A catalyst for change, the Inciting Incident must be strong enough to launch your protagonist out of their Current World through a Call to Action they cannot deny. Is your Inciting Incident doing the job it needs to do to crack open your protagonist’s comfort zone and push them into a New World?
The following blog post describes the Inciting Incident, the role it plays in a novel, and why a weak Inciting Incident can be the downfall of your book.
Let’s dive in.
The Inciting Incident is the first major turning point of a story, and it usually occurs around the 10% mark. Otherwise known as a Catalyst, this big event must be life-changing for your protagonist. If this turning point is fraught with loopholes, then your protagonist can avoid the Call to Action, and thus remain in their Current World. The story will fizzle out if that happens.
Think of the Inciting Incident as the one-way door from your protagonist’s Current World to their New World. No matter what your protagonist does, they cannot return to the status quo. This event is a game-changer.
Remember, your protagonist will be resistant to change. So any kind of event that gets him thinking he has to change his ways he will avoid like the plague. This is why your Inciting Incident has to be S T R O N G. If your protagonist can kick it to the curb he will, unless …
The Consequence of Avoiding the Inciting Incident
Your protagonist may have a choice with the Call to Action, depending on the kind of story you’re telling. He may be able to say, “Yeah, no” and then return to life as he knows it. Sure, he may have been super-dissatisfied with his life in the first 10% of the novel, but if the Inciting Incident taunts him with change, your protagonist isn’t going to leap aboard UNLESS the consequence of avoiding the Inciting Incident is WORSE THAN his situation in his Current World.
When you construct your Inciting Incident, and you find your protagonist has the ability to say “No” to the Call to Action, then he needs some, let’s say, encouragement. If his saying “No” actually creates a worse situation (like, endangering the life of a loved one), then he has no choice but to be all in.
Setting Up Your Inciting Incident
To make this turning point work effectively, you need to set up your protagonist’s world appropriately so we believe his decision when faced with the Call to Action.
The above are some examples of what you might need to introduce into the first 10% (Set Up) of your novel. In order for your reader to believe your protagonist will do what he does in response to the Inciting Incident, we need a sense of what’s most important to him, who are his loved ones, what are his fears, what struggles is he trying to overcome.
The Inciting Incident is designed to crack open your protagonist’s Current World and push her into a New World that she cannot avoid, no matter how fearful she might be.
Change is at the Core of the Inciting Incident
As is true with all turning points in a novel, change is what we’re after. If nothing changes, your story will be flat. In terms of this particular event, you need to understand what kind of change will be strong enough to get your character from her Current World and into the New World.
Not all options for change will be effective, so be sure you’re picking something that aligns with your protagonist’s heart’s desire AND with what she needs to learn by the end of the book. If the change that occurs with the Inciting Incident has no impact on your protagonist’s story arc then it’s not strong enough—and it won’t feel like it belongs in the story either.
The Response to the Inciting Incident
Every action requires a response from your character. It’s helpful to look at this in the form of questions to help you determine the most appropriate response:
-Can I change my mind?
-What will be different?
-How will my friends (family) react?
-What does this mean for ________?
-Will I survive?
-Am I good enough (strong enough, smart enough, talented enough)?
-What if I fail?
Depending on the kind of Inciting Incident you choose, your protagonist will assess with either hope or despair. Either way, he’s going to wonder how to proceed without changing his ways.
Common Mistake from Writers
The most common mistake I see with character response is that the protagonist is assessing his situation not from his place of awareness, but from the writer’s place of awareness. Obviously, writers know more about what’ll happen than the protagonist, so writers have to be careful they don’t skip steps or forget to ask questions based on what they know at that moment.
Your protagonist must work out the problem in their head in order to make a decision. They can only do that based on the information they have. Often, a writer will give them access to information that they can’t possibly know, or they’ll forget to have their characters run through a series of preliminary steps in order for them to reach a certain level of understanding or knowledge.
The best way to get into the headspace of your character, so you’re writing from their level of awareness, is to have your character ask lots of questions, particularly in the rough draft. You can weed out the superfluous questions in later drafts as needed.
When Your Character has No Choice
Some Inciting Incidents don’t give your characters a choice in the matter. It’s either “Go along with this or die” or some other terrible tragedy. You still need to have a response sequence. Readers want to see your characters dealing emotionally with events—this is how characters become real to readers.
As always, characters are the agents of their own story. But when dealing with events that are forced upon them, there isn’t a heck of a lot of agency…at least, not in the heat of the moment. However, there is agency in regard to how they deal with what is happening.
Allow your characters to prepare for what they’re getting into. Show them honing their battle skills or learning magic or gathering a team. This is their response: “I have no choice about what is happening, so how do I get ready?”
What do you think? Does your Inciting Incident have the chops to launch your character into their New World? Let’s chat in the comments!