5 Tips for Writing Your Story's Inciting Incident
Chapter 6 “Plot Points” – Section 2 “The Inciting Incident”
“The inciting incident is how you get (characters) to do something. It's the doorway through which they can't return, you know. The story takes care of the rest.”
Once you have completed your Beginning plot-point, in which you establish the beginnings of your plot, world, and characters, your next one will be the Inciting Incident. The Inciting Incident is the point of the story at which your protagonist's world is completely changed—the balance of their life thrown off in order to create a forward momentum that will cause the story to roll forward until the end. Today, we're going to look at everything we need to consider for creating an Inciting Incident that is right for our story.
Tip 1: Understand the primary purpose of an Inciting Incident.
Continuing with the Star Wars – A New Hope example from the previous tutorial, the Inciting Incident is the point at which Luke Skywalker learns that he can be a Jedi, that he can join Ben Kenobi to rescue Princess Leia from the man he now thinks murdered his father, and to avenge his father. Now, think about the multi-layered unbalance that this brings against the standard that we saw in the Beginning plot-point. We knew that the Protagonist was unsatisfied with his life on the farm, that he wanted to know more about his father, and that he is like his father—which concerns his uncle and aunt for some unknown reason. Luke now has the opportunity he so desires to leave home and be a part of something great; he has the opportunity to learn more about his father and solve the mystery that drives him as a character and the interest of the audience; and now he feels the beginning of a sense of duty to avenge his father. This three-layered motivation removes the sense of balance that kept Luke from beginning his adventure, so that something HAS to change. In writing your Inciting Incident, you need to also create a multidimensional event that shatters any possibility of your protagonist continuing on with how their life was in the Beginning.
Tip 2: Begin your Primary Protagonist's core story-arc.
In A New Hope, we do not see the story open with our hero right away. While the movie establishes the foundation of the plot and story right from the beginning, it instead opens with Princess Leia, R2D2, C3PO, and Darth Vader launching the story, and then gradually moves the attention to Luke so that he can take the driver's seat for the Inciting Incident. Why? Because while the previous characters are much more capable of showing the world, the stake involved, and actually getting the story rolling, the main driving force in a story comes from the Primary Protagonist—in this case, Luke. While you may have started your novel with a focus on the character who put the plot in motion, the ones with the best view of it, or even with your Primary Protagonist many years before the core plot began, the Inciting Incident is the time to bring them into the spotlight and to the state (time period, age, and physical place) they'll need to be for the story to begin.
Tip 3: Create the sort of imbalance that will drive your entire story.
Like the multi-layered Inciting Incident that gave Luke a mystery to solve, a quest to embark on, and an emotional drive to avenge his father—all of which carried the movie forward until the very end—you should devise an event that is powerful enough to carry your story. The way that Star-Wars accomplishes this was with multiple layers of instability. In the beginning, Luke would have been far too scared to be motivated by revenge alone; how could a kid like him ever hope to destroy the most powerful Sith in the galaxy, after all? However, Luke's discoveries that he can learn about his father and that he can live a life of adventure, both serve as events that push him forward until he becomes strong enough that the final layer becomes feasible. Likewise, you can create a multi-layered event that drives your protagonist at different parts of the story, or simply create a powerful and singular event that serves the same function. After all, if your Inciting Incident is a zombie outbreak, that is a powerful enough imbalance and change to the world so that nothing else is needed to drive the story forward. But remember that this event must be strong enough to justify the protagonist's actions. If the one ring of power can be simply hidden to successfully defeat the villain, then there is no need for a story about Frodo going to Mount Doom to destroy that ring; so make sure that the major change in your protagonist's life matches the degree of their motivation.
Tip 4: Use your Inciting Incident to lead up to the First Turning Point.
Whenever you work on a plot-point, you should always keep the next one in mind with the construction of your chapter. In this case, the Inciting Incident will be leading to your First Turning Point—a sort of secondary Inciting Incident in which an event that is deeply personal to your protagonist occurs and causes them to ultimately decide what they will respond to the events of the story. In the case of A New Hope, this event comes while Luke is trying to decide whether he will undergo this adventure with Ben Kenobi, and returns home to find that Stormtroopers have murdered his aunt and uncle—which causes him to feel like he has no choice but to join the old Jedi. You'll notice that these two plot-points work together to launch the story, with the First Turning Point being greater in personal intensity but lower in scale than the Inciting Incident. Replicate this in order to create a story that functions on a level that not only shows a plot that affects the world you have created, but which is also deeply integrated into the development of your protagonist.
Tip 5: Fulfill the promises from your Beginning plot-point.
In the last article, we talked about using the Beginning plot-point to build pressure and set up the stage for the Inciting Incident; the example we used was the presence of Darth Vader with his lightsaber and Force powers to promise a particular type of story. We are given a payoff for this when Luke finds out that he is also one of these mystical Jedi and now has the opportunity to learn under Ben Kenobi. With the Inciting Incident, you also can begin to provide a payoff for your own implicit promises, no matter what type of story you are writing. If your beginning was at an ethically dubious pharmaceutical lab, this is your opportunity to release the zombies you promised. Now, this doesn't mean that everything must go as expected, just show that there was a reason for the setup within the Beginning, and to a reasonable scale, so that your audience does not feel like you were tricking them into reading further with false hooks.
Weekly Recommended Watching: “Home Alone” (To take a look at the potential power of setup and payoff, and how you can reveal the setup of a situation and yet still maintain the element of surprise in revealing the mixture of failure and success within the payoff, while still delivering the sort of story that you promised.)
Write-a-Novel Exercise 6.2
Write the chapter that contains your Inciting Incident. Be sure that this chapter is separate from your Beginning and your First Turning Point. There is nothing wrong with having multiple plot-points in a chapter, but with this being a first draft, we want to keep them all divided for the purpose of clear analysis.
Critique other people's work only on the basis of clarity (whether the events are made clear through the writing), against the points in this tutorial, and for how well the plot-point works with those in previous/subsequent chapters.
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I have a question though, since I'm reworking my novel within the frame of your tutorials and I became a bit confused on the nuances of Initial Incidents and First Turning Points. I understand that the I.I will change the character's life (new knowledge, a major event, whatever), and that the F.T.P kicks them out the door in response (that knowledge has to be used, the major event gives them no other options, whatever)...
But I got a little stuck applying the concept to my own novel. Lets say the Initial Incident is a goblin raid on our protagonist's hometown. His life is changed drastically following this of course, especially if these goblins are new to the region. The next part is what confuses me, in regards to the two plot points. Let's say the protagonist inadvertently gets his father grievously wounded and protagonist is told to flee the town and not look back: is this just part of the Inciting Incident, or does this smaller, personal aspect of the fight against the goblins become the First Turning Point?
If you find the time, I'd love to discuss this, it would help clarify the two concepts for me in addition to providing more insight into the role that the following scenes will play (or need to play). Thank you!
Feel free to ask if you have any other questions. It may take me a while to get to them, but I will do my best to reply. And thank you for your support!
Thank you, I'll do that! And of course, thank you for your time :]
It's interesting to see that, because I mostly write as I feel without too much of ruleset.
So I just work out a world and premise and let the story flow naturally and using the formula I still end with the inciting incident.
Good to see, that this works even inside such a ruleset...
I know quite a few tutorials who are very strict to a certain point and when I read them I was like "Have of my favourite books would never be possible with this shit!"
So it's cool to see this tutorial takes a different approach and is more like "You know this scenes, that should be somewhere? You should try this!".
Like I really enjoyed the part about the combat, because it wasn't about forcing a specific style and more about "things you should consider and information the reader needs".
So it's really well done, when people like me who are more freely in their work can actually use it, too!