What is an Inciting Incident? Examples + 4 Helpful Tips for Authors

Jackie Pearce
November 02, 2023 | 6 mins

When it comes to pulling in readers and grabbing their attention, you need a compelling inciting incident. But what is an inciting incident, exactly?

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

Soon, you'll know exactly how to develop your inciting incident to hook readers.

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What is an inciting incident?

What is an inciting incident? It's an event that throws off the life of the protagonist and kicks off the book's main storyline.

An inciting incident is what throws off the main character's routine and compels them 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 something outside of the main character's day-to-day life that draws attention and intrigue.

An inciting incident is what gives 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 routine.

In order to deeply discuss what an inciting incident is, it's important for us to take a look at the different types of inciting incidents.

Types of inciting incidents

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

  • 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, they choose to move to another part of the world, and so on.
  • Coincidental inciting actions. This is when something happens by accident or some kind of coincidence. For example, a car accident, a kidnapping, winning the lottery, or something else unexpected.
  • Ambiguous inciting actions. This is when you find yourself asking, “What is the inciting incident of this story?” In this case, the inciting incident is left unclear by the author as part of the plot. They don't want you to know what is happening or how the character got roped into the story.

What is the inciting incident’s purpose?

Now that you have a basic understanding of what an inciting incident is, let's talk about the purpose of an inciting incident.

Inciting incidents give the reader a reason to be invested in the story and 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 now 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.

Inciting incidents are ways you can create villains as well. A character's response to things that happen to them can determine 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: 4 helpful tips

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

What is the inciting incident's timing in your storyline? Thinking about when you are going to introduce your inciting incident is an essential step in planning your book's plot. You can map this out while you are doing your book outline so that 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 incident, you risk losing the readers because the plot is moving too slowly.

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. An inciting incident is what defines your character in the eyes of the reader.

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 the inciting incident to highlight the character's growth. Maybe they act childish at first, but as they grow throughout the book, they become emotionally stronger.

Related: Character Development and Character 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

Now you know what an inciting incident is and how to use one, so let's see some of these tips in action.

Examples Of inciting incidents

Here are 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

In The Great Gatsby, the story doesn't really begin until the main character Nick meets Gatsby at a party. It all moves quickly from there!

Captivate your readers with your new knowledge

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 aspiring fiction authors everything they need to create an interesting story, including all the key elements every great book should contain.

Need A Fiction Book Outline?

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