Read the First Chapter

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tip #6 for Fiction Writers: Why the Inciting Incident is so Important?

Tip #5: Why the Inciting Incident is so Importan

By Peter Gilboy

Imagine this:
     Presumed Innocent
  • Your name is Rusty Sabich.
  • You’re the prosecutor for Kindle County.
  • There’s been a death.
  • It’s someone you know – a recent but past lover (yes, you’re married) has been found raped and murdered.
           (Your world is not in chaos yet –until. . .)
  • Analysis shows that it’s your semen that was found in her.
                  Yikes! Is your world now upside down? You bet. 
This is, of course, the starting point for Scott Turows great novel - Presumed Innocent.

The above scenario is what called an ‘inciting incident.’
Sometimes it’s called an “exciting incident.” Before it, there is relative peace and equilibrium in the lives of the protagonists. The inciting incident changes that. Dramatically (literally). It’s the reason for the story in the first place. The rest of the story is the protagonist solving the problem, regaining the lost equilibrium.

Repeat: The inciting incident is the reason for the story in the first place.  

Here's an inciting innocent on the first page of a book I'm currently reading.
"I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. I could have beena bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I say: a small human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water."
Does this paragraph get your attention? This is from Sara J. Henry's Learning to Swim.  Does the protagonist jump in to save the child?  (You'll have to read the book.)  Does it change her life completely?  (No surprise there. Yes.)

Or, take Hamlet: What is the inciting innocent?  It's when, upon the death of Hamlet’s father, his mother immediately moves to marry his father’s brother. Hamlet goes mad. His world is upside down. The rest of the play is Hamlet trying to turn his world right side up.

Product Details

Oh, and what about Joe Turner? Remember him – the Robert Redford character in 3 Days of the Condor? He goes to work one day, in a downtown Brownstone, at his usual job as a CIA reader. Fine. He has his life. He has his love interest. He has his great job where he reads things -- looking for ideas that might help the CIA. 

What can go wrong? (Your kidding, right?)
Product Details

Joe Turner goes out the back door and comes back with sandwiches for everyone in the office. But they are all dead. Massacred. His life is turned upside down. Who can he trust? (It’s the CIA after all.)  Are they really after him? What does he know that endangers him? The rest of the story is Joe Turner battling the CIA (in ingenious ways) to right the turmoil in his life. (If you haven’t read it or seen it, you’ve missed a terrific story.)

Or The Godfather. The normal equilibrium of the Corleone family is gambling, prostitution, and murder. Hard for them to have an inciting incident, yes?  But there is one – when the Godfather himself is gunned down in the street. That sets the book and the movie in motion, and the rest of the story is the family trying to save him and right their world.
Does the inciting innocent have to be violent?  No.

“If you build it, he will come.” Yikes! It turns the Iowa corn farmer into a tizzy.  What’s next? As he tries to make his dream real, the story builds and builds and builds. Neighbors reject him. His family thinks he's crazy. His farm is going into foreclosure.  But it was premised on the inciting incident --this one simple sentence, If you build it, they will come.

Oh, and the great book Grapes of Wrath. Here the inciting incident is the dust bowl during the depression. It turns the Joad family’s world upside down, forcing all of them into one car to make it to California (their own field of dreams.)

Does the inciting incident have to be negative: No

Take the terrific novel by Steven Smith - A Simple Plan.  The inciting incident is the finding of money. Lots and lots of it. Nice! Good news, yes? Not so fast. 
Product Details
The chain of events that lead from finding the money turns everyone’s world upside down.  The rest of the story consists of the characters trying to right their world so that they can survive.

Are there rules for the inciting incident? Here’s 5:
     What Happens When the CIA Gets Inside Your Mind?
  1. It should come fairly early in your story (10-15 pages), along with the development of the genre, first scene, and characters. 
  2. It pulls the main character(s) into the plot.
  3. It has to be of sufficient interest to the reader – actually hook him or her. 
  4. It has to provide enough energy to sustain the story.
  5. The inciting incident has to be satisfactorily resolved at the end of our stories.  (Of course, the ending must be a surprise, but logical. And, it must give the reader what he or she wants, but not in they way they expect it.) 
Homework: As we read our books and watch our films and TV shows, look for the inciting incident. 

  • Identify where it is placed in the story. 
  • Does it interest us? 
  • Does it pull the main character(s) into the story? 
  • Is it violent or nonviolent.
  • Do we care? 
  • Why do we care? 
  • Does it provide enough energy to launch the story?
  • Does it sustain the story through to the end.

If we study like this, we are examining other stories to see what works, and what doesn’t. It’s just one way that we become better writers.

 a love story of suspense

Peter Gilboy is a former ditch digger, short order cook, bartender, truck driver, soldier, counselor and academic.  He has been in jail only once. Peter almost always takes his meds.  
His website is    You can contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment