Inciting incident: the point of no return
And now doom
The inciting incident is the event that forces the main character to action. It is the one event that sets him on his path. Before this moment he could continue his normal life. Once the inciting incident happens, everything changes.
- Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games
- Gandalf invites Bilbo on a quest
- Hagrid gives Harry a letter
The inciting incident changes something. While many inciting incidents throw your character’s world into chaos, the change does not have to be negative. Harry’s letter was probably the best thing to happen to the boy. But it did change his life. Once Harry knew who he was, his life had been altered permanently.
An inciting incident:
- Forces the characters to act
- It is the point of no return
An effective inciting incident:
Must be the results of the setup
This is the moment you’ve been building toward. (I’m looking at you pantsers.) Otherwise, it won’t make sense, and readers will feel duped. Imagine if Prim had been chosen for a beauty contest? The opening chapters in the Hunger Games established Katniss as a skilled hunter and demonstrated her need to protect Prim. None of that would have been pertinent if Prim had been chosen for a pageant.
Can’t have an easy solution
How many times have you been turned off by a book or movie where for some inexplicable reason the main character responded to a crisis with the dumbest, most complex response imaginable. Your character doesn’t need to helicopter jump to the top floor of a building when it has a perfectly good elevator.
Must be logical
This means if you want your teen to knowingly date an assassin, you need to craft your set-up so that it’s believable. Just like the Hunger Games example above, the inciting incident is the event that changes the world (normal life) you have just established for your character. It can’t be random. It must challenge the status quo.
Must be personal to the main character
Katniss volunteered because Prim was her sister. Harry wanted an escape from his miserable life. The inciting incident can’t be something that happens far away. It must happen to the character, and it must threaten him personally.
Reflects the stakes already established
As you are establishing your character’s world, you will show the reader what your character holds dear, the thing he doesn’t want to lose. Make sure your inciting incident threatens that thing. In Inside Out, Joy believes making Reily perpetually happy is her personal mission, but Sadness’s actions threaten the status quo, forcing Joy to act.
Everything in your opening chapters leads to this moment
Inciting incident is the moment everything changes for your main character. It is the result of your set up, the carefully crafted event that sends your hero on his path. Make sure yours is up to the task.