An inciting incident is the thing that kicks the story off – the “problem” that forms the root of the entire plot.
Without an inciting incident, there would be no story.
They do not have to be directly connected to the protagonist. An inciting incident can occur before we meet the protagonist, or when he is offscreen. Conversely, they can be connected or happen when the protagonist is in the room, it just isn’t a requirement.
Inciting incidents must occur early in the story, usually within the first chapter, but definitely inside the first five percent of a tale. Everything that happens before the inciting incident is backstory, and will not hold a reader’s interest the same way as the conflict of the plot.
The inciting incident will establish the lines in the sand for your protagonist and antagonist – no matter what the problem is, the protagonist desires to solve it and the antagonist wants to prevent them from being successful. Finding a solution to the problem becomes the protagonist’s story goal, which will form the basis of their character arc within the narrative.
Not respective to any individual story (and how many acts it contains), the first act always presents the inciting incident.
A few examples of inciting incidents, and how they establish the problem of their stories:
- In Star Wars: A New Hope, the opening scene of Darth Vader boarding Princess Leia’s spaceship establishes the conflict between the corrupt Empire and the outmanned and outgunned Rebel Alliance. The struggle against the Empire is the “problem” that drives the story.
- In the first Iron Man, Tony Stark is captured by combatants who are making use of weapons that he designed and his company produced. He’s faced with a mystery of how his weapons got into their hands, and needing to get them back.
- For Pacific Rim‘s it’s the death of the main character’s brother. If that hadn’t happened, Raleigh himself probably would have died in combat, and he wouldn’t have been able to partner with Mako. Since it was Raleigh and Mako’s partnership at the eleventh hour of the war that saved the earth, that’s what makes Yancy’s death the inciting incident.
- John Wick begins with the backstory of his wife’s recent death, but the inciting incident is when a group of criminals break into his home to steal his car. The protagonist is thrown into direct conflict with the antagonists after the robbery goes badly and his dog – a gift from his late wife – is killed, thus creating the problem of needing retribution at any cost.
Inciting incidents can be difficult to pick out in certain stories because they drive the narrative plot and not necessarily the protagonist’s personal character arc. For instance, in Batman Begins, the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents clearly marks the beginning of his character story, but the actual plot of the movie revolves around the League of Shadows. That means his parent’s death is not the inciting incident, and is simply backstory.
What about a story you are working on? Can you pick out the inciting incident and the problem it establishes? How about in your favorite book or movie? Feel free to talk about it in the comments.