Where do you place your inciting incident?

by Randy Ingermanson

First, let’s define our terms. The inciting incident is some “new thing” in your protagonist’s world. It marks the change that is ultimately going to pull your protagonist into your story. Usually, this is something external to your protagonist, but it’s possible it could be an internal change.

Exactly where to put the inciting incident

I don’t see a problem with starting the inciting incident in the first two pages of your novel. You can put it pretty much anywhere you want, so long as it’s reasonably early in the story and as long as it works. Some stories start fast out of the gate, and some take longer to get rolling.

I do see a problem with a scene that has no conflict of any kind. Conflict doesn’t get in the way of your reader caring about your protagonist. Conflict is often the reason your reader does care, at least early on. When we see somebody in trouble, we instinctively care about them. We might later stop caring about them if we decide they aren’t worth caring about.

But let’s face it—when somebody’s in trouble, we care. The news concerning twelve young soccer players and their coach in Thailand trapped by rising floodwaters two and a half miles into a cave, made people care. The minute we heard about them, we cared. Because that’s what humans do.

Fiction is about giving your reader a powerful emotional experience whether it is external or internal, conflict is conflict.

Do all scenes require a Goal, Conflict, and Setback. The answer is no. That’s one strategy, and we call that strategy a Proactive Scene. But another strategy is the Reactive Scene, where you have a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision. (For much more on both of those, see my latest book, How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method.)

I strongly recommend that all scenes be either Proactive or Reactive. These are solid design patterns that work well and that your readers are already primed to understand. If you have a scene that’s neither Proactive nor Reactive, you should be able to explain to yourself what makes the scene work—why is it giving your reader a powerful emotional experience? And then you should ask whether you can make the scene better by turning it into either a Proactive or Reactive scene. Because usually, you can.

Let’s circle back to the inciting incident. I don’t sweat the exact location of the inciting incident, as long as it’s in the first several chapters. Remember that the inciting incident is not what makes your reader start caring about your story. The inciting incident usually comes much too late for that. Long before your reader reaches the inciting incident, she should already care about your story.

My thinking is that you want to start pulling your reader into your story with a strong first sentence.

  1. Followed by a strong first paragraph.
  2. Followed by a strong first page.
  3. Followed by a strong first scene.

If you do all that, then it really doesn’t matter when the inciting incident happens, because your reader already committed to the story from the very beginning. The inciting incident just gives your reader words to explain why she’s committed.

So tell us what your inciting incident is in your work in progress and where did you put it?

4 thoughts on “Where do you place your inciting incident?”

  1. My novels start with the inciting incident. “Mending Fences” starts with a mother washing dishes while her little girl is out riding her bicycle. She hears the screech of locked car brakes and the crunch of metal at the same time her little girl screams.

    My WIP, “Frienemies”, is a historical novel that begins with a Native American halfbreed receiving a telegram at the finishing school, stating that she must return home immediately. Upon her arrival home, she finds that her mother and one of her favorite horses have been killed in what looks like an accident.

  2. In my novels, I try to introduce a character or minor scene without initial consequence, but then use that person or incident in a subsequent chapter as a real conflict to be resolved; call it a barb and later the hook. For instance, the hero meets or has eye contact with a renown character who later on is the perpetrator of a major problem; or, a sailor worries about a hurricane to the Caribbean south which several chapters later becomes the conflict. Don’t know if this is routine practice or not?

    1. Dan, that’s a great way of dealing with an inciting incident. In Old School, people called that the “smoking gun.” If an author shows and makes a reference to an object or a fear then it is expected this object or whatever will play a major role in the story later. You’ve done something instinctively that the old classic authors did. Major kudos 🙂

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