🌸 Special offer — get 10% off with our newsletter (*while offer lasts)
Sign up
No items found.
Easter eggs hatching. Nail the inciting incident with a call to adventure and these inciting incident examples
novel writing process
starting to write
Writing Skills

The Inciting Incident (and How to Crack It)

Tash Barsby. Former commissioning editor at Penguin random House and The Novelry Team Member
Tash Barsby
March 31, 2024
March 31, 2024

The inciting incident is a key moment in storytelling and establishes a new status quo for the main character. They cannot go back to who they were at the beginning; they must go on through the trials and tribulations of the plot to who they will become by the end. While the beginning of your story must be engaging enough to keep readers reading, the inciting incident changes the game.

So how do you set your story in motion?

In this article, The Novelry’s Deputy Editorial Director Tash Barsby explains what an inciting incident is, where it should happen in your story, provides some recognizable examples and reveals tips to create a memorable inciting incident. 

Inciting incident definition 

Put simply, the inciting incident is an event in your story that provokes a change. Your main character will be trotting along, cheerfully minding their own business, living their life as it was before we meet them on the page—then something happens that changes their status quo and forces them to start down an unexpected new path. Also known as the catalyst, the inciting event thrusts the rest of your story arc into motion and is a crucial first step in your wider story structure

There are broadly two types of inciting events that kickstart the plot—causal or coincidental. For a causal inciting incident, the change to your main character’s life is introduced through an active choice made by another character—for example, the discovery of a dead body or a reveal from a husband that he is moving out.

In a coincidental inciting incident, the agent of change is seemingly random or a consequence of the main character being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or indeed the right place at the right time!) For example, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the inciting action occurs when Lucy stumbles across the portal to Narnia in the back of the wardrobe by accident while exploring the Professor’s house.

Put simply, the inciting incident is an event in your story that provokes a change.

The inciting moment

Ideally, you want this key moment of change to occur quickly within your plot and capture your reader’s attention.

There’s a school of thought that suggests that it should happen at the 12% point of your narrative, but this isn’t set in stone. You may choose to have the inciting incident occur in the first chapter or even the first page!

Wherever it comes, I would strongly recommend including a strong inciting incident in your submission package you send to literary agents. Cue my daily exasperation that the publishing industry can’t agree on what constitutes a submission package—is it the first three chapters, the first fifty pages, the first ten thousand words? But for the purposes of this article, I suppose the industry’s indecision on this matter helps—because this is another reason to get that important inciting incident in early in your plot so that you’re not having to rearrange your structure for each submission package you send out.

We’re all about ‘tools not rules’ at The Novelry, so it’s important to note that you can choose to treat your inciting incident in the way that best suits your vision for your story arc.

For example, there may be occasions when the inciting incident has happened before the opening of your novel. In fantasy (especially epic fantasy), the inciting incident is often only the latest plot point that kicks off this part of a much larger story. As it continues, the characters discover they are part of an epic narrative; the true inciting incident could have occurred decades, centuries, or millennia previously.

If your novel does have an inciting incident that happens ‘off the page’ as a past event, it’s important to make sure that the impact of these inciting events is felt right the way through the beginning so that your reader can experience it alongside your characters. An example of this is in The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse, where the inciting incident for Elin is the invitation to her estranged brother’s engagement party—in the first scene, we see our protagonist already on her journey to the snowy mountain hotel after accepting this invite, feeling nervous that she has made the wrong choice and feeling wary of seeing her brother again.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, you could argue that the death of Harry’s parents (and the attempted murder of Harry himself) by Lord Voldemort, which takes place before the story starts, are the events that set the rest of the story in motion. However, if we follow Joseph Campbell’s description of the inciting incident as a ‘call to adventure,’ the inciting incident is, of course, when Hagrid tells Harry he is a wizard! 

Inciting incident examples

What does this look like in practice? Here are some examples of some of our editors’ favorite inciting incidents: 

Book Club

In Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, the inciting incident is the protagonist Nella’s new husband gifting her a miniature replica of their Amsterdam home, bringing with it an unsettling magic into their lives.

Romance

In From Lukov With Love by Mariana Zapata, the inciting incident is when the protagonist, figure skater Jasmine, is asked to partner with Ivan Lukov, the man she’s absolutely despised for the past decade.

Thriller

In Gone Girl, Nick receives a phone call from a neighbor who says that the front door to his house has been left open. He rushes home to find furniture overturned and his wife, Amy, missing…

Historical

In Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, the inciting incident is Gentleman arriving at the main character Sue Trinder’s home in the London slums, proposing a con in which they’ll cheat a rich young gentlewoman out of her inheritance.

Science Fiction

In Dune, the inciting incident is when the House Atreides receives news that they’re taking control of the planet Arrakis from their enemy House Harkonnen.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the inciting incident is when Arthur Dent wakes up to discover that the Earth is about to be demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass.

Fantasy

In The Lord of the Rings, the inciting incident occurs when Bilbo leaves his ring to Frodo after his birthday party, which is soon followed by Gandalf revealing to Frodo that his ring is, in fact, the One Ring…

Middle Grade

In Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, the inciting incident is an attack on Percy from Mrs Dodds, his teacher, who turns out to be a Fury from the underworld searching for the Lightning Thief. It leads him to be pulled out of school and sent to Camp Half-Blood, where he discovers he’s the son of Poseidon.

Young Adult

In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the inciting incident is the moment when Katniss Everdeen’s sister is selected during the reaping, and Katniss volunteers in her place, sending her into a brutal game of life and death.

In Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, the inciting incident is the first text by the anonymous secret-revealer, Aces, where it’s clear they’re targeting two Black kids, Devon and Chiamaka, the least privileged kids at this elite school.

Genre expectations  

Of course, another key point to remember when it comes to writing your inciting incident is to make sure it is suitable for your genre and target readership. Beginning a middle-grade novel with the gruesome discovery of a body wouldn’t make much sense, nor would focusing on the romantic connection between a detective and her new love interest that has no bearing on the detective’s murder investigation.

You want your inciting incident to kickstart the wider plot to get the reader excited about what they can expect from the reading experience and journey you’re about to take them on—so make sure this moment of change feels tonally in keeping with everything that happens in the following pages.

Naturally, different genres will approach structure differently—if you’re writing in the more literary or book club space, it may make sense to prioritize establishing your character’s status quo before introducing this inciting change; if you’re writing for a commercial readership, you may even have the inciting incident happen on the first page. Balancing the plot and character work in your story is necessary regardless of your genre, though, and it all comes down to the pace of your novel.

You want your inciting incident to kickstart the wider plot to get the reader excited about what they can expect from the reading experience and journey you’re about to take them on...

Narrative drive and pace

Pace is a crucial part of storytelling and another reason to prioritize your inciting incident early on.

Aim to avoid the common trap of overloading your opening chapters with your main character’s back story. While we will, of course, need to know certain details of their past to understand who they are and why they act the way they do throughout the novel, this is all information that would be better served being threaded through the story so that you build our engagement with this character in a more organic way. I like to think of it as meeting someone at a party; you—hopefully—wouldn’t launch into an explanation of the death of your first pet, who your favorite teacher in the Harry Potter series is, or how many times you have watched Die Hard after introducing yourself to a stranger. The same rules apply to your writing!

With this in mind, you’ll ideally want to ensure your inciting incident has a sense of urgency to it. It wouldn’t be particularly exciting if the catalyst were something that could easily be dealt with in a few months’ time! The inciting incident should inspire an immediate change to help accelerate the pace of your story within the first pages.

 {{blog-banner-5="/blog-banners"}}

Tips for your inciting incident

inciting incident number one featuring inciting incident examples and inciting incident definition

1. When writing the inciting incident, make sure it is something that happens to your protagonist, not done by them.

inciting incident number two - a great inciting incident is a life changing moment in the protagonist's life where everything changes

2. Think about the other characters. Where possible, ensure your inciting incident also forces a change for your antagonist as well as your protagonist.

the inciting incident happens in the first act, and a great inciting incident happens in the first few pages

3. In most cases, an inciting incident should feel personal to your main character to inspire that moment of change and force them to act.

joseph campbell and the hero's journey - call to adventure

4. It should be an event that inspires your character to spring into action quickly.

the inciting moment takes place in the first act and gets the ball rolling

5. Your inciting incident should be the first step of a series of plot beats that make up your story structure – so consider how it services the pitch or hook of your novel and your intentions for the reading experience.

Final thoughts

Remember, the inciting incident is a pivotal moment that sets your story in motion and propels your characters into their new reality. It’s not just about creating a shock value but about introducing a change that deeply affects your characters and determines their future actions.

By understanding and effectively using this tool, you can create a compelling narrative that hooks readers from the beginning and keeps them engaged till the end.

For more tips on writing and editing your novel, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry today. Sign up for courses, coaching and a community from the world’s top-rated writing school. 

Someone writing in a notebook
Tash Barsby. Former commissioning editor at Penguin random House and The Novelry Team Member
Tash Barsby

Before joining The Novelry, Tash Barsby was a Commissioning Editor at Transworld Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House. Tash has worked as an editor on many bestselling titles including the #1 Sunday Times bestseller The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse.

Members of The Novelry team