Get the Ball Rolling

It’s Me-Me Monday, which means I get to share something I like. Last Monday, we talked about opening lines of novels and what makes them effective. Today, we’ll talk about inciting incidents and how they get the ball rolling.

Understanding storytelling is easy if you relate it to everyday life. Last Monday, I related opening lines to the way a gelato display in Piccomolo’s Italian Ice Cream convinced me I needed gelato more than I needed an espresso. Inciting incidents have their real life counterpart, too.

Inciting incidents are like the decision to begin a big project. Think about stuff like adopting a diet and exercise regimen, deciding to change careers, or learning to play the guitar.

Inciting incidents are represented by that moment we decide to do. After that, we experience conflict. This real life conflict is the struggle of learning a new habit or skill set.

In storytelling, the inciting incident is different from the first turning point. The inciting incident happens very quickly after the story begins. In a novel, it’s within the first few pages. In a movie, it’s within the first few minutes.

Some characteristics of inciting incidents:

[Note: These don’t come out of a how-to writing book. These are just elements I’ve noticed.]

    • Inciting Incidents are longer than one sentence. It’s usually a scene or part of a scene.
    • The first line starts from zero. The inciting incident needs to build on the first line and the early stages of character development.
    • The inciting incident should interrupt or unbalance whatever norm the first few pages have set up for the protagonist. This interruption can be an obvious negative. It can also, however, seem like something positive.
    • The inciting incident must be big enough to carry a full-length story.
    • The inciting incident must be connected to the main conflict of the novel.


    • Inciting Incident Example: Sally gets attacked by a band of marauding vampires. The following conflict must be a direct result of this attack.
    • Inciting Incident Example: Derek burns down his house for the insurance money. The following conflict must represent the fallout from this decision.
  • Like the first line, the inciting incident must create enough of a question to make the reader want to continue.

How about a few movie references?

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The inciting incident in Jackie Brown happens with Jackie is busted for bringing unreported money (and cocaine) into the United States. This event disrupts Jackie Brown’s life and forces her to take action to set her life back into balance. The rest of the movie shows how Jackie achieves her goal.

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The inciting incident in The Shining happens when Jack gets a job at the Overlook Hotel.  This is one of those inciting incidents where the protagonist seems to get exactly what he wants.  Problem is, getting what he wants is the protagonist’s undoing.

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In Angel Heart, the inciting incident happens when Harold Angel meets Louis Cyphre and agrees to take his case.  Angel Heart is a noir, so this first event creates a downward spiral for our hero that lasts the entire movie.

Here are a few examples from novels:

The inciting incident from The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly happens when Michael Haller takes Louis Ross Roulet’s case.  This incident stems from the existing characterization of Haller.  Haller is money-hungry and knows how to twist the law to his best advantage. [Page 9]

The inciting incident in Dirty White Boys by Stephen Hunter happens when Lamar Pye is attacked in the prison showers and kills his attacker.  The events match Lamar’s early character development.  Because of the attack, Lamar’s only option is to escape from prison.  The rest of the book takes place on the run. [Page 10]

The inciting incident in Tami Hoag’s Deeper than the Dead occurs when some kids discover a dead body in the woods.  The first scene of the book takes place in the killer’s point-of-view.  The reader knows what the killer is capable of doing.  This incident carries the story because it sets the murder mystery in motion. [Page 8]

[Note: Your inciting incident does not have to be the first three lines of your manuscript. (Though it can be.) It is the moment when your protagonist enters the conflict that will challenge him/her for the rest of the book.]


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