If you’ve ever told a good story to your friends that had them captivated, you intuitively understand STORY. Whether your story was about what you did last weekend, what happened to your family on your disaster of a vacation, or even what tragedy befell your pet, if they’re hooked, you’ve nailed the five key plot elements.
You’ve probably also told stories to your friends that fell completely flat, and I’m willing to bet it was because you missed one of the necessary pieces.
The fun part of writing is that we can intentionally build these pieces into our stories to guarantee that our stories work.
But what are these story elements we must have?
They are (drum roll here): the Inciting Incident, Rising Action/Increasing Tension, the Crisis Moment, the Climax, and the Resolution.
The happy news is that if you have a solid understanding of these elements, you will have a much greater understanding of overall story structure because in a novel or longer piece, you will use these elements over and over and over.
Your entire novel will have an Inciting Incident, Rising Action/Increasing Complications, a Crisis Moment, a Climax, and a Resolution.
Each major section of your story, the Beginning, Middle, and End, will have an Inciting Incident, Rising Action/Increasing Complications, a Crisis Moment, a Climax, and a Resolution.
Each scene will have its own Inciting Incident, Rising Action/Increasing Complications, a Crisis Moment, a Climax, and a Resolution.
Do you get the idea? Over the next few weeks, I’ll be explaining each of these elements in greater detail. This week we’re starting with the Beginning, or the first Act, of your story. It’s where you introduce your characters and conflict, and it must include story element #1 – the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident
The Inciting Incident in a plot is the moment at the beginning that changes your character’s life and gets the story going. It MUST cause your main character to have some sort of reaction. If they don’t react to it, then it’s not a big enough event.
In Story Grid, (one of my favorite writing books), Shawn Coyne defines it as,
“the big event scene that kicks off your Story…what the Inciting Incident must do is upset the life balance of your lead protagonist(s). It must make them uncomfortably out of sync…for good or for ill” (160).
The Inciting Incident must be major, throwing your character into completely new circumstances.
The Inciting Incident doesn’t have to happen on the first page. You don’t need to have a dead body or a chase scene on page one, but it will happen in the first 10% or so of your story.
For example, in The Hunger Games, the Inciting Incident is the reaping which turns Katniss’ life upside-down as she now has to compete for her life in government sponsored game of survival.
In Divergent, the Inciting Incident is Tris’ choosing of her new faction, the Dauntless.
In Legend, there is one Inciting Incident, but it impacts each of the main protagonists in a very different way. Day breaks into a hospital to steal the cure for the disease that is killing his little brother. During the break in, he allegedly kills Metias Iparis, whose little sister is June is the other protagonist. Day becomes a wanted criminal while June must deal with her brother’s death and search for his murderer. Both of their lives change dramatically in a single moment.
In If I Stay, the Inciting Incident is the car crash that severely injures Mia Hall and kills her family, leaving her an orphan.
The first Inciting Incident is the most important to a story because it gets everything going and off the ground. It sets up your entire plot. It asks the questions that you will answer with the final climax and resolution.
For example, in The Hunger Games, the Inciting Incident forces us to ask the question, “Will Katniss survive?” The climax answers this question.
In Legend, the Inciting Incident makes the reader ask if Day will get caught and if June will catch him. Again, the climax answers that question.
While the first Inciting Incident is perhaps the most important, you don’t write just one Inciting Incident if you’re writing a longer piece of fiction.
A novel will have many of them because they will also kick off each and every scene in your novel. This is really what keeps readers reading. If you can think of a novel that you didn’t want to put down, I can almost guarantee that every scene or chapter started off with a compelling Inciting Incident that threw your character for a loop, and that’s one of the reasons you kept reading. The main character was continually thrown off-kilter. They never got comfortable, and you wanted to find out how they dealt with that adversity.
If you’re a short story writer, you might only have one Inciting Incident which will be resolved by the end of the story. The Inciting Incidents in short stories also don’t have to be as big. In one of my favorite short short stories called “Pigs are Pink,” the Inciting Incident is a little girl finishing her coloring homework as her dad drops her off at school. It’s a small moment but it still dramatically alters the father’s world view by the end of the story.
Think about your latest piece. If you are writing a longer piece of fiction, is your Inciting Incident completely upsetting your protagonist’s safe little world? Is it asking a BIG question that you can answer by the end of your story?
If not, go back and see how you can make life worse for your main character. (I feel like I should add an evil laugh here!)
Then, share your thoughts in the comments below.