one direction or another, there isn’t a story. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the examples above.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (J.K. Rowling): If Harry was never accepted into Hogwarts, he would have continued to live in the cupboard under the stairs at Privet Drive, hidden from the rest of the world, in a rather boring, depressing life. Hogwarts-free Harry, as it turns out, isn’t really epic seven-book series fodder. 

  • City of Bones (Cassandra Clare): Had Clary never seen the Shadowhunters, she never would have begun to question the reality she knew, nor would she have encountered the hidden, paranormal world of Shadowhunters and angels and demons and werewolves and vampires and mages and all of that exciting stuff that makes The Mortal Instruments series so interesting. 

  • Divergent (Veronica Roth): Had Tris’s test shown expected results (that is, that she belongs in Abnegation, or another single faction), she would have chosen a faction and lived a normal life in whatever faction she chose. The end. 

As you can see, without their respective inciting incidents, the above stories aren’t really novel-worthy stories. But with the incident that changes the protagonist’s life comes the fascinating stories that we all love and adore. And that’s the power of the inciting incident.

What examples of inciting incidents can you think of from your favorite books, movies or TV shows? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Working on a plot for your WIP? Writer @Ava_Jae discusses the importance of the inciting incident. (Click to tweet
Do you know your WIP's inciting incident? Here's why it's so important to identify early on. (Click to tweet)


Robin Red said...

I'm putting together a new story, and the inciting incident is where I'm stuck. Not sure how to approach the big "Surprise, cloudy with a chance of plot". Another book I'm writing (Yep, I'm one of those multi-book writers because I have Attention Deficient—Ooh shiny!) has no inciting incident that I can see… Does the inciting incident work the same with sequels? I guess I'm still figuring out the plot.

S/N: Just realized I'm your top commenter, which I find both embarrassing and hilarious. I usually end up checking your blog because I'm procrastinating my writing :)

Ava Jae said...

Inciting incidents are in every novel, sequel or not. They're basically the event that kick-starts the hero into their journey, so without it, the MC's life doesn't change and there isn't a story. It doesn't always have to be a dramatic incident—for example, in The Fault in Our Stars it's when Hazel meets Augustus and in Every Day it's when A meets Rhiannon and starts to fall for her.

So...yes. It works basically the same way with sequels.

And yes! You are my top commenter! Which I super appreciate because I love comments and you've contributed so so much to the Writability community. Thanks!

Also, I am happy to help you procrastinate any time. Though you should probably get back to writing now. :)

Robin Red said...

What would you say is the inciting incident in A Million Suns, sequel to Across the Universe? I'm writing now, so don't worry too much about me :D

Ava Jae said...

Hmm. Sounds like maybe you could use a break? I find that sometimes, taking a short break from writing and reading a lot in between helps get the urge to write back.

Ava Jae said...

Err, honestly, I haven't read that book in a WHILE, so I don't really remember...

Robin Red said...

I think I've figured out the inciting incident in my sequel, but it's not as exciting as the one in the first book. I think maybe for sequels that continue an overarching plot, an inciting incident may be more subtle, as the looming danger has already been hinted at or partially revealed.

Ava Jae said...

That's true, but on the other hand, each book needs a complete arc within the series (which is why even series books still have their own plot essentials to meet).

Andi-Roo said...

ah, inciting incident! I was cruising right along rocketing along to my midpoint, when suddenly I stalled out. Took a look over my shoulder to see what bump I'd hit along the road, and realized I'd gone over a pothole -- a HUGE one! As it turns out, the reason I couldn't make things MOVE anymore was because I was missing a strong inciting incident. Oh, I had a weak one, and it felt right at the time, but it wasn't strong enough. I had to raise the stakes. I figured out how to fix it, but now I'm rewriting the entire first act. So... yay? Funny to stumble along this old post {I'm procrastinating, too, Robin Red!} right as I'm fumbling with its very subject matter.

Ava Jae said...

Rewriting is tough, but it sounds like your MS will definitely be better for it! Upping the stakes, I suspect, will help a lot as far as the rest of the plot goes. :)

I'm happy you stumbled across this post at such a perfect time! And I think I'm mostly okay with this being a procrastination spot for writers, as long as it gets them back to writing. ;)

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