Inciting Incident

by | May 13, 2021

This is where something big happens!

Picking up from the previous post where we talked about the Intro, the next phase in the Seven Steps of Story Structure is the Inciting Incident. This part of plotting and writing your novel is a doozy.

The character’s life gets turned upside down.

It is the first turning point of your story. Sure, that sounds like solid advice, but what do I mean by upside down and how does it relate to the Intro? That is what we are here to pick apart today!

While the Intro should be a snapshot of an average day for the main character, it is centered on a specific action. I call this a mini-short story where the main character is attempting to resolve a problem that most readers would relate to on some level. It isn’t earth shatteringly huge or difficult to grasp. Plus, it allows the main character to interact with the world and other characters in a very real way, one that feels like it has been going on, well, for every day of the character’s life!

All of this allows the reader to gain a sense of familiarity as well as curiosity to see the result of the mini-story that you’ve laid out. All the while, they are gaining compassion for the quirkiness, earnestness, or whatever qualities you lay out in the main character.

The Inciting Incident then is the natural progression to this mini-story. It is its conclusion, and it doesn’t go at all as expected!

The inciting incident is the conclusion to the mini-story

For our little farm girl from our example who is searching for the goats her school arch-nemesis has released so that she will miss the subject where they compete, this means the inciting incident will begin with her finding the goats.

There are several possibilities with this scenario:

  • She finds the goats a great distance from the village in a sacred circle/forest/etc that leads to a new world
  • She finds the goats but while she is gone something happens to the village
  • She finds the goats but because she missed school, she also missed something important
  • She doesn’t find the goats (or they are eaten by something) and must return empty-handed to face the consequences

Any of these will work, but which would work best?

It really depends on where you want the story to go AND what you’ve already shared so far. You start a reader at a single point, with a single word, and then begin to pull them onward with the story. As it spirals out, new layers of familiarity created a foundation. The more often you can refer to the previous incidents in the story, the tighter the weave of the story will be and the stronger it will resonate with readers.

So, in this case, since I’ve already mentioned a school nemesis, the strongest ending to the mini-story is something to do with missing the day of school. The weakest of the four choices is the first, where she ends up in another world that hasn’t been hinted at yet (unless you build in clues during the mini-story of not crossing the stones or wandering into the forest, etc.).

You absolutely want the story to grow logically and with cause and effect that is quickly revealed and easily understood. Such as: if you cross the threshold and into the woods, the witch woman will steal you and change one goat into a doppelganger to return in your place. That would absolutely work and if you laid out hints and warnings prior to the event, it will be a quickly accepted conclusion for the reader.

Or, for the strongest result as I’ve laid out, the girl misses a surprise visit from an arch-mage who is testing the students for abilities in the subject where the goat girl excels. Because she wasn’t there, her arch-nemesis wins the single spot to study something advanced and amazing.

Your story must build off each prior word and event

Ok, so that wraps up the mini-story. How does this start the rest of the novel?

Right, you aren’t writing a short story. This is a novel and the result of the inciting incident launches the full novel plot. So, this conclusion MUST be a twist. It must reveal something huge and packs a wallop that the character cannot recover from.

Obviously, if the main character is captured by a witch and taken from everything she knows, that is a pretty big change. So if we go with the idea she finds the goats but because she is absent from school she misses becoming an apprentice to a great mage, what is the part that changes her life? How or why will she not be waking up to deal with the goats the next day, just like she did that morning? That piece will be what links the intro and inciting incident to the rest of the novel.

Does she run after the mage and her arch-nemesis to prove she is better? Does she end up with a different mentor where she doesn’t really belong? Is the wrong rectified but sets up the young arch-nemesis to become the future antagonist to the young main character? Any of these choices could create a solid cause-and-effect scenario that changes the girl’s life.

In fact, that last idea has some strong possibilities. It creates a cause and effect that ripples through the entire book, even if we don’t talk about the arch-nemesis for the next twenty chapters, at least by name. But we’ll come back to that!

First, some things that you should avoid doing with the inciting incident. Absolutely, do not:

  • Have a repetition of events
  • Introduce something unrelated to the mini-story
  • Have nothing change from the beginning of the story

For example, don’t have the girl come back with the goats and have them get out again. Once is enough.

For the second item, don’t have a troll come out of the woods, eat a goat, and scoop up the girl to take back to its lair without having at least mentioned that trolls existed and lived nearby and that they eat children before all of that happens. You want your story to build off each prior word and event, not run off in quick jumps that seem exciting, but where nothing grows out of the beginning.

And for the last advice, do not have the girl waking up and sullenly going about tending the goats the next day as her rival gets to head off to a life of adventure. Something far more exciting needs to happen or you’ll lose some readers. The character should cannot go about living their ordinary life. Whatever happens is all-consuming. Either everyone they know is dead and the village burned to the ground, they are caught somewhere far from home and unable to return, they must flee everything they know for the safety of others, or they simply have been awakened to something far greater than they knew was possible and they cannot go on with how life was previously.

The result of the inciting incident cannot be what is expected

THAT is what is meant by an earth shattering event.

So for our example in the intro, we sent a young girl out after goats her arch-rival let loose on purpose. The result, the end of the mini-story and beginning of the inciting incident, is that the girl then misses the visit of a great mage who chooses the nemesis as a new apprentice, as her little brother happily tells her. The girl loses the chance to gain the knowledge and guidance she desperately wants, as well as is robbed of the acknowledgement that she is extremely gifted.

That injustice, really all the petty injustices she has put up with up until this point, culminate with the fact that her arch-rival was just awarded the spot she should have gotten and not even her favorite teacher stood up for her. That pushes her just one step too far.

The final result, the full inciting incident, is that the girl dashes to the school and demands to see the arch mage; she demands to be tested too. And as they tell her it is too late, the budding power she is harboring blazes to life, resulting in a force she can’t control — nor can her smug (and suddenly very scared) rival.

The arch mage manages to cool things down with only a few injuries, like the external (and internal) scars the rival will carry. Wondering where the girl has been spills enough of the story that the girl will be awarded her place, but… she’s pushed too far too soon and injured others.

The result cannot be what is expected — that all is made right, and she is the apprentice. THAT would too easy and the one thing you can never hand a reader is a solution that is too easy.

Instead, the girl is sent far away where her wild gifts will not harm others. The rival is left home to heal and maybe will be selected for a different spot… After all, she didn’t do anything really that wrong and was the second most talented at the school.

As long as there were hints about rules in this society that could not be broken (such as harming others) and magic that could not be used (in an uncontrolled manner) in the beginning, this will all make sense. Well, not to the little goat girl who just lost everything and has to deal with that fact.

Which will bring us to the next phase in a future post!

For more tips on plotting, check out our Plot Development Book! Learn not only how to plot, but how to create characters, align them with character arcs, and tie the character’s journey with your plot to create tension filled, character-driven fiction!

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Written by: Autumn

Autumn (also known as Weifarer) is an indie author, conservationist, & world traveler with plans for many more adventures both real and fantastical! She is currently on the road in North America in a Four Wheel Camper along with her husband, Adam, and Cairn terrier, Ayashe.

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