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Sunday, July 23, 2023

What is the Inciting Incident? Definition, Purpose, Examples, Tips

The inciting incident is an event that disrupts the established normal and kicks off the main storyline. It will usually appear as an opportunity or a problem (or both) for the protagonist. And even if the protagonist initially refuses it, he must eventually address it.

For example, the inciting incident in The Hobbit is when Gandalf arrives and invites Bilbo on an adventure. It disrupts Bilbo's ordinary life, and while it is presented as an opportunity, Bilbo views that opportunity as a problem (respectable Hobbits don't go on adventures). He refuses the invitation initially, but later accepts it. If it weren't for Gandalf's invitation, the plot in The Hobbit wouldn't have happened.

The purpose of the inciting incident is to start the main plotline.

The inciting incident is known by a few other names: the "Catalyst" (Save the Cat!), the "Call to Adventure" (The Hero's Journey), and I've also heard it called the "impetus."

Unfortunately--as is somewhat common in the writing community--the term can actually be a little ambiguous, making it difficult to learn about, let alone discern. Not only are there multiple terms for the same event, but there are also disagreements in the community about which event constitutes the "inciting incident." 

So, if you have been confused about this term, I'm not surprised. To minimize confusion, I'll explain the different ways people view the inciting incident, later. For now, the above definition is currently what is generally considered the inciting incident.

Let's break down the inciting incident some more, moving from a basic understanding to an intermediate understanding to an advanced one. I'll go through more examples and even some rule breaks.

Inciting Incident Basics

The above definition works well for a basic understanding of the inciting incident. When looking at a story (your own or another's), ask yourself: What kicks off the main plot? What initial event allows that plot to start happening?

Commonly, the protagonist will be going about her ordinary life, and something comes along to disrupt it in a way that can't be ignored. Sure, the protagonist may try to ignore it or outright refuse it (like Bilbo), for a while, but for one reason or another, her life can't go back to normal. Either externally something is off, or internally something is off.

In The Hunger Games, we are introduced to Katniss and her current lifestyle as she wakes up, goes hunting, and interacts with others in District 12. The reaping happens every year. But her current lifestyle is disrupted when Effie pulls Prim's name out of the bowl. For Katniss, this is a major problem. If this hadn't happened, she would have never volunteered. Prim's name getting called sets the main plot in motion.

Intermediate Level

The inciting incident is a medium-sized turning point (also known as a plot turn). It turns the direction of the story.

Specifically, it turns the story into rising action.

Occasionally, you may see this turn depicted in basic story structure:

This moment is an external turn, meaning, it comes from outside the protagonist--the protagonist is not creating the turn himself.

Gandalf invites Bilbo.

Effie pulls out Prim's name.

In Star Wars IV, Leia's message reveals she needs help.

Occasionally the protagonist may walk unknowingly into the inciting incident. In A Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington quite literally walks into Christmas Town, but he doesn't know where he is or what he is doing. The experience of Christmas Town happens to him. He isn't going into the town to make things happen.

So the inciting incident is one instance in the story where the protagonist will be acted upon in an important way.

And since this is a turn that disrupts the protagonist's life, it needs to come into contact with the protagonist.

In Mulan, the Huns deciding to invade China isn't the inciting incident, because it doesn't disrupt Mulan's life. Instead, the inciting incident comes when her own father is called to war, which disrupts her current life in a significant way.

Likewise, Princess Leia recording her message isn't the inciting incident. Luke's ordinary life isn't disrupted until he finds the message.

The protagonist is present for the inciting incident.


There are several other moments that often (or may) happen around the inciting incident. This is why there are some arguments and confusion as to what the inciting incident actually is.

First off, a prior event may lead to or prep the inciting incident.

Willy Wonka putting the golden tickets in the chocolate bars can appear to be the inciting incident, but notice it doesn't involve Charlie. It's simply set up for the inciting incident to happen.

After the inciting incident, the character will respond to whatever happened. Often he will try to ignore it, deny it, or outright refuse it. In the Hero's Journey, this is known as the "Refusal of the Call." In Save the Cat! this is known as "Debate."

We talked about an example of this earlier, which is when Bilbo refuses Gandalf's invitation. Another example would be Sulley trying to get rid of Boo right after she appears in Monster's Inc.

While this is a common beat, not all protagonists actually have it. If the protagonist doesn't Refuse the Call, often another character will voice the Refusal, or at least hesitation, instead.

But ultimately, the inciting incident will need to be addressed in the proper way (i.e. in the way that allows the main plot to happen). This will appear as the character choosing to engage in the main conflict, which will often be demonstrated by a strong action, such as Bilbo running out his door to catch up with the dwarves, or Harry Potter leaving with Hagrid.

Frequently, this will hit at the end of Act I, and be Act I's major turning point. The Hero's Journey calls this "Crossing the Threshold" and Save the Cat! calls this "Break into Two." Commonly it is also known as Plot Point 1.

In any case, this is where some of the ambiguity in the writing community comes in. Some will argue that the inciting incident is the preparatory event, like when Willy Wonka puts the golden tickets in the chocolate bars. Some will say it's the disrupting incident, like when Prim's name gets called. Some will say it's when the character engages in the main conflict, like when Bilbo runs out his door to join the dwarves. And some will even lump part or all of these events together.

It's no surprise that things can get confusing.

This is why it can be helpful to consider Act I's structure . . .

Structuring Act I

Because of the ambiguity in the writing community, sometimes it's helpful to look at the structure of Act I to gain some clarity.

In most stories, Act I will take up the first quarter (~25%) of the narrative (but there are exceptions and variations.)

Ideally, it will open with a hook.

Often there is some sort of "shake-up" halfway through (~12% into the story).

And there will be a big turning point, a peak, at the end of Act I (~25% in).


Harry Potter starts with a hook--unusual things are happening all day and culminate in a baby who defeated a dark wizard being left on a doorstep. Halfway through Act I there is a shake-up--a letter arrives addressed to Harry. Near the end, there is a big turn--Hagrid tells Harry he is a wizard, which leads Harry to choose to go with him.

Some feel that the letter's arrival is the inciting incident. Some feel it's Hagrid's announcement. (I originally leaned toward it being Hagrid, and now feel like it's the letter.) But at the end of the day, what's most important is understanding how the pieces work. We have the hook, the shake-up, and the peak.

The letter also gets the story on track to hit Hagrid's announcement, which is a nice touch.

Placement of the Inciting Incident

With an understanding of how Act I is commonly structured, we can more easily discuss where to place the inciting incident.

Perhaps most commonly, the inciting incident is placed at the shake-up--about halfway through Act I, which is what (arguably) happens in Harry Potter

This is a nice place to put it, because the audience has time to get to know the characters and the world and their trajectory, before something comes along to throw everything off balance.

But the inciting incident can also double as the hook. This is what happens in The Hunger Games. Prim's name gets called as early as chapter one.

It can also happen just before (or some may argue, part of) the big turning point, which is what happens in Frozen. Elsa's powers go out of control when with Anna, and right after Elsa freezes the kingdom and runs away.

And even with all of that said, these placements are just guidelines. Place it where it works best for your story.

Get your hook, your shake-up, and your peak--and make sure the inciting incident that kicks off the main plotline is in Act I, and you should be good.

Multiple Inciting Incidents

A couple of times I've been asked what to do if a story seems to have multiple inciting incidents. Thankfully, this is usually more of an asset than a problem.

First, you may want to check that this isn't a matter of "writing community ambiguity." It may be that these are simply different beats: a moment that preps, the disruption itself, the character's reaction to the disruption, and the character's choice to engage in the main conflict (which leads him or her into the main "journey" of the plot).

If all the events are clearly linked, it's likely they are simply key beats of Act I for the main plotline.

If the events aren't linked on one trajectory, it's likely you have inciting incidents for different plotlines.

When people talk about inciting incidents, they are usually talking about them in regard to the main plotline.

But secondary plotlines can have their own inciting incidents.

For example, if the inciting incident doesn't hit at the shake-up, it's common for an inciting incident of another plotline to hit there, such as the inciting incident of the relationship plotline (which is often the "meet cute.") 

This is what happens in Frozen with Anna and Hans--they have an inciting incident for a relationship. But the main plot doesn't kick off until Elsa loses control of her magic at the coronation, which happens near the end of Act I.

Depending on how your plotlines run through your story, you may have multiple inciting incidents--one for each plotline.

Alternatively, it's also possible to have the same event work as an inciting incident for multiple plotlines, which is arguably what happens in The Prestige. The protagonist's wife drowning kicks off the internal, the external, and the relationship plotlines simultaneously.

In any case, suffice it to say that seeming to have multiple inciting incidents isn't usually something to worry about.

What is a worry is if there is no inciting incident or rather, the inciting incident comes at the wrong time, hurting the pacing of the story.

Rule Breaks

So far we have mainly gone over what is typical of inciting incidents. Let's go over some variations or rule breaks.

The inciting incident almost always, always happens on page or on screen. It should, because it's such a critical moment in the plot. However, it's not impossible for it to happen off page or off screen.

For example, by general definition, in Knives Out, the inciting incident is when the anonymous letter arrives for Detective Blanc, but notice that happens off screen.

In fact, it practically happened before the story started. If we view Harlan's death as a prologue (acting as a hook), the real story doesn't start until the investigation and questioning are already underway--after the inciting incident happened.

Some argue that the inciting incident can happen before the story officially starts, but it's an unusual situation.

What's interesting in the case of Knives Out is that the audience learns about the inciting incident ~12% in. So even though it technically already happened, it's still placed where the inciting incident often goes, at the shake-up. And it does shake things up, for the audience. Who hired Detective Blanc? We don't know.

Such things are more likely to happen in stories that are structured achronologically (which I plan to talk about in a post someday). Nearly all of Act I of Knives Out is achronological.

Tips to Keep in Mind

Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing the inciting incident:

Establish what the protagonist's current ("normal") life is like before the inciting incident. The inciting incident is a medium-sized turning point, so think about what you need to convey to the audience to make this particular turn powerful. In order to make Prim's name being called shocking, Collins needed to first establish how unlikely it was for her to be picked and how Katniss was essentially her foster mother.

Usually it's effective to start the character in the opposite state of where he will be by the end of Act I, with the inciting incident acting as the initial disruptor (of course). Jack Skellington should first be bored of Halloween before he discovers Christmas. The turn wouldn't be as powerful if he was satisfied with his role. (It would have been okay. But it would have been weaker.)

Start the story with the protagonist already on a specific trajectory. Convey what direction the character's life is meant to go if it continues its current path. Then, when the inciting incident disrupts it and sends it on a new trajectory, it will be more impactful.

If the inciting incident is viewed as a problem, it's often great to first pull the protagonist high--on an upward trajectory. In Legally Blonde, Elle thinks Warner is going to propose to her, so the inciting incident, the problem, of getting dumped hits harder.

Likewise, if the inciting incident is viewed as an opportunity, it's often great to first pull the protagonist low--on a downward trajectory. 

Because the inciting incident is a disruptor, almost always it should be something the protagonist didn't foresee. She may think she knows what's going to happen (like Elle), but it ends up being different.

Since this is a critical turn in the story, make sure it happens on page (unless you have a good reason for a rule break). It should almost always be dramatized, in a scene, not summary. You may want to bump up the prose for it.

Get your protagonist's reaction to it on page, too. His reaction is a great opportunity to convey his character--whether it's brief or it takes several chapters. 

The protagonist almost always voices hesitation in his reaction. If he doesn't, then usually another character will instead. The purpose of this beat is to emphasize the stakes, the seriousness of this new trajectory.

Now, with all that said, there is always room for variation, so choose what works best for your story. 

The inciting incident is usually one of the first scenes that comes to mind when brainstorming a book, so have fun with it!

Related Articles

The Hero's Journey Explained: The Beginning

The Steadfast, Flat-arc Protagonist in Story: The Beginning

Save the Cat! Explained: The Beginning

Story Structure Explained: Prologues, Hooks, Setups, Inciting Incidents

Structuring Your Relationship Plotline: Key Beats

Read What Others Are Writing About the Inciting Incident





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