The Inciting Incident: The Point of No Return… Or Is It?

In my last post on making the problems in a story personal to a character (which is *cough* totally awesome *cOuGh* and you should check it out *wheeze*) I mentioned that I was going to do a post on the Inciting Incident.

Not that long later, I had a conversation with my sister Mary that made me very glad I was going to post on the subject. We both are working on outlining new stories, and we started talking about the Inciting Incident, which was really confusing both of us for some reason.

What exactly is the Inciting Incident supposed to be?

Is that when the character gets kicked out of their Normal World?

Source

And are they even supposed to accept it?

The First Act

You may or may not have heard of the 3-Act Story Structure. If you have not, it essentially breaks a story into 3 “Acts” and has specific story beats corresponding to each act. These must happen in each act to move the plot forward in a way that is believable but also keeps the reader interested.

A long while ago, (almost 2 years by this point) I actually did a 3-post series on story beats. It was right before I discovered the 3-Act Story Structure, which is better in my opinion, but if you want to, you can check out the last post in the series (which contains links to the first 2) here.

Looking back at the series, I actually had an all right grasp on plot line. However, just by looking at my condensed list of 15 story beats, I can see that some things were not lining up properly. So don’t follow that. 😆

I will not be describing the entire 3-Act Story Structure, but for today, I’ll do a run-down on the 1st Act. This is where the Inciting Incident falls.


Setup

The entire first act is about setting up for the rest of the book. You set up the character for change, show the reader the main character and the world, and can even put some stuff in that might come back in the final act of the book for a cool “ooOOOOOooo” moment. So all of the story beats in the 1st Act are actually about setting up for the rest of the book.

  1. Hook + Characteristic Moment
  2. The First Step
  3. The Inciting Incident
  4. A Small Change
  5. A Decision/Key Event
  6. 1st Plot Point

Those 6 beats labeled above are very, very general, and they barely scratch the surface. But for now, we’ll just zone in on numero tres: the Inciting Incident.

By the time we reach this beat, it’s been a bit. The reader knows who the character is, what they’re like, and what their world is like.


Does it Kick them out of the Normal World?

Going back to that 3-post series on plot that I did 2 years ago, here is how I described the Inciting Incident:

This is the part where the character gets thrown headlong into the action of the story. Or, a more accurate description, the deep end of the pool before they know how to swim. The inciting incident is what starts them off on their adventure, and you must leave them no choice. There is no, “Okay, I guess I’ll go.” They have no choice! None! Otherwise, it isn’t effective.

I was pretty close, actually. But this isn’t entirely accurate.

This is the part that really confused me and Mary. We were trying to figure out where the character actually gets kicked out of the Normal World. Is it the 1st Plot Point, or the Inciting Incident?

I assumed that it was the Inciting Incident, since that’s what’s supposed to change everything.

…right?

Source

Actually.

About that.

Heh.

No.

Source

The Inciting Incident is where something happens, something that changes the character ever so slightly. Their perception of the world is different because of it. The Inciting Incident is what causes them to even realize, if just subconsciously, that something is off in their Normal World.

Thinking of character arcs, this is the part where the character gets the tinniest inkling that the Lie they believe may not actually be right.

But does that mean that they suddenly go off on an adventure?

Source

What’s crucial here is that they actually reject their Inciting Incident. They want to stay in their comfort zone. And what happens to be in there is their Lie and their Normal World – not the Adventure World.

If you’ve ever studied human psychology, you’ll know that humans always try to avoid pain. Always. They choose whichever choice will cause them less pain. And, for now, staying is what will result in less pain.

So What is the Inciting Incident?

The Inciting Incident is where the character comes into contact with the conflict for the first time in the book. It should seem totally random and out of the blue. It’s interfering with their lovely Normal World, and they don’t like that. But as the story goes on, the reader will be able to see that this Inciting Incident was actually tailored to the protagonist. (e.g. a war could start and they need to be drafted)

But the character refuses to leave their Normal World. Nope, not interested!

Except it’s too late.

That Inciting Incident was tailored to them, remember? And now, if just on a subconscious level, they’ve changed because of it.

Because of that, they need to make a decision. This is also called the Key Event. While the Inciting Incident may set the story into motion, the Key Event is what the story is about. It draws the main character into the story line. In this Pain VS Pain situation, they reconsider their rejection of the Inciting Incident – and decide that it’s actually more painful to stay. There is something they Want really, really badly. And they decide to step out of their comfort zone to try and get it.

So How do You Write It?

The Inciting Incident doesn’t have to last long, or it could be a long scene. Remember: tailor it to your character.

In my last draft of The Storm Inside, this was a test to get into a school. But the character doesn’t really want to leave their Normal World and tries to reject it. She gets dragged into it, of course, by her twin sister, but the point is that she rejected it first. At the Key Event, she is accepted into the school and she decides to go. Later, at the 1st Plot Point, she leaves her Normal World to go to the school. She doesn’t want to leave her family still, but she finds it more painful to 1) be left behind by her twin, and 2) to not go and learn at this incredible school.

In my new story (which currently is nameless) the Inciting Incident lasts much less time. It is an offer by another character to give them some information – but, if accepted, it will change the character. Feeling unready, the main character rejects the offer. But, a few seconds later, she changes her mind (thanks to her Lie) and accepts it. Later on, at the 1st Plot Point, she leaves her Normal World to go somewhere else.

Note: leaving the Normal World does not have to be a physical action. They can just make a choice that changes the Normal World for them. As long as the Normal World is gone and the character enters into the Adventure World, it works.

Don’t forget to save this post for later!

The Inciting Incident should strike pretty quickly. Once the world and the character are established, things should get moving.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

The Importance of Plot Line {How to Keep Readers Interested}

How to Plot Your Story: The Actual Plotting Part of this Series

How to Deal with Plot Bunnies – The Right Way


If you want more awesome writing tips, make sure to subscribe! You’ll get a free 7-day course on how to defeat writer’s block butt, emails with exclusive insider info, and the monthly password to my Resources page! 😃 Can’t wait to see you on the inside!

How do you like to write the Inciting Incident?

Have you ever struggled with it?

Would you like more posts on other plot points?

-Julia

Photo by Blake Richard Verdoorn on Unsplash

9 thoughts on “The Inciting Incident: The Point of No Return… Or Is It?

  1. Maybe this is a weird question, but is it possible for the inciting incident and the first plot point to overlap? Like in a story that just throws you headfirst into the action? Or would a story like that not count as having an inciting incident? For example, if your first scene is your character getting captured by pirates and forced into a pirate crew, is that an inciting incident or the first plot point? Sorry if that’s a dumb question!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, not at all! That’s actually a really great question.
      The 1st Act can be really full of action without it being considered the Inciting Incident or 1st Plot Point. What really matters is if the protagonist is doing. It’s considered the 1st Plot Point when the protagonist starts trying to actively take action and move toward what they want. Something to note is that the protagonist won’t do that great of a job taking action during the first half of the 1st Act; they’re going to be doing more reacting to the conflict than actually acting. Once you hit the Midpoint of the story, though, they’ll take control and start making real progress. 🙂
      Another thing to remember is the 1st Plot Point is where the setup ends. By that point, the reader should know who the character is (in general, cause you can still withhold some juicy backstory 😜) what the world is like, and what the protagonist wants.
      There are different places the Inciting Incident is recommended to land in the story (like 6%, for example) but it is not a set-in-stone thing. It matters entirely on your story and where it would make the most sense for it to fall to make it the best story it can be. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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