Understanding the Inciting Incident: A Spark That Begins Every Great Story

Understanding the Inciting Incident: A Spark That Begins Every Great Story

Overview

Have you ever noticed a moment in a movie or book that completely changes everything that comes afterward? If so, you probably identified the story's inciting incident: the event that kick-starts the action and sends the main character on their journey.

In this article, we'll explore how an inciting incident can make a story more engaging and how you can craft this moment in your writing.

Spoiler warning! This article will reveal information about the following works of fiction:

  1. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone.
  2. Breaking Bad.
  3. The Hunger Games.
  4. The Hobbit.
  5. The Sword of Shannara.

3 Inciting Incidents That Surprised The Audience

An inciting incident is when you introduce a critical moment that ignites the narrative and propels the protagonist into the story's main action. Before this moment, the story's direction might seem uncertain: will the character do X or Y? Afterwards, the direction will be clear: the momentum that carries your story has begun.

 Let's understand it more deeply with a few examples from popular fiction.

1. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

When Hagrid delivers Harry's letter of acceptance to Hogwarts.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone Full Cover Art

Harry Potter lives a dull and difficult life with his Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon, and cousin Dudley. One day, a giant named Hagrid shows up and hands Harry a letter. This isn't just any letter — it's an invitation to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Until now, Harry had no idea he was a wizard. This surprising revelation changes everything, whisking him away from his dreary existence into a world filled with magic, adventure, and danger.

Although we're presented with many hints of the existence of the magical world in the first few chapters, some more obvious than others, it's the appearance of Hagrid and the letter of acceptance into Hogwarts that change the movie's direction. It provides a definitive answer, from which the story cannot go back: Harry is a wizard, and he will go to wizarding school, leaving Petunia, Vernon, and Dudley behind.

2. Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan

When Walter White gets diagnosed with cancer.

Breaking Bad Logo

Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who receives devastating news: he has terminal lung cancer. Facing his mortality and worrying about his family's future, Walter makes a drastic decision. He starts manufacturing and selling illegal substances to secure his family's financial stability after he's gone. This choice plunges him into the dangerous world of drugs and crime, changing his life and his character in ways he could never have imagined.

3. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

When Katniss volunteers as a tribute.

Katniss in The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen lives in a harsh world where the government forces children to fight in a deadly competition called the Hunger Games. During the annual selection process, Katniss's little sister, Prim, is chosen to participate. Fearing for her sister's life, Katniss bravely volunteers to take her place. This selfless act throws Katniss into the brutal arena of the Hunger Games, where she must fight for survival and challenge the oppressive system.

How to Write an Inciting Incident in Your Story

Now, let's look at how to write an inciting incident in our story:

1. Introduce the Ordinary World

Deciding where to begin your story is an important decision, and there are multiple factors to consider. If your story includes an inciting incident, one of these factors is that the first chapters of your story should tell the reader about the main characters in their ordinary world.

Tell us about their life before everything changes.

2. Start a Disruption

Next, introduce an event or information that disrupts your character's everyday life and forces them to take action or make a significant decision.

3. Create a Sense of Urgency

The inciting incident should create a sense of urgency, and the character should feel compelled to act immediately, whether out of curiosity, fear, or necessity.

For example, during the Hunger Game's reaping ceremony, Katniss has only a few moments to volunteer in place of her sister. Likewise, in Breaking Bad, Walter White's cancer introduces a sense of urgency: he must accomplish financial freedom for his family before his disease gets the best of him.

4. Set the Journey in Motion

Finally, let your main character step into a new, uncertain world full of adventure. The element of surprise will often carry along the readers, who will be eager to learn what happens next.

My Own Experience

In writing my own stories, I found this approach to be most effective:

  1. The character lives a plain life, whether peaceful or dull.
  2. An event forces the character to react.
  3. The character has a choice to make, and the outcome will be irreversible.

For example, in The Hobbit, Bilbo knows that if he survives his adventure with the dwarves, he may return home, but if he does, he'll not be the same as when he left. He will have experienced an irreversible internal change of character.

Notably, this differs from the approach in which the character is forced to act. For example, in The Sword of Shannara, the protagonist is stalked by a dangerous creature and forced to escape their town. They have no choice: they must leave, or terrible consequences will follow. This approach, in my opinion, lacks one key element: it doesn't allow your readers to wonder:

What will they do next? And what would I have done if I were in their shoes?

Conclusion

In this article, we explored the concept of inciting incident as the element that propels the story into action. We looked at a few examples from popular fiction and learned what not to do when writing an inciting incident in your novel.

plotwriting
Andrea Cerasoni in Rome, Italy
Andrea Cerasoni

I'm Andrea, a Software Engineer, Technical Editor, and aspiring Fantasy Author. I'm originally from Rome, Italy, but am currently based in Glasgow, United Kingdom. I read and write classic Fantasy: the sword-and-shield, dragons, and wizards kind. In my articles, I talk about writing fantasy fiction, productivity, coding, building a website or platform, establishing a personal brand, and more!

Want to share feedback on my articles? Contact me!