The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say,
but what we are unable to say.
I love talking about inciting incident with my writing students, because you can see the thought process happening right before your eyes once the term is explained.
So what is meant by "inciting incident" in writing?
To me, that's the most creative part about writing: the one BIG thing that happens to your protagonist that will change their life forever.
Think about the plane crash in Castaway. Or the space debris hitting Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Or how about in books when Ishmael decides to go "shipping" aboard a whaler in Moby Dick. Or when the father dies in Sense and Sensibility.
But not all inciting incidents are tragedies...
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the inciting incident is when he receives an invitation to Hogwarts and discovers he's a wizard. That's a wonderful thing!
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it is when Lucy enters the wardrobe. In The Lord of the Rings, we see that when Frodo volunteers to take The Ring to Mount Doom, his life will never be the same again. Finally, in my book, The Dragon Forest, the inciting incident happens when Prince Peter enters the Dragon Forest...
What about your story?
Stop and think about the inciting incident in your own story. Is it a major incident that will indeed change your protagonist's life forever or just for the time being?
I had one student say that he doesn't want to have an inciting incident in his story. He just wants his character to lead a nice quiet life. Who wants to read a story like that? No one leads a nice quiet life...that's what makes it life.
So, I told him about a man who also wanted to live a nice quiet life. He worked hard and endured a world war so he had earned the right to that quiet life. He was about to retire form the Army when Pearl Harbor was attacked. As a result, this man was now thrust into yet another world war and that nice quiet life would have to wait many years because after serving in that war, he went on to be President of the United States long before he retired to a nice quiet life. As my student contemplated what was General Eisenhower's life, he realized that a good story requires an inciting incident, otherwise it isn't much of a story.
Without WWII, Dwight Eisenhower would have disappeared into history unknown to the world. Perhaps, looking back, he would've preferred that.
That's how the inciting incident should affect your story. It should interrupt the usual and ordinary life of your character.
Go back and read your inciting incident. It should occur somewhere near the end of Act I of your story. Some stories begin with it, but most end Act I with the inciting incident leaving the reader/viewer wanting more.
Does your character encounter a life changing event like winning the lottery or falling through a portal into another universe? If the incident isn't that big or doesn't have that much of an impact on your character, you need to revisit it.
Life happens. It should happen to your character. Look at your own life. You have probably encountered many inciting incidents in your own life:
- birth of children
- death of a loved one
- new job
- being fired
- moving across country
- serving in war
- loss of a child
- loss of a parent
- new home
...and on, and on, and on. Some incidents were wonderful! Some, not so much. Such is life.
And So it Goes...
After looking back over your own life, you can see how that one inciting incident moved you forward and changed things forever. That's how it has to be for your protagonist. If it isn't that major, that powerful, that REAL...then your readers will yawn and put down your story.
Make it real for your readers!
Your turn: what's the best inciting incident you've read in a book or saw in a movie? What made it so powerful to you?