4 Things to Remember when Plotting an Inciting Incident

by Tamera Lynn Kraft

Every novel has an inciting incident, a point that starts the story’s journey. An inciting incident is the catalyst that causes the protagonist to take action. It is the thing that must happen to mess up your character’s normal life and set the story in motion. Without an inciting incident, there would be no story.

Don’t confuse the inciting incident with the doorway of no return. The inciting incident is what causes a disturbance in the main character’s normal life. The doorway of no return is when the main character decides to act in a way she can’t return from. There is a process of decision making for the character between the inciting incident and the doorway of no return where she begins her quest.

An example of an inciting incident would be when Katniss’ sister’s name is called for the games in the Hunger Games. The door of no return is when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.

In the Wizard of Oz, the inciting incident is when Dorothy’s house is blown away by a tornado. She may have had problems at home and dreamed of a better life over the rainbow, but nothing really happened until the tornado blew her away. The door of no return is when she kills the witch and puts on the ruby shoes.

For Lucy, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the inciting incident is when Lucy hides in the wardrobe. The door of no return is when the beavers tell Lucy about the fawn’s capture. She and her siblings decide to stay and help.

Here’s four things to remember when plotting an inciting incident for a novel:

1. The inciting incident should happen early. By early, I mean by the end of the first chapter, maybe even by the end of the first scene. Some novels have the inciting incident in the first paragraph. Since the story doesn’t really start until the incident happens, don’t waste the reader’s time by taking too long to set up the story before the inciting incident.

2. Show that a change is needed. From the first sentence in the novel, show that the peaceful life of the character has conflict. Basically show that the protagonist’s world needs shaken up by the inciting incident.

3. Make the incident important enough to change the character’s life. The incident doesn’t have to be major, exciting, or earth shattering. But it does need to be the match to ignite the fire that changes things. It could be as simple as the protagonist meeting the love of her life when she’s happy with things the way they are or as earth shaking as being blown away by a tornado.

4. The inciting incident must be personal. Your inciting incident might be the Civil War or a nuclear war. It might involve a tornado or a fire. Whatever the case, if you incident affects masses of people, you need to show it from your protagonist’s viewpoint. Show how it changes your main character’s journey.

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