Monday, September 28, 2020

Busting 3 Myths of the Inciting Incident

by Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

A mistake I often see new writers do, and one I was was taught is to open a story with the inciting incident. Then I took a workshop at a conference taught by James Scott Bell. He busted the myths I'd learned.

Myth #1: The inciting incident opens the story.

You open a story with action, a problem in which you dump your hero or heroine so we learn how they react. But the inciting incident is that part of the story that sends the protagonist through a door they can't go back through. 


Myth #2: The inciting incident is the same as the "hook."

The hook is a dramatic description or opening scene that grabs the reader's attention. The inciting incident needs more exposition than the hook. The hook dumps us into the opening action and draws us further into the story. 


Myth #3: The inciting incident raises more questions than it answers.

The inciting incident involves some kind of newfound clarity for the protagonist, a realization. It might create somequestions, but it's main purpose is to give the protagonist a clear path to follow rather than muddle it.


So what exactly is the inciting incident?

  • It's the event that launches the main action rather than the first scene. 
  • It typically occurs within the first act of the story and means something significant for the protagonist, something that impacts their entire life. 
  • It accelerates the plot and solidifies that action.
  • It should fully engage the reader within the story and serve as an indicator of what's to come. 

Two famous examples of inciting incidents


The Wizard of Oz: Its opening scene is Dorothy running from Miss Gulch, who is chasing her trying to get Toto. That's an action-packed opening that introduces us to Dorothy. It's where we learn her heart's desire to live somehwere with no trouble. 


The inciting incident in The Wizard of Oz is the tornado. That's what sent Dorothy through that door to the land of Oz. 


The Great Gatsby: Opens with Nick Carraway's narrative about the advice he received from his father. Nick is not an impartial narrator and the narrative creates tension that continues. 


But the inciting incident in The Great Gatsby occurs on page 52: "This is an unusual party for me. I haven't even seen the host. I live over there—" I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, "and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation." For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand. "I'm Gatsby," he said suddenly.


Where does the inciting incident happen?

A good rule of thumb is to place the inciting incident 20% into the story. That can vary, obviously. I gauge the word count of my work in progress and place a marker for the inciting incident. I aim the story toward that, but if I find it naturally occuring sooner, then I go with the change. 


Do you have a good example of a well-placed inciting incident?


Busting 3 Myths of the Inciting Incident - @AneMulligan on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Ane Mulligan has been a voracious reader ever since her mom instilled within her a love of reading at age three, escaping into worlds otherwise unknown. But when Ane saw Mary Martin in PETER PAN, she was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. She submerged herself in drama through high school and college. Years later, her two loves collided, and a bestselling, award-winning novelist emerged. She resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her website, Amazon Author page, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and The Write Conversation.


  1. Interesting. I keep getting different messages about when to introduce the inciting incident. And the suggestions all come from well respected professionals I’ve spoken to at a conference. As a new writer it’s hard to know what to do. Thanks for your insights.

    1. James Scott Bell is one of the best teaches ever. He and most of the other pros will say the same. The difference is some people have substituted "inciting incident" for opening action. But there is a reason behind it. The reader must CARE for the character first. ANd to do that, we need to see them react to some action and learn their heart.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Ane.
    I'd been guilty of some of these misconceptions.
    Excellent teaching post.

    1. Thank you. It was a hard concept for me to latch onto when I first started writing.

  3. Thanks for the shout out, Ane. The Doorway of No Return (yes, no further than 20% in) is what most people mean, or should mean, by "inciting incident." The reason I don't care for that term is that EVERY incident in fiction should incite SOMETHING! Otherwise, it's not doing any work. Cheers!

    1. Good point, Jim! I don't really like the term either, but I read a post on another blog about opening a story with "the inciting incident" that propels them through the door of no return. I ahd to do a post on it :)

  4. It is a hard concept, Ane. I find myself in a pickle trying to fit my writing into all the boxes since I'm a seat of the pants writer. Sometimes I'm writing along and like one writer whose main character was a car, and as he's writing along he looked at the manuscript and he said, "I was aghast, look there, the ding-busted thing just blew up..." except he didn't use ding-busted... Donevy

    1. I'm SOTP, too, Donevy. But when I open Scrivener to start writing, I do know my opening, I know WHAT will or should be the inciting incident and I place it about 20% of the way down the folders. I moved it twice for In High Cotton. So, yeah, I get it. My characters do all kinds of things that change my idea of where I'm going. But again, it's a guideline - not a RULE. :)

  5. Interesting perspective, Ane. Thanks. This shows that writing according to formula doesn't always provide the best results.