Thursday, 23 May 2013

Inciting Incident(s)

The inciting incident is the thing that happens somewhere in the first part of a story that changes things for the main character and puts them on the path to adventure (or romance, or tragedy, or whatever).

It’s a pretty well understood element in fiction, and even writers who aren’t aware of it will naturally work it into the story.

However, what isn’t always as obvious is that a story has more than one inciting incident. A lot more.

You need a reason for your main character to go off and do around a hundred thousand words worth of interesting stuff, and the inciting incident provides the opportunity for that to happen.

Something’s added, something’s removed, the status quo is disrupted. Harry receives a letter from Hogwart’s, Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games, Charlie finds a golden ticket, Luke finds the message from Princess Leia, etc.

But while the initial inciting incident will get them on the path, you need a continuous stream of smaller incidents to keep things moving along that path.

Each scene requires its own inciting incident. A reason for the character to do what they’re going to do.

But here’s the key thing to remember:  the inciting incident for each scene should NOT occur within the scene itself.

The inciting incident for each scene should happen in a previous scene.

It can be the one immediately before, or it can be many scenes earlier, but if you put the inciting incident at the start of the scene it’s meant to incite you will create a self contained scene that comes separate from the main story line. It will be episodic with no chance of building up any momentum.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Jake’s dad dies and bequeaths him an old map that shows the location of Atlantis. (This is the inciting incident that sets Jake on his way).

He hires a boat and crew and sets off, but the captain’s a drunk. Jake sobers him up by tricking him into drinking castor oil and throwing up.

A storm hits and there’s lot of battening down of hatches and so forth. Many men are lost but Jake and the Captain survive.

Somali pirates attack so Jake and the Captain use the ship’s crane to launch flaming barrels of oil at the pirate boat...

As you can see, each event is caused by an incident and then immediately dealt with. This may seem like a reasonably interesting adventure, but it will read like a series of random occurrences.

Here’s an example of how to fix this:

Starting the same, Jake get’s hold of the map. With it is the name of his dad’s old partner.

Jake tracks down the old partner and the ship he captains, but the partner is no longer the man he was. He’s an old drunk. However, he convinces Jake he’s up to the job.

The crew however aren’t so keen, they’re used to short pleasure cruises for tourists. The Captain throws off the troublemakers and offers the rest a cut of the treasure (which doesn’t exist).

Two days in and the captain is blind drunk and steers them into a storm. The crew panic and make things worse. Those who don’t die abandon ship.

Jake sobers the captain up by tricking him into drinking castor oil and throwing up. Now in his right mind he puts out a distress call.

A pirate ship answers the call. On board are the crew members the Captain threw off. They want the map to the non-existent treasure.

Now each event is caused by something that happened earlier. The captain’s drinking causes them to run into the storm; the unprepared crew can’t handle the storm; need for survival forces Jake to sober up the captain; the crew members who got thrown off team up with the pirates and lead them to the ship...

In terms of the problems faced and the solutions found, both versions are pretty similar. But in terms of creating a flowing narrative, the second version will not only feel better to read, but in writing terms it will be far easier to keep things rolling once you get going.

In most cases, especially when dealing with the main plot, you will structured the story with inciting incidents in previous scenes triggering events in later scenes. It’s how stories work and most people have read enough to do this without even be aware of it.

The problem comes when you try to insert a scene into a story to make things more interesting or to add subplots. Suddenly the cause of what happen right before the reaction and it feels tacked on.

Look at any scene and work out the reason for it. Why is the character doing what he’s doing? What is the inciting incident and where is it? If it’s in the same scene, move it. This will rarely be a matter of just cut and paste, you will probably have to find ways for it to make sense. But once you do the whole storyline will lift off. 

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Excellent examples!
I really piled on the smaller incidents for my third book and hope it's a fun ride for readers.

mooderino said...

@Alex - get a good roll going and it's sure to be a fun ride.

dolorah said...

I use inciting incidents as transitions into the next scene, the next chapter, and to up the stakes of both character and story plots.


Rachna Chhabria said...

Super post. I have a tendency to add smaller incidents into the main story to make it interesting.

Elise Fallson said...

Your images always make me chuckle.
I like the example of the inciting incident. I think I do this without realizing it as a way to build momentum in my story. But having you point it out, makes me want to go back and make sure I've done it correctly. You love giving me more homework, don't you. (;

Francene Stanley said...

Great advice, pointed out with clear examples of how to fix things if they go wrong. Tweeted.

Lydia Kang said...

Awesome post Moody. I've been thinking about inciding incidents a lot this week.

Lydia Kang said...


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

You use examples from Harry Potter a lot. I challenge you to give us the inciting incident from another well-read book, like the Bible for example.

Gina Gao said...

This is a really nice post that I enjoyed! You bought up many good points.

mooderino said...

@Donna - good way to do it. Doesn't always have to be directly preceding.

@Rachna - I find there's loads you put in without even noticing.

@Elise - there will of course be an end of year exam...

@Francene - thanks!

@Lydia - I knew what you meant.

@Mike - Well, there was this apple...

@Gina - cheers.

Unknown said...

Great post! And btw, I want to hear more about Jake and the Captain -- that's sounds like an awesome story! :-)

mooderino said...

@Lexa - thanks. Jake and the Captain sounds like an 80s tv show.

Al Diaz said...

No doubt my writing is changing. THe first story I ever wrote was like your first example. Never done anything like that again. Funny thing is I changed without really noticing it.

mooderino said...

@Al Diaz - the thing with any craft is the more you do it the better you'll become, even without any advice. I think we're all born with the ability to improve naturally (or at least I hope so)

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