The Inciting Incident

  So often in my editing, I see books ruined right away by  weak openings (background material, scenery, traveling from one point to another, a dream, etc.) Readers form an opinion of a book right away, and if it’s not a good opinion, they’ll quit reading. The cure:  delete all the preliminary “throat-clearing” and begin the book with an “Inciting Incident.” I’ve been studying this lately. Here’s what I’ve found:

The “Inciting Incident” is the first scene that hooks the reader and kicks off the story. It’s an event that upsets the character by creating the first Surface Problem (something that can be photographed).   

The big question that stymies writers is:  But what scene should I pick? What should happen in it? There are lots of surface things a character could be upset about. Just make it exciting? Yes–but it can’t be just any unrelated scene, no matter how exciting.

Here’s the secret:  the “Inciting Incident” starts to reveal what the Story-Worthy Problem is. This comes from the main character’s Internal Conflict (a deep psychological problem and goal that cannot be photographed). It has to “get her where she lives.” It has to be so compelling that it forces her to take immediate action. 

Here’s a simple example:  The first scene in Gone With the Wind shows Scarlett flirting with the Tarleton boys on the veranda of Tara. She’s irritated that the conversation at recent parties has been all about “war, war, war.” This is a rather fun scene that introduces many of the elements of the movie and shows Scarlett’s self-absorbed nature. It shows a surface problem. So far, so good, but it’s not enough. The real “Inciting Incident” is that this scene reveals Scarlett’s Internal Conflict and main goal–she’s told that Ashley Wilkes, the man she secretly loves, is about to marry his cousin, Melanie. This gets Scarlett where she really lives deep down. It’s the important “Inciting Incident” that kicks off the story and everything that follows.

So in planning this scene, the writer should ask:  “What can I do to create a scene that will introduce my character’s real Story-Worthy problem?” Every story begins with this premise:  “Things started to go really wrong when … ”

Once the Inciting Incident has taken place, the course of the story is set. Get that right–and the reader is hooked and the rest of the story becomes a lot easier!

(For more information on this subject, a great book is Hooked by Les Edgerton.)


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