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Inciting Incidents and Why They Rock Your Plot

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Sparkler by Josh Wickerham via Wikimedia Commons

What’s an inciting incident and what makes it so important?  Why are writing teachers always talking about them?

First of all, let’s get on the same page about what an inciting incident is.  It is that moment at the beginning of the story when something changes and sets the plot in motion, or, as Mary Kole puts it in Writing Irresistible Kidlit , it is “the event that takes your character from his sense of normal (life and business as usual) and launches him into the main conflict of your story.”  This usually takes place at or around the end of the first chapter, sometimes sooner.

In Natalie Whipple’s Transparent (yes, the book I mentioned a couple weeks ago – it’s awesome!  Check it out!) Fiona’s father is trying to force her hand to get her to murder someone, and she has to run away or become a killer.  This catapults us into the story.  Although invisible Fiona has done her dad’s bidding before, she’s never had to kill anyone, and this pushes her and her mother to take action and run away.  It pulls Fiona and her mother out of their normal and into a world of conflicted plot awesomeness.

In Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us, Emma and Josh log on to the internet for the first time – and discover their Facebook pages, fifteen years in the future.  Facebook hasn’t even been thought of yet, but their careers, spouses, kids, and status updates are all there.  Every time they change something in their present, something in their futures changes, too.  Aside from the fact that this is such a cool concept, it also causes Emma and Josh to act very differently in order to create the futures they want.  They just don’t know what the unintended consequences will be.

In Ender’s Game, Ender is accepted into Battle School, and his life completely changes.  He is not allowed to see his family again for several years, and he’s going to be trained to be an isolated child warrior.  This moment defines him.

Why are these incidents so important?

  • They give the reader a feeling for the flavor of the book
  • They tell us something about the main character – and if they don’t tell us something about the main character, they should.
  • Most importantly, they kick off the plot of the story.

What are your favorite inciting incidents?  What else is important about this moment at the beginning of the story?

P.S. One of my favorite inciting incidents is the Reaping in The Hunger Games (awesomely plotted, Suzanne Collins!).

P.P.S. Check out my guest post over at The Art Abyss, How Perseverance Helps Creativity Blossom.

About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

10 responses

  1. Wow – I’m definitely checking out Transparent. Adding it to my Goodreads! I was going to mention my favorite inciting incident – when Prim’s name is drawn at the reaping in the Hunger Games – but you beat me to it 😉

    • The first chapter in the Hunger Games has so many great things going for it — I probably mention it too much on here. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I read all of the books you mentioned!!! Good ones! Among my favorites are the dwarves showing up at Bilbo’s door to drag him away on a treasure hunt (THE HOBBIT) and Frodo finding out that the ring is Sauron’s ring (FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING).

  3. Has anyone watched the TV series – Friday Night Lights? It’s about a Texas high school football team and coach and coach’s family. This is a great series to watch in terms of plotting and character development and a host of other things. And the first episode is so well done – you get a hint of everything that is to come and there’s a ton of incitement. Not sure why your post made me remember this great show.

  4. The Hunger Games books aren’t my favorites, but the concept of The Reaping was a fantastic inciting event. I’ve found that, often, finding the “right” inciting event can be a struggle. Sometimes, the place where I want the story to start ends up not being the place where the story *needs* to start.

    • It can be really challenging to find a starting point. I find I need to keep playing with the story until I get one that just feels right — sometimes I never find it, and the story gets to be shelved for a while.

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