The Inciting Event

Every event, every plot point in a story should matter, and that especially goes for the Inciting Event. Sure, maybe it’s not the most significant plot point or even the most noticeable, but it’s still important in your overall story structure, which is why I want to talk about it today.

What exactly is the Inciting Event? Basically, it’s the very first plot point that sets your story in motion. It could even seem incredibly insignificant in the lives of your characters, but it’s what tips over that first domino in a long line of dominoes. Essentially, it should change your character’s life forever, no matter how small or big your Inciting Event is. You’ll hear some writing advice say that the Inciting Event needs to be huge and dramatic to change your character’s life forever; I don’t believe this is true. The Inciting Event can be one small notch in your character’s life, but it should be one that they can’t come back from.

Now, the Inciting Event can even happen before the story begins. In The Days Without You, the story opens with Kylie dreading a concert she agreed to attend with her best friend, and there, she meets Adam by mishap. While this is the beginning of the story, the inciting event would technically be Kylie agreeing to attend the concert with Cat, even though this happens before the start of the story. And, your character/s may not even realize that their lives have been ultimately altered! It’s important to remember that the Inciting Event doesn’t have to be realized by your protagonist.

In many cases, however, the Inciting Event happens within the realm of the story. Bear in mind, too, that it may not be the very first thing to happen in your story. in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, we have character building and world building before the Inciting Event happens. Similar goes for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. Before the Inciting Event happens, we learn all about what horrible people the Dursleys are, not to mention we also see Dumbledore leaving Harry at the Dursley’s doorstep after being rescued from the wreckage of his home.

Some examples of the Inciting Event:

  1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
    In the Hunger Games, we learn all about the dark, evil “game” called The Hunger Games, in which one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each District is selected to compete in a battle to the death, and the winner shall be bathed in riches. Katniss, who is our narrator and protagonist, is devastated when her younger sister, Prim, is selected as the next tribute. In desperation to save her sister, Katniss volunteers as tribute to take Prim’s place. This act of volunteering for her sister is the Inciting Event, as it changes Katniss’ life forever. She can no longer go back to her old life; she must now compete in The Hunger Games, fighting for her life.
  2. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
    As previously mentioned, there’s a ton of backstory in this novel before we get to the Inciting Event: when Hagrid, a half-giant who barges in upon the Dursleys and Harry in their off-shore hut, tells Harry, “Yer a wizard, Harry.” (Can we all agree that this is a classic line of dialogue?) We identify this as the Inciting Event because it changes Harry’s life forever. Why isn’t the event of the never-ending letters the Inciting Event? Because Harry could have chosen to ignore them, or the Dursleys could have kept them hidden from Harry, thus not setting into effect the dominoes to Harry’s learning that he’s a wizard.
  3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
    Can I just say this is one of my favorite books, and has been since I was in, like, fourth grade and I’ve read it a bajillion times? Favoritism aside, we open the story upon Jonas, a 12-year-old boy who lives in a futuristic community that seems like a utopia, but really is a dystopia where babies are “Released to Elsewhere” if they don’t weigh enough. He’s nervous about his career assignment, which he is to receive at the Ceremony of Twelves, because he’s worried he doesn’t fit in anywhere. The Ceremony itself is our Inciting Event, because Jonas learns he has been selected as the next Receiver of Memory, in which the Giver passes down memories of the past world so he can advise the community when it needs to make decisions.

So what should your Inciting Event be? Technically, it can be anything! But, it should make sense with your First Plot Point. That is to say, the Inciting Event should be the first domino that knocks over another, then another, and another, leading to the First Plot Point. In my work-in-progress, The Sound of Snap Dragons, the Inciting Event is that Kylie gets hired as an investigative journalist at The New York Star, a major newspaper in her city, leading her to be assigned a story about a serial killer.

I’d love to hear what the Inciting Event is in your manuscript or published books! Tell me, what are your thoughts on this important plot point?