What is An Inciting Incident? Examples & Tips for Authors

POSTED ON Jul 24, 2023

Jackie Pearce

Written by Jackie Pearce

Home > Blog > Fiction, Writing > What is An Inciting Incident? Examples & Tips for Authors

When it comes to pulling in readers and grabbing their attention, knowing all of the ways to do so can help your book succeed with readers. By answering the question, “What is the inciting incident in my book?” you can keep readers intrigued and invested from the start.

In this article, we will go over what is an inciting incident, how to use one in your own story, and then look at some examples so you can see how they work in an actual story.

Soon, you'll know exactly what it is and how you should develop yours to hook readers.

What Is An Inciting Incident?

An inciting incident is an event that throws off the life of the main character and kicks off the book's main storyline.

It throws off their routine and the status quo and compels the character to take action. It is often the main motivation behind a character to disrupt their day-to-day life and answer the call to adventure.

The inciting incident does not always have to be a huge, catastrophic event, but it must be enough to be something outside of the main character's day-to-day life that draws attention and intrigue. You must also give the character a “why” behind their choices moving forward. Most people have a set routine that they follow, and you need to make it believable if they are going to go outside of that.

Types of Inciting Incidents

Generally, three types of inciting incidents, or actions, can start the main story line.

  • Casual inciting actions. This means that the main character started the journey into their storyline independently. For example, someone joins the military, a spouse leaves, chooses to move to another part of the world, and so on.
  • Coincidental inciting actions. This is when something happens usually by accident or some kind of coincidence, falls into the character's life. For example, a car accident, and kidnapping, winning the lottery, or something else unexpected.
  • Ambiguous inciting actions. This is when a beginning inciting action is unclear because it is part of the plot for the reader not quite to know what is happening or how the character got roped into the story.

Why Inciting Incidents Matter

Inciting incidents give the reader a reason to not only be invested in the story but they also give them a reason to root for the main character.

We will get into some examples later in this article, but imagine reading The Hunger Games for the first time and coming across when Katniss volunteers for her sister. The reader how wants to root for Katniss for doing such a brave act. But it also sets them up to root for her when she takes down the system as a whole. That's because she should not have even had to make that choice in the first place.

You should also know that inciting incidents are ways you can create villains as well. A character's response to things that happen to them is a determinant for whether they become a hero, an antihero, or a villain.

One character may take an event and decide to rise up. They will see it as a challenge to make things better. Meanwhile, another character may use that same event to go down the dark path. It may be the reason they are now bitter and angry.

How To Create A Compelling Inciting Incident

Let's look at a few best practices for writing an inciting incident.

1. Plan when you are going to insert it into your story

Thinking about when you are going to introduce your inciting incident is an essential step to planning your book's plot and storyline. You can map this out while you are doing your book outline so that's it's really clear when the incident happens and what should unfold after.

As an author, you will want to think about how you can throw your reader into the story. If you take too long to introduce the inciting action, you risk losing the readers because the plot is moving along too slow.

Related: How to Use the Save the Cat! Story Structure

2. Let your readers meet the character through the inciting incident

Your readers will learn a lot about who a character is when they go through their inciting incident. Do they act childish? Full of rage? Upset? Do they rise to the occasion? Act too noble?

There are many ways you could have your character meet a new situation. Think carefully about how they respond to it and what the reader should learn about them through it. You might also use it to highlight their growth. Maybe they act childish at first, but as they grow throughout the book, they become emotionally stronger.

Related: Character Development and Bio Template

3. Make the actions believable

One of the main things you will want to keep in mind is that you want your character to respond accordingly (or at least believably) to the inciting incident.

If their entire family is killed and then they take a nap after, the readers will not believe that response.

The inciting action should cause your main character to dive head-first into some sort of inner conflict or external action. This will then set off the main plot and storyline of your book.

Speaking of…

4. Make sure it ties into the main plot line

Make sure your inciting incident actually ties directly into the plot line and main theme of your book.

It should not be a separate, unrelated incident.

Related: Plot Driven vs Character-Driven Books

Examples Of Inciting Incidents

Want to see some of these tips in action? Let's go over some examples of inciting incidents from popular books you've likely read or heard of.

Volunteering As Tribute: The Hunger Games

Perhaps one of the most popular inciting incidents to recently have emerged from literature is in The Hunger Games (so popular, it's become a funny book meme many times over). Katniss volunteers for the game because she wants to take the place of her sister.

It is an active, noble – though terrifying – choice that she makes to protect her sister from harm. But it's the catalyst for everything else that's about to unfold.

Princess Leia's Capture: Star Wars

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is recruited (casual inciting incident) by Obi-Wan to bring the message of Princess Leia to her father on their home planet.

His choice of coming along is what starts the whole story as we know it.

The Legendary Party: The Great Gatsby

After meeting Nick Carraway throughout the beginning of the book, the whole story really begins when Nick meets Gatsby at a party and everything that ensues from there.

So now you can definitely answer the question, “What is an inciting incident?” And you probably even have some more clarity about how, when, and where to put yours in your book.

Need more help planning and writing your book?

You do not want to publish your book only to realize you missed a huge section. Our fiction outline template gives fiction aspiring authors everything they need create an interesting story, including all the key elements every great book needs!

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