To and First . . . or what the Inciting Incident really is
As writers we’ve had it pounded into our heads that an Inciting Incident must be cataclysmic or apocalyptic or world-shattering to ensure maximum excitement at the beginning of our story.
Sure an Inciting incident can be worlds colliding but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a major or minor event all depending upon your particular story and your particular protagonist.
Because of this, many writers often confuse what the Inciting Incident really is, or even just don’t know, so I’ll give you the proper definition now: the event which happens to the protagonist and presents their first awareness of the story’s central conflict.
Take note of the two key elements: 1. that it happens TO your protagonist, and 2. that it presents their FIRST awareness of the story’s central conflict.
If either of these is missing (To or First) then it is not an Inciting Incident.
For example, in the movie Jaws by Steven Spielberg, ask a room full of people what its Inciting Incident is and many will tell you that it’s obviously the opening scene where the shark brutally kills and eats the swimmer. And they will claim that’s because if not for the shark attack then the rest of the story wouldn’t have happened.
The Inciting Incident of Jaws is not the opening scene of the shark attack because the protagonist, Sheriff Brody, is not present, so it doesn’t happen to him nor does it present his first awareness of the story’s central conflict. If we wanted to make it the Inciting Incident then all we’d have to do is place Sheriff Brody on the beach to witness the shark attack.
Instead, the Inciting Incident of Jaws takes place several scenes later and is a minor event when Sheriff Brody first learns of the shark attack because this happens to the protagonist as well presents his first awareness of the story’s central conflict. He then reacts poorly, as all flawed protagonists do, by trying to keep the matter hush-hush and not shutting down the beach because their little island town thrives on tourism, but that’s neither here nor there yet.
So what makes a good Inciting incident?
I’ll do you one better!
Here are the five most common Inciting Incidents:
1. A Telegram Arrives: the protagonist is invited into an extraordinary adventure or mission, or an adversity outside of the protagonist’s current worldview forces them from naïveté to maturity through the process of reflecting on his or her life while making changes.
2. A Great Crime: a personal or impersonal crime occurs which spurs the protagonist to seek revenge or justice (or hunt for/escape from the monster).
3. Forbidden Temptation: the protagonist stumbles upon something (a place, an object, or even a person) they know they shouldn’t interact with but they choose or are forced to do it anyway, or a new temptation requests the protagonist to betray their conscience for the sake of some benefit or greater good.
4. Meet / Split: the couple meets for the first time and an emotional connection is made whether romantic or platonic (either eventual sexual relations or a ‘buddy love’ duo) / or the couple already exists and some kind of betrayal occurs, usually an infidelity, so that they separate (the severing of a sexual relationship or best friendship).
5. The Proving: entry into some kind of tournament or competition for the performance of some skill or talent, whether team or individual, though told through the protagonist’s point of view.
*Notice that every example contains multiple versions of the Inciting Incident, and that’s because there exists numerous ways in which you can twist them to fit your particular story. For example #2: A Great Crime. A personal crime could be something like the protagonist coming home from work and discovering their murdered spouse lying on the floor. The impersonal crime twist on this is that the protagonist is a detective and discovers a stranger’s dead body by happenstance while investigating the scene of a police call. The former may spur the protagonist into seeking revenge, while the latter motivates the protagonist into seeking justice.
Inciting Incidents kick off your story’s central conflict, and they should happen as soon as possible, but you don’t want to begin your story with the Inciting Incident because we the audience need to be invested in the protagonist first. That’s why Inciting Incidents work best as a three-part sequence of events as follows:
1. Save the Cat, then Kick the Dog: first the protagonist performs an admirable act to establish likeability (Save the Cat), then they suffer an undeserved misfortune to establish sympathy (Kick the Dog). Likeability + Sympathy = Empathy. Protagonist empathy must exist, which is why you should always start your story with it, otherwise we won’t care when the Inciting Incident happens and that removes its impact.
2. Inciting Incident: the event that happens to your protagonist and presents their first awareness of the story’s central conflict.
3. Reaction and Response: the protagonist’s reaction and response to the Inciting Incident, and in a ‘wrong’ way because of their dominant character flaw, which only worsens the Inciting Incident’s influence upon their ordinary world no longer ordinary until they cannot ignore it any longer and decide they must do something about it.
I suggest making these three events the first three chapters of your novel for good reason. The first chapter establishes reader-to-protagonist empathy, a must in order for us to care about the protagonist and what happens to them. The second chapter introduces the story’s central conflict not only to the protagonist but also the reader; this is, if asked what your novel is about, the story the reader will describe. And the third chapter shows the protagonist’s flawed reaction and response to conflict though also displays their need for and possible willingness to change because of their dominant character flaw’s opposite virtue, providing us a glimpse of who they may become by the story’s end if:
1. Triumph: they eventually abandon their dominant character flaw for its opposite virtue and achieve their true potential through character growth, thus living a more satisfying existence than when they started because of it.
Or . . .
2. Tragedy: they eventually regress deeper into their dominant character flaw while rejecting its opposite virtue, thus living a more miserable existence than when they started because of it (or maybe even earning literal death).
Both of these (Triumph or Tragedy) are decided during the Rubicon that takes place at the end of Act 2, and which of the two the protagonist chooses (either flaw or virtue) will become their new dominant character trait for the rest of the story that is Act 3 . . . because Act 3 exists to reward the triumphant protagonist for choosing virtue over flaw which ends with the ultimate reward that is the story’s Climax, or to punish the tragic protagonist for choosing flaw over virtue which ends with the ultimate punishment that is the story’s Climax.
Point being, all Inciting Incidents introduce conflict. And all conflict falls into two categories:
1. Internal Conflict (within): the protagonist struggles with their own opposing desires or beliefs.
2. External Conflict (without): the protagonist struggles against an outside force, someone or something beyond their control.
*Remember: both Internal and External conflicts are necessary for an interesting story and believable protagonist.
And there exists six different types of conflict you can use to propel your story:
1. Person vs. Self: the protagonist struggles to discern what the moral or ‘right’ choice is, or it may also encompass mental health struggles.
2. Person vs. Person: the protagonist’s needs or wants are at odds with another character’s and they struggle for victory over the other.
3. Person vs. Society: the protagonist (alone or in a group) fights against injustices within their society, whether the government, a cultural tradition, or societal norm of some kind.
4. Person vs. Supernatural: the protagonist is pitted against phenomena (whether extraterrestrial, metaphysical, or technological) to create an unequal playing field while often raising poignant questions about what it means to be human.
5. Person vs. Fate/Destiny: the protagonist discovers an imposing fate or destiny and struggles to accept the sacrifices that come along with it.
6. Person vs. Nature: the protagonist is set in opposition to the weather, the wilderness, or a natural disaster, often battling for survival against the inexorable and apathetic force.
Inciting Incidents are simple really, and can be pretty much anything (surprising news of changing circumstances, a clue discovered to something known or unknown, a sudden turn of luck or misfortune, an ally becomes an enemy or an enemy becomes an ally, something of value is lost or stolen or broken, someone is kidnapped or killed, blah blah blah . . .) so long as it happens to the protagonist and presents their first awareness of the story’s central conflict.
The key is to take your beloved protagonist then inject something they’ve never dealt with before into their life that influences their ordinary world no longer ordinary in as permanent a way as possible and cannot be ignored while also relating to their dominant character flaw as well possesses a link to the antagonist.
Just remember the To and First rule and you’ll never question your Inciting Incident again.