Every story needs a strong beginning—one that is compelling enough to jump-start the plot, grab your readers, and carry them along to the very last page. One of the best ways to do this is with an inciting incident. An inciting incident, also called a catalyst, is an event that changes the character’s course and thrusts them into the action of the plot. It can be a positive or negative event that throws the character into turmoil and concludes in the story’s climax. An inciting incident is different from a hook, which is another device used to grab your audience at the very beginning of the story, but which doesn’t necessarily have a large impact on the overall plot. The experts at Writer’s Relief have some advice and a few tips about writing an inciting incident—and why you should.
How To Write An Inciting Incident
Disrupt the status quo. An inciting incident usually happens to your main character and forces them out of their “normal.” This can be a call to action where the hero is asked to embark on a journey, or a tragedy that forces them to leave home. Your inciting incident can also be an action the character instigates, whether it’s deciding to leave home or choosing to get involved in shady business that is potentially dangerous.
Make it significant to your character’s growth. The inciting incident sets the story into motion and is the beginning of change for your character. This can—and should—significantly affect their life, for better or worse. It should also act as a timestamp to tell us who your character is at this point in the story.
Make it sustainable. The springboard for your plot won’t be a successful inciting incident if the effects are minor. If the event only has mild repercussions, you may need to rethink the jumping point for your story. Otherwise, this “catalyst” will simply be a bump in the road or a minor inconvenience.
Create a sense of urgency. An incident that kickstarts your story should force your character forward and cause your readers to become invested in the outcome. This is where the stakes are raised and the character’s course is changed forever, so your incident needs to be accordingly urgent. This is also the event that grabs your readers’ attention and carries them to the end—so make it good!
Set a tone that’s genre appropriate. When planning your inciting incident, consider what genre you’re writing for. If you’re writing a mystery, perhaps your main character finds a dead body or is accused of poisoning their spouse. For an action-packed adventure story, the inciting incident might be a major altercation or a call to action, possibly by a newfound mentor.
Include all the details. Since the incident is significant to your character, it should be memorable. Include as many details as possible to ground your audience in the moment, but cut anything extraneous that could detract from it. What does the character feel? Or have they gone numb? What are they thinking? What is immediately happening around them and how are they reacting to it? What can they hear, see, taste, smell, and touch that makes the moment stand out? You can also use dialogue and short sentences to move the action forward quickly.
Examples Of Inciting Incidents In Literature
- The tornado that hits Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz
- Hagrid telling Harry he’s a wizard in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- Katniss volunteering to replace her sister in The Hunger Games
- Alice falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland
- Nick meeting Gatsby at his house party in The Great Gatsby
If you’re not sure what your inciting incident should be, try working backward. You can first figure out what your climax or big plot twist will be, then think of how your protagonist will get there. Understanding what motivates your character can also help you engineer the circumstances that would result in them heading in the right direction.
Once you’ve completed your story, there needs to be another inciting incident—one that convinces you to submit your writing for publication! Let this act as your motivation: Our research experts can pinpoint the best markets for your work and boost your odds of getting an acceptance. Learn more about our services and submit your writing sample today!
Question: What is your favorite inciting incident in literature?