Sanity Snippet #11

In Sanity Snippet #10 we determined our first-act break (AKA, the first plot point). Today, let’s consider the inciting incident.

This may appear backwards. For sure, you can plan your story, step by step, starting with the inciting incident (which normally comes around the 12% mark). The important thing to remember is these two key points in our story—the inciting incident and the first-act break—are causally connected. The inciting incident causes the first act break. So, if you know your first act break you simply ask yourself, “what could have caused X to happen?”

In The Boaz Stranger (my WIP), Lee (protagonist) leaves his job and home in New Haven, CT and returns to his North Alabama hometown. This is the first act break. Lee returns for two reasons. His in-laws asked for some legal help, and he wants to investigate something he just learned.

And what is that? Secret journal recordings Lee discovered in his deceased wife’s well-hidden diaries. This is the inciting incident. It causes Lee to take a break from teaching law and travel a thousand miles to his hometown to investigate a fifty year old cold case (disappearance and death of his high school friend in 1970), and the details concerning an abortion his wife had that ultimately caused her suicide.

Note, a physical change of setting often occurs as part of the first act break.

Even though Lee returned to North Alabama to assist his in-laws with a legal matter, his primary reason for doing so was to investigate what he’d discovered in his deceased wife’s diaries. It’s likely, without this discovery, Lee wouldn’t have been motivated to travel that far. He could have simply associated a local lawyer to assist with the required local court appearance.

Now, for your story. Whether you work backwards from your first act break or forward from your inciting incident, make sure the two events are connected. In fact, make sure that connection is causal. If not, your story won’t have the draw it needs to motivate readers to continue.

In the real world, humans look for connections. Often we conclude there is a causal link between A and B when there may be none. However, in fiction, causality must be more certain.

Take a pencil and paper and start doodling. Draw lines, stick figures, maps, and landscapes. Whatever, to brainstorm A causes B, keeping in mind that A (the inciting incident) gets the story going, and B (the first act break) is the point of no return for your protagonist.

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The Inciting Incident & the Key Event

The second beat of Act I is the inciting incident. Good storytelling inextricably ties it to the key event.

We are familiar with the word incite and how it is used in a sentence: the murder of twelve-year-old Kenny Barnard by a police officer incited a riot.

Here’s how Merriam Webster defines incite: “to move to action: stir up: spur on: urge on.” Note, these words are verbs.

We can conclude that some action caused an incident or event (I’ll use these interchangeably without referencing the differences). Kenny’s murder caused the riot. The riot is an event. In sum, an inciting incident is an event that triggers the story. All stories have to get started; remember, all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The trigger is like a stick of dynamite. The event happens. It’s an explosion. Repercussions follow.

K.M. Weiland describes the inciting incident “as being the moment when the story ‘officially’ begins and the character’s life is forever changed.”

Of course, our trigger doesn’t have to be loud. It might not seem all that powerful. It could be as simple as Lee finding his deceased wife’s diary (taken from my current work in progress).

As expected, there is disagreement among writing experts as to various aspects of the inciting incident. What is it? Is it the hook? Is it the first plot Point? Where does it belong? Is it the same thing as the key event? And, on and on. And, yes, I have my own opinions.

I like this oft-cited example taken from crime fiction. A murder takes place. This is the inciting incident, the trigger, the event that gets the story rolling. Later, maybe the next scene, the victim’s sister hires private eye Connor Ford to investigate the crime. The latter is the key event. It’s the glue that connects the protagonist to the inciting incident. Simply put, there is no need for the key event without the inciting incident. The sister doesn’t need Connor Ford if her brother is not killed.

Again, Weiland (citing Syd Field’s Screenplay) provides clarity in defining these terms: “the inciting incident… sets the story in motion… [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.” This ‘drawing’ essentially forbids the protagonist from turning away. He cannot, not, go on this journey (not necessarily a physical journey).

“Robert McKee says humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into a story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and the fear, otherwise the story will never happen.”

Donald Miller

Don’t think the inciting incident is always as tidy as my Connor Ford example. In fact, our trigger might come before our story, before our beginning. For example: what if Kenny’s murder took place fifteen years earlier when his son Kent was just a baby? Now, in our story, Kent has a schoolyard fight with the police officer’s son over the fifteen year old murder. This fight is the glue, the key event, what connects our current story’s protagonist (Kent) to the journey he’ll travel for the next 3-400 pages of our novel.

An inciting incident isn’t always logical, it’s not always predictable. Often, it is just a random or chance event, just a coincidence. No matter how it arises, there is a predictable element (not always, but mostly). The inciting incident creates or reveals a problem for the protagonist that transforms his normal self.

This quote from Masterclass says it well: “Make your inciting action cause a noticeable shift in your character. A compelling inciting action will make your character take actions [he] would not have otherwise. In The Fugitive TV series, Dr. Richard Kimble loses his wife to murder and, worse still is accused of that murder. These traumatic events change Kimble, and they launch him onto a quest so compelling that it sustained four full seasons of television.”

H.R. D’Costa, creator of, says the inciting incident has four key characteristics:
1) it’s passive;
2) it jolts the hero out of his everyday world;
3) it’s personal; and,
4) it’s causally linked to the first act break.
If you want to go much deeper, read her writing guide, Inciting Incident. You can purchase it here in ebook format:

Let’s end with a point of clarification. I’ve revealed this indirectly, but it’s important to see clearly. The inciting incident and the key event have a cause-and-effect relationship. The inciting incident causes the key event. Or, the key event results from the inciting incident. The killing of Kenny Barnard caused the riot.

Initially, I didn’t identify a protagonist, and here I’m referring to the murder taking place inside our current story. I’m sure you can see some possibilities for our protagonist. Maybe it is the police chief. Maybe it is Kevin, Kenny’s twin brother. The point here is the causal relationship.

In fact, this is a critical characteristic for the novel. Our readers look for causation. A causes B. B causes C, and on and on. Of course, our reader may be wrong, but causality is imperative. Few readers will spend time with a story that is simply multiple, “and then this happens.”

Cause and effect, it all starts with our inciting incident and key event.

Next week, we’ll look at the First Plot Point.

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