The Inciting Event

The Monday morning workshop recently focused on scriptwriting, specifically tracing inciting events and the patterns of storytelling for television, film, and even books.

An inciting event in a plot is the shift forward in a story, the twist, hook, and plot points of the story.

K.M. Weiland, author of the book, “Structuring Your Novel,” helps us understand the confusion in and around an inciting event in a story in “Your Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is” on Helping Writers Become Authors.

What the heck is the Inciting Event? That’s a question just about any writer can answer. The trouble is that sometimes we all have a different answer.

Is the Inciting Event the first thing that happens in the story?

Is it the moment that kicks off the plot and the conflict?

Is it the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act?

Is it something in between?

Is it something that happens before the story ever starts?

The chief trouble with identifying the Inciting Event is that the term is used rather wildly to apply to just about any of the above. One writer calls the Hook the Inciting Event, another calls it the First Plot Point. Argh! No wonder we’re all so confused.

Weiland demonstrates three examples.

  • The Hook: The opening moment in your opening scene, the first moment something happens that keeps the reader reading or “hooked.”
  • The First Plot Point: The thing that happens at the end of the first act that changes the course of the story. She calls it “where your story really begins…the moment that fully engages your character in the conflict. He couldn’t walk away now, even if he really wanted to.”
  • First Act Turning Point: This is the moment that is the “call to” adventure or action, the no-turning-back point, the lit-match moment. She explained that most writer’s don’t include nor think of the turning point in the first act as the inciting incident, but it is. It is the moment that can be pointed to throughout the rest of the story, the moment when everything was shaken up and decisions needed to be made and action inspired. This is the inciting event.

Weiland explained that the first act turning point, or inciting event, should be placed at the 12% mark or 1/8th the way into the story. The first eighth of the story is character development, the time the audience needs to connect with the main characters, the time, and the place, the set up.

James R. Hull of Narrative First explained the inciting event as:

The Inciting Incident (or “exciting incident” as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem. Everything up and until that moment is Backstory; everything after is “the story.” Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to. This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things. Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.

On Scribe Meets World, an inciting incident is described as:

Inciting comes from the Latin word incitare which means “to put into rapid motion, urge, encourage, and stimulate.” And that’s exactly what your inciting incident is: it’s an event that catalyzes your hero to “go into motion” and take action.

Here are other ways to conceptualize the inciting incident:

it jolts your hero out of his everyday routine
it is the event which sparks the fuse of your plot
it’s something that MUST happen in order for your hook–your movie’s special premise–to kick in

Writability explained that inciting incidents are plot essentials, and wrote:

The inciting incident is the moment or event that changes your character’s life and sets them on the journey that is the rest of the book. It’s when Harry begins receiving acceptance letters to Hogwarts, when Clary sees the Shadowhunters kill a demon in a club, and when Tris’s faction test results are inconclusive, making her divergent.

The reason I love the inciting incident so much is two-fold—firstly, it’s the very first thing I figure out when plotting. Usually the inciting incident is where my story idea comes from—it’s the spark that sets off the rest of the brainstorming that uncovers the rest of the book. Second, the inciting incident is the first real taste of what to expect from the rest of the book.

Here is a video discussing story structure and the key moments including the inciting incident.

In this fun YouTube video, clips from movies over the past 50 years are put together in a collage examples of inciting incidents.

Other articles to help us understand more about story structure and the inciting event include:

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