What’s an inciting incident?

What kind of event is the inciting incident?

“The inciting incident is an unexpected event in a story that upsets the character’s status quo. This begins the story’s movement, either in a positive or negative way, that culminates in the climax.”

Joe Bunting, The Write Practice

The first thing to note in the definition above is the use of the singular noun — an inciting incident is a single event or moment that will play out in a single scene. Bear that in mind as we break down the definition above to explore the essential components of an inciting incident.

Let’s extract the key criteria . An inciting incident should:

  • Be unexpected
  • Upset the character’s status quo
  • Begin the story
  • Culminate in the climax

I’ll also add that for the inciting incident to really pack a punch it should have a degree of urgency about it — some form of a ticking clock.

Essential component #1: Unexpected

An inciting incident, first and foremost, should be an event that happens to the protagonist. It’s not one they instigate, nor is it one born of their desire — in other words, it shouldn’t be anything they’ve been hoping will happen. It should be completely unexpected and outside of their control.

Essential component #2: Interruption

Upsetting the protagonist’s status quo is perhaps the one criteria of an inciting incident that gets overlooked most frequently. Writers often feel the need to launch right into the action, the moment where everything changes for the character, but this does the reader and the story a disservice. Start with action, yes, but do so in a way that introduces the protagonist — it’s important to reveal their goal, motivation, and what their life is currently like. That way, when you finally disturb their peace, the impact it has on them will be clear to the reader.

Essential component #3: Incites

Quite simply, the inciting incident introduces a problem that the protagonist will be very keen to resolve. This sets the story in motion, because after this event occurs, the protagonist will have to make a decision about how to resolve the problem and they will take specific, visible steps towards achieving that goal.

Essential component #4: Life-changing

Story is all about change. Your protagonist must be a different person by the time the story’s climax comes around, and it’s the inciting incident that sets the wheels in motion to bring about this change. Ultimately, this event should lead to the protagonist achieving their goals, so the stakes should be high — the protagonist should feel as if they have no choice but to embark on their journey. 

Essential component #5: Urgent

The inciting incident should be a situation in which the protagonist must act with a sense of urgency. A “ticking clock” may or may not be involved, forcing the protagonist to take action within a certain time limit.

When should an inciting incident occur?

There are no hard and fast rules about when the inciting incident should occur. Sometimes it might be the first thing that happens; other times it occurs a few chapters in. It’s really a matter of what works for the story.

Remember, though, you have to be able to show the reader that the event is both unexpected and an interruption to the protagonist’s status quo. It stands to reason then that it cannot occur too early; you first need to introduce the protagonist and reveal some key information about them so the reader understands why the incident is a big deal.

You don’t need to make a decision now about where the incident will occur, but ultimately, when it comes time to outline your scenes, aim for it to occur by around the 20% mark of the novel.