Incidentally, We Can Do Without This

James Scott Bell

Among writing instructors you’ll often hear the term “inciting incident.” It’s become part of the craft jargon. But not with me. In fact, I think I’ve only used it once or twice in the past, and then only to make some minor point about something else.
Now it’s time to dump it completely.
For starters, no one agrees on a definition.  Is it the “action that starts the story” or the “Call to Adventure”? Is it the scene that “kicks the story into motion”? And if it is, what is all that stuff BEFORE the “inciting incident”? Stuff that DOESN’T kick the story into motion?  Every scene in your book or movie better incite SOMETHING or it shouldn’t be there.
Is it an “event that forces the hero to react”? But there are many events that force reaction in a novel. If there aren’t, you’ve got a four-letter novel, spelled d-u-l-l.
Is the “inciting incident” supposed to happen near the opening of the novel? Or is it the break into Act 2? You’ll find it taught both ways.
Does the inciting incident “upset the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life”?
Well, if it does, how come it’s only one incident? There are lots of incidents in a story that upset the “balance of forces.”
Look at The Wizard of Oz. Miss Gulch takes Toto away. Dorothy gets him back and runs away. A twister hits and carries her to Oz. She meets a bunch of Munchkins and a good witch who looks like a soap bubble. She’s confronted by the Wicked Witch and threatened with death. Then she’s given the ruby slippers and told to follow the yellow brick road. She meets three odd allies, is peppered with apples by angry trees, gets intimidated by the Great Oz, gets carried away by flying monkeys and imprisoned, disposes of the Wicked Witch, gets cheated by Oz (until Toto reveals the man behind the curtain) and ends up back in black and white Kansas.
All of those incidents “upset the balance of forces.”
So instead of worrying about what an “inciting incident” means and where it goes, try it this way: You open with a disturbance. That’s change or challenge, anything that puts a ripple in the Lead’s ordinary life.
How does The Wizard of Oz start? Not with a rainbow, or birds singing, or Dorothy waking up happy. No. The first shot is her running down the road, afraid of Miss Gulch coming after Toto.
Disturbance. If you want more on that, I refer you to this post.
Then we get to the Act 1 break. This I call the Doorway of No Return. It’s got to force the Lead through and slam shut. That’s what Act 2 has to feel like. The Lead is in trouble and has to solve it. She can’t go running back to the placid world where she came from.
The twister in Oz does that to Dorothy. The murder of his Aunt and Uncle does that to Luke Skywalker. Life will never be the same for them. It happens to Astrid Magnussen in Janet Fitch’s White Oleander when her mother is imprisoned and Astrid is forced into the foster home system. The door has slammed shut. Literally, she can’t go home again.
Now some writers have these ideas right in their DNA and do these things instinctively. Others have to learn how to do them. Still others, even published authors, could strengthen their books by giving these craft points some study.
I urge all writers to keep up a study of the craft. Would you want your brain surgery to be done by a doctor who is reading the medical journals and constantly trying to improve? Or the one who has just returned from a year long vacation in Barbados, where he did nothing but lounge on the beach sipping Piña Coladas?
Writing is like brain surgery, except nobody dies when you make a mistake. Readers might get bored, though, if you don’t know how to disturb and then push through the Doorway of No Return.
And, on every page, incite something. 

30 thoughts on “Incidentally, We Can Do Without This

  1. I wish I could come! Thank you for clarifying the terminology. I only recently found myself looking into structure, and it had me quite confused.

  2. Oh I want to go to your seminar more than anything but cannot swing it financially. So disappointing! I enjoyed your post & feel relieved I have many “inciting incidents” in my novel, from beginning to end, but it’s nice to have a roadmap, as simple as you’ve drawn it, for the next time, just in case novel #2 doesn’t “write itself” the way #1 did. Thanks for the direction.

    (By the way, I’m loving funny, witty Ty Buchanan in Try Darkness.)

  3. I had to do a lot of research on the inciting incident to figure out where the book started. I kept hearing that the inciting incident was all of the following: Big, significant, exciting. Everything conveyed that it had to STAND OUT and launch the story.

    I ended up starting in the wrong place (way too late), in part because of the description of the inciting incident. Mine — and the book is primarily a thriller type book — turned out to be quite subtle and reflects the theme. The main character has been living a lie, as is his father. MC realizes he’s tired of all the lying, not just his being required to live one, but other people lying to him.

    A disturbance is an interesting way of phrasing it. Inciting incident suggests more than it is, like conflict does.

  4. Jim, As always you’ve put the crafting of a story into perspective. Thanks for clarifying a concept that everyone seems to talk about, but which has different meanings for different people.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to have one last pina colada before heading off to surgery. (How do you go about getting one of those gigs, anyway?)

  5. KD, that’s exactly the reason I wrote this piece. The term is tossed around as if it had great importance, but with so many conflicting meanings it can easily lead to frustration.

    Nancy, thanks for those kind words about the seminar and Try Darkness. Glad to help a little. It’s funny how so many #1 novels “write themselves.” It’s the next ones that prove our mettle as writers. So go for it. And don’t stop.

  6. Linda, I would love to try to find out who came up with “inciting incident” in the first place. It sort of just appears in the 90s. Boom. There it is. I have a feeling it came from the screenwriting world.

  7. Well Doc, now that you’re a celebrity writer, you can take such a vacation yourself. I would clear it with your wife first, of course.

    Have fun!

  8. Since I started out writing screenplays, I just always assumed “inciting incident” was a place marker for just before the end of Act 1–kind’ve the equivalent of chapter 1 hook.

    But you are right–I especially found it confusing when I attempted to apply 3 act structure to novels. Though it’s hard not to think about inciting incidents and three act structure (I think Syd Field books were probably some of the first writing books I read).

    But at this point in my writing life, I don’t care what method, or what you call it, as long as I write a compelling story.

  9. BK, the 3 act structure is sound. I mean, it’s Beginning, Middle and End. You have to start. You have to hold ’em through the middle. And at some point you have to end the thing (unless your name is Robert Jordan).

    I think perhaps at one point the “inciting incident” was meant to convey what I call that first doorway. But It’s gotten muddled to the point of uselessness now.

  10. I understand “inciting incident” to mean the point of no return. The event that means things can never be the same. The kick that sends the ball down the hill. So, in the Wizard of Oz example, it would be the tornado.

    I think it’s still a helpful concept. I read a lot of manuscripts that sort of meander along with nothing really happening for ages. “Character development” or whatnot. And when you say “Light something on fire” it really helps. You can always put a fire out but you can’t unlight it. That’s an inciting incident.

    Plus it’s fun to say. ;D

  11. Lydia, I get that it helps you because you’ve decided what it means (and I think you’ve got it in the right spot). But the whole “light the fire” thing, IMO, has to start on page one. The story starts when you light the match, not when you lay out the wood. I’d rather people just get that than worry about if it’s the “inciting incident.”

  12. I’m going to be super picky and say that the *internal* fire (or whatever is going to drive the internal/personal plot arc) does indeed have to start on page 1, but the external fire (or inciting incident, as I brazenly insist on calling it) does not have to start on page 1.

    The inciting incident is usually something over which the character has no control (tornado-like). Is it possible to get it onto page one? Absolutely. Can you pack your internal and external plot engine into one opening sentence? For sure. Actually that would be a pretty cool challenge.

    Let’s go back to the Wizard of Oz. On page 1, the internal “fire” is lit. Dorothy is dissatisfied, yearns for more, but she’s stuck on this farm, with this dull life. That’s conflict. The tornado (which doesn’t happen on page 1) is the inciting incident (fun to say – deny it if you dare) that throws this internal conflict into the visible world.

    I think what you’re saying is that if you plan on cantering along through the first through chapters without any conflict, waiting for the tornado, you’re going to lose readers, and you’re right. But I still think the “point of no return” moment is a valuable concept.

  13. I can see your point about there being confusion about what the inciting incident is. Perhaps that is why Blake Snyder chose to use the terms opening image and catalyst. I think that part of the problem is that there are so many terms that get discussed in writing circles with the assumption that other people understand them. Those that don’t latch onto what someone says the thing ought to be and assume that is the definition.

    But I still like the term inciting incident. I also like your initial disturbance, by the way. I think some people fail to realize what the inciting incident is because they haven’t bothered to look up the work incite. What I like about the term is that it implies that there is some event, some incident that causes our protagonist to take action to change. All that stuff before the inciting incident is the world without that change. In the Wizard of Oz, the land of Kansas is rather drab. From Dorothy’s point of view, life isn’t grand, there must be something better, but she has as much opportunity to actually do something as she does to find the other side of the rainbow. But then the twister comes and all that is dear is taken from her. Her only hope is to make the change she needed to make before, but now the yellow brick road offers her that opportunity. Like all of the Oz books, The Wizard of Oz is about following the road. But there had to be something to incite Dorothy to take that first step.

    But your point that there are inciting things all over the place is well taken. That’s the way it should be. The main story has an inciting incident, but every smaller story has its own inciting incident. And some stories have more than one. But writers still need to think about how to incite their characters to take action.

  14. Well…being from Kansas, I will vouch for this much. A tornado can be a VERY “inciting” incident.

    I agree with your take on the screenwriting, though. Christopher Vogler’s book is good, but seems slanted toward the screen rather than the page. He uses movie examples almost entirely throughout. That’s why “Plot and Structure” are next on my reading list.

    Do you think the “Hero’s Journey” is an overdone model? Do agents and editors still look specifically for this formula? And do you touch on this in your book? Because I sometimes fear I might be overthinking the recipe.

  15. Lydia and Timothy, you’ve thought this through. It’s clear you know what you’re talking about. You get special dispensation to use the term for your own writing.

  16. Bryce,

    I know a tornado can be an inciting incident, but there is nothing inherient in a tornado that forces it to be an inciting incident. If the protagonist is a storm chaser, the story could have many tornadoes and not a one of them is an inciting incident.

  17. Bryce, I know Chris and like his book a lot. If you view it as suggestive, it has many good things to say. My take is, if you do certain things well, and have a handle on the fundamentals of storytelling (my seminar is going to hammer those) then you will do most of those “mythic” tropes naturally.

    I don’t think publishers are consciously looking for it. A few suits in a few movie offices may ask about it. But overthinking this, indeed, is not apt.

    In my plot book I hit structural foundation points, but leave freedom for creativity in between. That’s what’s worked for me.

  18. Jim,

    Special dispensation or not, I’m not sure that what I call it for my own writing makes much difference. An instructor in a class might be well advised to avoid the term because the class members don’t understand it. On the other hand, it is such a commonly used term that I would expect class members might ask questions using the term. The question then becomes whether what the class members think they are asking is the same thing the instructor thinks they are asking.

  19. Jim, Brilliant and incisive, if not inciting. BTW, I have had brain surgery to remove an acoustic neuroma, a tumor on the hearing nerve. As providence would have it, there is ONE doctor in KC who is the best at this specialized surgery. I happened to have been a recurring debate opponent of his during our high school years. He always beat me. Back then, he also had a thriving business making hand-stitched men’s neckties. THIS is a man I knew I could trust with my brain. 🙂

  20. I did find conflicting definitions of an inciting incident. For me, it’s the first disturbance as you call it. But I’ll probably still call it the inciting incident. And then the Lock in, Act I climax, point of no return that ends Act I. I do think some of those things happen naturally for me, but studying it in published novels showed me how to do it the right way and take advantage of those key aspects of structure.

  21. Katy, I’m glad you found THAT guy!

    And Laura, it’s great when those things happen naturally. Supplementing those instincts with study only helps further, IMO.

  22. I’m still fuzzy on the whole plot-point thing, though your “doorway of no return” helps make it clearer. But is it always something that happens outside the Lead?

  23. It’s got to be something outside the Lead, Rob. It can however be an event or stimulus that hits the Lead emotionally (on the inside) and is enough to get him through that door.

    Consider the classic film On the Waterfront. That’s about a character, Terry Malloy (Brando) who is challenged to grow from a thug to a human being. The catalyst is his falling for a girl. At the end of the First Act the girl has gotten to him, sending him into a real conflict about what to do. Liking her too much will mean turning on his crime family (which includes his own brother). Etc.

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