What does an inciting incident look like in a romance?

An inciting incident should reflect the core value explored in the story. Love is at the core of every romance novel, and so, quite simply, the inciting incident in a romance should be one that involves the protagonist and the love interest. Whether or not they even like each other at that point in the story, the event itself will bring them together in a way that creates an opportunity for them to invite love into their lives. If it weren’t for this event, the characters might never get together.

What should this opportunity look like?

Well, it depends on whether or not the protagonist and love interest are known to each other. 

In a story where the characters start out as strangers, the inciting incident will often be the “meet cute” — the moment where the characters meet for the very first time.

In a story where the characters already know each other — such as in a second-chance romance or a best friends to lovers story — the inciting incident will set the external plot in motion and cause the relationship between the characters to change in some way.

Let’s look at some examples.


Aladdin, as I’m sure you’re aware, is a story that portrays the “poor boy, rich girl” trope. The characters are not known to each other when the story begins, so the inciting incident takes the form of a meet cute. Princess Jasmine, in disguise, is in the marketplace when she offers bread to a pair of hungry children. The shop owner demands her bracelet in payment. Aladdin witnesses this and steps in to diffuse the situation.

Watch the scene below.

Now let’s unpack the event according to the five essential components of an inciting incident:

  • Unexpected: The event is unexpected. Aladdin, the protagonist and a common thief, is going about his business in the marketplace when he witnesses the disturbance involving Princess Jasmine and the shop owner.
  • Interruption: Aladdin’s everyday routine is interrupted the moment he decides to step in and help Princess Jasmine. He’s used to looking after only himself and Abu — suddenly, he now has to help someone else evade the guards.
  • Incites: After meeting Jasmine, Aladdin manages to get them both to safety. They connect on an emotional level after their harrowing escape from the guards, and Aladdin is smitten. But then he learns Jasmine is a princess – what chance does he, a penniless common thief, have with her? This problem then sets him on his journey as he attempts to solve it.
  • Life-changing: Meeting Princess Jasmine certainly has the potential to be life-changing for Aladdin. He’s poor and constantly in trouble with the law. A connection to the sultan’s daughter, especially one who’s indebted to him, can only bode well for him.
  • Urgent: Following Aladdin’s deception of the shop owner, he and Princess Jasmine must run from the guards — Aladdin to avoid imprisonment, and Princess Jasmine to avoid exposure.

Love Hard

Love Hard is a fabulous feel-good Netflix Christmas rom-com that portrays the “fake relationship” trope. In the story’s opening, the characters begin chatting online via a dating app, though they haven’t met in person. The inciting incident is one in which they meet IRL (in real life). Natalie, the protagonist, decides to visit Josh for Christmas on a whim, after he makes a comment about wishing she were with him for the holidays. When she arrives at his house, she discovers Josh “catfished” her — intentionally used a fake identity to establish a connection.

Watch the scene below.

Now let’s unpack the event according to the five essential components of an inciting incident:

  • Unexpected: Although they’d only chatted online, Natalie and Josh had managed to establish a strong connection. She thought she knew him, so it wasn’t only a surprise to learn he wasn’t who he’d said he was; she was also surprised that he would deceive her that way.
  • Interruption: In the moments before discovering Josh’s betrayal, Natalie had been chatting with his family and was expecting to meet, potentially, the man of her dreams. Josh puts the kibosh on that when he reveals his true identity.
  • Incites: Learning of Josh’s betrayal sets the wheels in motion for Natalie. Thanks to him, she’s chalked up yet another romance disaster and still hasn’t found Mr Right. She is now more determined than ever to resolve this problem.
  • Life-changing: Due to the information revealed about Natalie in the early scenes, the audience understands the impact this event could have on her. She’s tired of going on endless crappy dates, so meeting a guy she gets on so well with could very well result in a happily-ever-after. 
  • Urgent: After learning of Josh’s deception, Natalie is desperate to remove herself from the situation as quickly as possible. Clearly not wanting to make a scene in front of Josh’s family, who seem lovely, she claims to have forgotten her luggage before making her escape.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a young adult story that also portrays the “fake relationship” trope. Given that the protagonist, Lara Jean, has known the love interest, Peter, since they were kids, the inciting incident is not the meet cute; instead, it’s a moment in which their relationship is irrevocably changed. Prior to the event, the two are barely acquaintances. Peter confronts Lara Jean after receiving a letter she wrote to him (but didn’t send) when they were in middle school. Until that moment, Lara Jean had believed the five love letters she’d written to five different boys over the years were hidden in her room. (Later, she learns her younger sister found them and mailed them.) During the confrontation, Lara Jean sees her sister’s ex, Josh, approach — and he’s received one of her letters too!

Watch the scene below.

Now let’s unpack the event according to the five essential components of an inciting incident:

  • Unexpected: Peter has an on-again off-again relationship with Lara Jean’s former best friend turned nemesis, Gen. So for Peter to approach Lara Jean is completely unexpected. Also, given that Lara Jean believes her love letters to be hidden safely in her room, she never expects one of them to be in the hands of its unintended recipient.
  • Interruption: Peter interrupts Lara Jean in the middle of the school day, as she’s running track and chatting to her friend, Chris. And because Peter is popular while Lara Jean is essentially invisible, his approach creates an imbalance in the social construct of their high school.
  • Incites: When Peter confronts Lara Jean, she realises he’s somehow received the letter she wrote him. Then Josh shows up carrying his letter. This is a huge problem for Lara Jean, given he’s her sister’s ex, and she immediately takes action to resolve it by kissing Peter in the hopes of misdirecting Josh — if he believes her to be interested in Peter, he might not seek an explanation, and Lara Jean will never have to tell Margot about the secret crush she had on her boyfriend.
  • Life-changing: Kissing Peter is bound to change Lara Jean’s life in a big way. He’s popular and Gen’s boyfriend – if Gen hated her before, she’s going to be out for blood now. Lara Jean is going to have to watch her back from now on.
  • Urgent: Lara Jean has only seconds to decide on a course of action once she sees Josh and realises he’s received her love letter. Given the high stakes involved, Lara Jean feels she must take drastic action immediately.

Now it’s your turn! Click on the link below to test your inciting incident identification skills.