Inciting Incident Definition: The “Why” of Fiction

Sean Glatch  |  November 17, 2023  | 

“The inciting incident is how you get [your characters] to do something…. It’s the doorway through which they can’t return, you know. The story takes care of the rest.” —Donald Miller

The inciting incident in a story plays a central role in that story’s structure. It provides the “push” that gets the story rolling—it sets off the chain of events that builds into a story. The inciting incident is an event that the story keeps returning to; a question that the story asks and keeps on asking.

No matter the plot structure, all fiction has some form of an inciting incident. But, what is an inciting incident? And why is it important to fiction writing?

This article explores everything you need to know about the inciting incident in a story. We’ll look at various inciting incident examples in popular literature, and we’ll discuss how to write an inciting incident yourself.

But first, let’s define this key concept in story structure. What is an inciting incident?

Inciting Incident Contents

Inciting Incident Definition: What is an Inciting Incident?

The inciting incident sets off the main conflict of the story. It can be simple, like a decision or a conversation. Or, the inciting incident can be more complicated, like sending someone to prison, or killing someone’s mother.

Inciting incident definition: the event that makes a story possible, because it sets off the story’s conflict and chain of events. 

No matter the event, the inciting incident in a story makes that story possible, because it sets off the chain of events that makes a story, a story.

This important plot device is prominently featured in Freytag’s Pyramid. It occurs right after the exposition, and kicks off the rising action—the majority of the story in which conflict and tension ratchet up, resulting in an inevitable climax.

inciting incident freytag's pyramid

Of course, not all stories follow Freytag’s Pyramid. But any story that has conflict has an inciting incident. This key device in plot structure answers the “why” of your story—why does the story exist? What conflicts and tensions is the story trying to resolve? As we’ll see later in the inciting incident examples we provide, this device inevitably ties into the story’s themes, characters, and other essential elements of fiction.

Key Incident Vs Inciting Incident

Before we look at some inciting incident examples, it’s important to clarify the difference between the key incident and the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is entirely concerned with plot. It is the event that kicks off all the other events—the proverbial butterfly flap that causes a hurricane.

The key incident, by contrast, has to do with the protagonist. It is the event that makes the protagonist decide to go on the journey that was sparked by the inciting incident. Occasionally, these two are one and the same, but in most stories, the protagonist takes time to participate in the emerging conflict.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a story where the inciting incident is that the protagonist is wrongfully accused of theft. The protagonist knows who set him up; he knows who’s guilty. But it isn’t until the protagonist gets out of prison that he decides to pursue justice on his own terms. That decision to seek revenge is the key incident—it’s what makes our protagonist, the protagonist.

Another example is Hamlet. The inciting incident of Hamlet is that Hamlet’s father is murdered by Hamlet’s uncle. But Hamlet, as indecisive as he is moody, doesn’t know what to do right away. The key incident occurs when Hamlet meets with the ghost of his father, and decides to investigate his father’s murder; of course, Hamlet spends much of the play stewing in his indecisiveness, so one could argue the key incident comes after Hamlet confirms his uncle is guilty. One could even argue the key incident never occurs at all.

What about a story where the key incident and inciting incident are the same? This would occur if the protagonist intentionally starts the conflict, such as if the protagonist is an instigator or antihero. In the cartoon “Rabbit Fire,” Daffy Duck (one of two protagonists) starts the inciting incident by drawing Elmer Fudd (the antagonist) to Bugs Bunny’s hole. Doing this is also Daffy’s key incident, as he has decided to start, and thus participate in, the conflict.

Inciting Incident Examples

Let’s take a look at some inciting incident examples from literature. We’ll explain everything you need to know about the story’s characters and events so that, even if you haven’t read these stories, you can see how the inciting incidents are operating within their stories’ plots. We’ll also make mention of the key incident, to further illustrate the distinction between the key incident vs inciting incident.

Inciting Incident Examples: War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

You can read the full novel at Gutenberg.

Plot Overview

War of the Worlds is one of the first contemporary science fiction novels, detailing the invasion of Martians in 1890s Britain. The Martians come to Earth because their planet is scarce on resources; although the humans approach their initial spacecraft peacefully, the Martians make clear that they will incinerate anyone who comes close.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who lives close to the landing site of the initial spacecraft. The novel grows increasingly dark, as other spacecrafts arrive, and the Martians begin feeding on humans to sustain themselves on the planet. The novel’s ending is somewhat of a deus ex machina, as the Martians all die due to Earthly pathogens. Outside of their invasion, much of the novel’s action revolves around the unnamed narrator, who navigates and documents the Martian invasion, loses his sanity, and almost commits suicide, before realizing that the Martians have all died.

The novel reflects many concerns regarding colonization during the late 19th century. Much of those concerns were with intra-European border disputes and military invasions, though Wells’ use of an alien civilization expanded those concerns outside of Europe. In other words, War of the Worlds might have been contending with Britain’s own legacies of colonization, which were rapidly causing destruction throughout Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

Inciting Incident

Works of speculative fiction tend to have clear-cut inciting incidents. In this novel, it’s the arrival of the Martians. The novel’s entire conflict starts when the Martians arrive, and it doesn’t end until the Martians all die.

Key Incident

The narrator doesn’t necessarily become “involved” in the conflict. He’s more of a documentarian, as well as a victim of the Martian onslaught. So, the key incident, in which he decides to document the Martian invasion, coincides with the inciting incident. The narrator expresses a keen interest in the sciences, and shows curiosity about Darwinian Evolution, the biological (in)compatibility of humans vs Martians, the possibilities of space travel, and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. As such, the narrator’s interest in the Martians is both inevitable and immediate.

Inciting Incident Examples: Mr. Frog by Alanna Schubach

Read it here, in Shenandoah.

Note: this story contains mentions of suicide and sexual assault.

Plot Overview

In this stunning piece of magical realism, Naomi, an American expat teaching English in Japan, encounters Mr. Frog, a Japanese kappa (a river spirit) that steals people’s souls. Naomi is navigating her buried grief after the suicide of her boyfriend, while suppressing her own loneliness and needs in a new country. When she rescues Mr. Frog from dying, Mr. Frog owes Naomi a favor, and in the meantime, he starts routinely visiting her apartment. When one of Naomi’s students attempts to assault her, she cashes in her favor with Mr. Frog, who steals the student’s soul, forcing Naomi to reckon with the humanity she has almost given up in light of her intense grief.

Inciting Incident

In short stories, the inciting incident is sometimes harder to find, because short stories often utilize more experimental plot structures. Additionally, in short stories, the inciting incident often occurs before the present action of the story.

The latter is true in “Mr. Frog”: the inciting incident is Naomi’s boyfriend’s suicide. Her grief transports her to Japan where, after her grief affects her psyche in complicated ways (including insomnia), she wanders outside one sleepless night to find Mr. Frog close to death. Her rescuing him results in the key incident.

Key Incident

Mr. Frog plays an outsized role in Naomi’s healing, as he inadvertently guides her into the center of her pain. Now, “key incident” here might not be the most accurate term for what happens, because as we’ve defined it, the key incident is the protagonist’s acquiescence to the story, and Naomi is dragged tooth and nail against her will into the eye of her grief. Nonetheless, saving Mr. Frog is what starts Naomi’s relationship with him, which leads her to confront the heavy darkness she had been avoiding for so long inside herself, as she almost submits to this darkness and becomes an agent of Mr. Frog’s murderous desire.

For a deeper analysis of this story, check out our craft piece here:

On Eccentric Protagonists

Inciting Incident Examples: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Plot Overview

Beloved is a novel that contends with the legacy of U.S. slavery in 1870s Ohio. Sethe, the novel’s protagonist, lives in a house that is frequently visited by the ghost of Sethe’s eldest daughter. When that ghost manifests itself as a young woman called Beloved, Sethe becomes obsessed with taking care of her, to the neglect of Sethe’s other daughter, Denver, and the community around them. We eventually learn that Sethe killed Beloved when Sethe was a runaway slave, and that she killed Beloved to prevent her from enduring the horrors of American slavery. Sethe’s obsession with Beloved nearly kills her, and it takes her whole community to eventually banish Beloved from Sethe’s household and return Sethe to health.

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident of Beloved occurs before the story even begins: it is Sethe’s killing her eldest daughter, so that she never knows the traumas of slavery. This is evident even before Beloved’s ghost returns in human form, as Sethe’s family has been living in a house that’s haunted by, they believe, Sethe’s eldest daughter, and this haunting drives Sethe’s two sons to flee before they each turn 13. In other words, the story is already steeped in conflict on page 1, though of course the conflict turns up a notch when Beloved takes the form of a young woman.

Key Incident

This is an instance where the key incident is essentially the same as the inciting incident. Sethe’s killing Beloved makes Sethe inextricably bound to Beloved’s miraculous return—though it is worth noting that Sethe doesn’t believe Beloved is her dead daughter right away. (Actually, Sethe’s living daughter, Denver, is the first to believe this, in part because Beloved’s ghost was Denver’s only friend.) In any case, Beloved being Sethe’s daughter makes Sethe bound to Beloved’s story.

However, isolating the key incident as separate from the inciting incident here allows us to examine the psychological impact of Beloved’s return. The more Sethe “buys in” to the reality that Beloved has come back to life, the more Sethe feels bound to her guilt at having ever killed her. Sethe wastes away caring for Beloved, to the point that Sethe almost becomes a child, while Beloved looks more like a mother, and their two voices become almost indistinguishable, until Beloved is finally exorcized.

What is an Inciting Incident Important For?

The inciting incident is an important concept for storytellers, especially for novelists, for two reasons.

First, the inciting incident in a story defines that story. The story can’t exist without it. The inciting incident justifies the existence of the story, as everything else in the story unfolds from it. The same can be said of the key incident vis a vis the story’s protagonist, as the key incident is crucial for understanding this character, their flaws, and their motivations.

Second, if you’re looking to publish, the inciting incident helps you sell your story.

Think of any famous novel or movie. What happens? What’s the pitch for it? Chances are, the inciting incident is baked directly into the story’s premise itself.

Here are a couple of premises for famous stories, with the inciting incident examples in bold.

  • Four characters meet at an Italian villa during World War II: A man burned beyond recognition, his Canadian nurse, a Sikh sapper for the British Army and a Canadian thief. (The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.)
  • In the summer of 1989, a group of bullied kids bands together to destroy a shape-shifting monster, which disguises itself as a clown and preys on the children of Derry, Maine. (It by Stephen King.)
  • When her secret love letters somehow get mailed to each of her five crushes, a young woman finds her quiet high school existence turned upside down. (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han.)

Notice how each of these premises are relatively simple, yet also draw attention. In the first example, the meeting of these characters (and, arguably, World War II) is what sparks the story’s drama, and the unique backgrounds of each of the four characters draws intrigue.

In fact, different people coming together is often the backbone of many story premises. This is true for the second example—though of course, children and monsters draw their own intrigue.

The third example certainly has a different tone and set-up to it, but the conflict and intrigue are both immediately clear, and the reader already wants to know what happens next.

So, studying the inciting incident isn’t just a fun exercise in story structure, it’s an essential inquiry into what makes a story successful, both literarily and commercially.

Tips for How to Write an Inciting Incident in a Story

A good inciting incident sells your story and makes readers want to keep reading. Here are five things to think about as you generate some inciting incident ideas for your story.

1. Know Your Genre

A good inciting incident will work within the confines of a particular genre. Now, that’s not to say that two different genres can’t have similar inciting incidents— “multiple dissimilar characters meet” is the backbone of plenty of stories, in plenty of genres, no matter whether you’re writing literary fiction or genre fiction.

But, the genre of the story should inform and influence the inciting incident. Let’s take the above overly general story premise. If your story is sci-fi, then imagine how much more intense your story’s conflict might be if it’s set on a space station where nobody can leave. If your story is fantasy, perhaps a number of wanderers have converged in a mystical realm nobody else has ever visited before.

Many writers think genre conventions restrict the possibilities for a story to be good. But, when utilized well, genre fiction can enhance the story’s plot and characters. Make sure the genre you’re writing in is integral to your inciting incident, as this will ripple throughout the entire work.

2. Alter the Status Quo

The inciting incident needs to change the lives of the story’s characters, especially the protagonist’s. Once it happens, the characters can never go back; the change that occurs is irreversible.

Let’s take the premise of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Clearly, the inciting incident is irreversible: the protagonist’s crushes have all read her letters, and that’s simply not the kind of event that gets shrugged off. Now, if the premise was that this happened, but only in a dream, that would not be a good premise for a story. Even if the entire story happens as it does in the novel, but the novel ends with the protagonist waking up from that dream, that simply isn’t a story: nothing irreversible has happened, the character will not have meaningfully changed from this, and, what’s more, the story has relied on one of the most uninteresting clichés out there.

A good inciting incident isn’t just interesting, it raises the stakes in such a way that the characters cannot go back to how things used to be.

To better understand the importance of this transformation, check out instructor Jeff Lyons’ article on a story vs a situation:

Stories vs. Situations: How to Know Your Story Will Work in Any Genre

3. Trigger a Core Need in Your Protagonist

The right inciting incident can’t happen to anyone. There’s the right inciting incident for the right character.

Let’s look again at To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. What if the protagonist was married and in her mid-30s? Would it matter if those letters were sent to her teenage crushes? Probably not—unless she was deeply insecure in her marriage, and still secretly longed for one of those crushes.

In other words, the situation matters, but a character’s interiority matters more. This story premise is only interesting because the protagonist has a deep longing for a relationship, and is going through the kinds of insecurities common and relatable to teenage girls. Those insecurities, and that need for companionship, are triggered by the inciting incident. Yours has to do the same to your main characters.

4. Establish the Main Conflict

As a result of having a core need triggered in your protagonist, your inciting incident will inevitably establish the main conflict.

Let’s look at the premise for It.. The conflict is rather obvious. A clown-shaped monster pretty much exists for the sake of conflict.

But, let’s look deeper at what the monster represents. In the novel, both bullies and bullied alike are targeted by this monster, which feeds on children and forces them to mutilate one another for the sake of its own hunger. Sometimes, this results in the kids acting violently racist or homophobic. Eventually, the kids learn that they have to exert an extraordinary amount of willpower to resist the fear and anger that It inflicts on them.

The novel is not without its provocative elements, including an orgy that reunites the children after they (first) defeat It. They also reunite 27 years later to defeat It again. It is a long, complicated novel, with a bunch of intricate horror and sci-fi tropes, including an alternate universe.

So, how does this shape-shifting monster trigger core needs in the children? Well, the obvious answer is the need to survive, but let’s look past matters of simple life and death. In trying to kill It, the novel runs into themes of coming-of-age, the illusion of free will, suburban ennui, and the many forms of hate and discrimination laden in American society. The monster doesn’t just represent each child’s individual fears; it represents how fear manipulates us into committing terrible acts against one another, and that the transition into adulthood (which many adults haven’t actually done…) requires thoughtfulness and willpower. So, the children aren’t just trying to live; they’re trying to live in a lonely, messed up world.

5. Generate a Sense of “What Happens Next?”

Finally, a good inciting incident makes the reader want to keep reading. It should generate intrigue, questions, and the need to know how the conflict evolves.

Let’s take the premise of The English Patient. What makes the premise intriguing is the setting and list of characters. If the premise were much less unique or compelling, then the inciting incident would just as easily lead readers to close the book and never open it again. Here’s a boring version with a similar premise:

Four people meet in a doctor’s office: the receptionist, a man with warts, a woman who doesn’t know she’s in the wrong office, and another man with warts.

Not only are the characters, as described, rather generic, but there’s also little intrigue or tension being generated here. True, a doctor’s office is a fun place to stoke conflict, but even so, can you fill a book with this premise? Or even a short story?

If your inciting incident is intriguing, it’s very likely that your story will also alter the status quo, trigger a core need in the protagonist, and establish the story’s main conflict. These things often go hand in hand. Use this as a litmus test for your story, before you start writing it!

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Sean Glatch

Sean Glatch is a poet, storyteller, and screenwriter based in New York City. His work has appeared in 8Poems, The Poetry Annals, Rising Phoenix Press, Ghost City Press, on local TV, and elsewhere. When he's not writing, which is often, he thinks he should be writing.

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