What Started Everything “Once Upon A Time”? Working with Inciting Incidents
Refining your inciting incident is really a portion of revision, though meticulous planners can always put this in with their preparations.
I’ll be showing my love of science here, though in a very simple and albeit vocabulary-centered way. If a story can be called an organism, then the inciting incident is a stimulus. This is defined by Merrium-Webster in this way:
Stimulus: “An agent (as an environmental change) that directly influences the activity of a living organism or one of its parts (as by exciting a sensory organ or evoking muscular contraction or glandular secretion).”
This does not sound artful, but we’re talking about form here.
An inciting incident – like a stimulus – by definition demands a reaction from the characters. Something occurs outside the protagonist’s control that demands an immediate change of some kind.
Things cannot stay the same. We’ll talk about this a bit more when we discuss enhancing an inciting incident.
The situation should be uncomfortable enough to be unbearable. This doesn’t mean the incident has to be dramatic. The same way some people have a low threshold for pain (or a quick reaction to a low level negative stimulus), some stories have characters who will react quickly to a very small change to their status quo. Other stories may require something more drastic, as with a lot of fairy tales that have to yank away a protagonist’s whole support system for them to go out and deal with the larger threat.
Action, or some motion, is required, either internally or externally. While lately I’m more an advocate of active plots where physical things actually happen, there are more internal plots where the main action takes place in the minds of the characters.
As an example, the major drive of a short story might be a character’s acceptance of their own mortality. The inciting incident may be the appearance of a tumor, which would require some immediate mental action toward acceptance or denial. This tumor can be large and malignant if your character requires a major shock, or small, benign, and in a family member rather than the main character if they are excitable and only need a small stimulus to have this reaction. Characterization happens everywhere, but that’s another topic.
As mentioned when we began here, addressing the inciting incident is especially useful during the revision stages. Since most stories have one already there, even in rough draft stages, enhancement is the name of the game.
While plot reasons may keep you from changing too much about what actually happens, the exposition creates the essential context telling the audience what the event means and how they should feel about it. There are several cues exposition gives to frame an inciting incident:
How should the main character feel about the incident? / How will the main character feel about it?
How should the audience feel about the incident?
What is the world like before the incident? / What would it be like without the incident?
Often the answer to this last question is typically “the same as it was before”, but in some stories the incident is critical to correcting a serious wrong in the world of the story. Consider The Hunger Games as an example of that. The inciting incident sets the story on a path to attempt correcting a clearly flawed system.
Set The Hunger Games example opposite something like a revenge story where the inciting incident is an attack on the protagonists’ home and those first two questions come into focus. If the character is unhappy in their happy home, how would they react to raiders pillaging their town? A protagonist hungry for adventure might believe they’d be the hero right off, but a bit of foreshadowing might show to the audience this kid would be far out of their depth in an actual battle.
Each of these questions (and clever writers out there likely have more) are about cultivating emotional investment so the inciting incident matters enough to hook the readers into the action as powerfully as the characters are caught into the plot. There are examples aplenty and I won’t give tons here, but watch the first few scenes of Star Wars: A New Hope and ask yourself, in that first exchange, why you care about Princess Leia getting the rebel alliance’s plans off the ship. That’s a testament to the power of well-orchestrated details to create a brief and powerful exposition.
While an inciting incident is technically a point in a plot structure, using this as a tool within character arcs can benefit a narrative as well. So, for the sake of argument, we’re widening the definition here to include the point at which an individual character becomes invested/fully engaged in the narrative.
Major second-tier characters, especially in ensemble casts, become invested in the main story apart from the protagonists. Most take place in the first act, immediately after the main character comes into contact with them, though that varies – particularly with characters who, like antiheroes, have commitment issues. Sometimes these happen all at once, as in the formation of the return-the-ring team in The Fellowship of the Ring, though the reason for each character being at that formal conference may be considered their real inciting incident.
When such things happen off-screen, revealing them can be a happy treat for audiences who enjoy backstory. Continuing with the Lord of the Rings example, the revelation of Golem’s inciting incident was a dramatic and forceful scene that reemphasized the corrupting power of the One Ring. A repulsing character who used to be a creature very similar to the endearing Hobbit race first began his story with the One Ring by murdering his friend.
Revealing that the timeline is larger than just the main character’s experiences develops depth and complexity to a longer story, particularly series that attempt to tell an impactful story over many characters and extended time.
Speaking of series, if the books within it are connected, then consider the inciting incident of the series as well as the one for each installment. If the series is connected by a common main character, like popular mystery series that feature a particular sleuth, the inciting incident can be shown in the form of that sleuth’s first case. If the series is connected by an overarching plot, there’s a start to that large plot as well as a spark for the arc in each installment.
As a brief example from Harry Potter, Voldemort’s attack on Harry and the resulting scar serve to start their connection and Harry’s story. The inciting incident for the events in the second book, The Chamber of Secrets, occurs when Ginny Weasley is given Tom Riddle’s diary – though we learn this later in the story. The Chamber of Secrets arc is a portion of the larger series while still retaining a firm beginning to the unique, well-contained book.
Inciting incidents, simply put, are where the stories begin. There’s no turning back, forward motion starts, and circumstances are irrevocably changed. Raising the stakes and enhancing the context serve to cue the audience’s concern for the characters and what will happen next, so give this portion of the work due consideration in revision (or planning).