Inciting Incident or Exciting Incident?

What is an inciting incident? It’s the thing that starts your story. It’s the cigarette thrown out the window of a moving vehicle in the middle of a dry summer. It’s the moment two people meet for the first time, knowing (or not knowing) their lives are about to change. It’s the thing that happens early in your story that sparks the rest of the tale. The stuff that happens before it is the back story; the stuff that happens after is your story. Keep that in mind when you “place” your inciting incident in your pages.

As mentioned, I went to film school and studied screenwriting. There we were taught that the inciting incident needs to happen around pages ten/twelve, give or take. (Assuming the script is 100 pages; each page equaling one minute of screen time.) Of course everyone was like, My inciting incident happens on page twenty, but it’s okay, because my script is special! (Spoiler: they weren’t, not really.) Now imagine you’re at the movies. Do you want twelve minutes of back story, or twenty? Or three? How many pages of a book do you read before deciding you’re bored? Invested?

I’d say the timing of your inciting incident varies a bit by genre, but generally speaking, it needs to happen by the end of the first chapter. And don’t try to write a thirty-page first chapter and be like, “Well, technically…” People need to get to page thirty to care about your technicalities, and unless those first twenty-nine pages are really piquing their interest, that’s unlikely to happen.

The inciting incident is the moment that excites your reader and makes them say, okay, this is what the story is about. 
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As also mentioned, I write romance, so most of my examples will be from/for this genre. In the romance genre, the inciting incident tends to be when your couple first meets, or when your couple first realizes there’s something there. (Like longtime friends discovering feelings, or mortal enemies first encountering a spark.) It doesn’t have to be this moment, though. It can be the moment your hero(ine) makes a life choice that will bring them into contact with the love interest. You can (and should) have an inciting incident for each subplot, though subplots can share plot points, as you’ll see in the stellar example below.

Stellar example: Your hero gets left at the altar and hitchhikes to the airport to move to Tibet to follow his dream of teaching English to monks. Since this is a love story, the gorgeous blonde who picks him up is the soon-to-be love interest. However, his faith in love has been crushed, so he’s absolutely not going to think about her again after they part ways. Until they get to the airport and she takes a suitcase out of the trunk. Guess who’s also moving to Tibet?

There are two plots here: plot one is the hero taking control of his life, and it’s important not to abandon this plot in favour of love sweet love when that comes along, because you have to be a fulfilled person in order to be a fulfilling person. The second plot is the romance plot. (You can name them A or B (C or D or E), in order of story significance.) The inciting incident in plot one is getting left at the altar – had that not happened, the hero would have gotten married and had a different life. The inciting incident in plot two is getting picked up by the gorgeous blonde. Had she not stopped, they never would have met and the seeds of love would not have been planted. The First Act Turning Point (which I will get to in the next post) is when they both move to Tibet and are inevitably neighbours. (It would be a shared plot point, since it kicks off his personal plot and the romantic plot.)

I don’t do particularly detailed outlines for my books, but I do plot out all of the major points and fill in the details as I go along. Some scenes I know beforehand, some develop as the story develops. My standard plot map looks like this:


I hate instalove, but in so many romance novels, this seems to qualify as the inciting incident. It tends to happen very, very early, hence the “insta.” Basically it’s the moment the hero sees the heroine and decides he simply has to have her, no one else will ever do, ever again, ever, no matter what. He drags his knuckles off the ground, thumps his chest and grunts, “Me man! You mine!” Tada! Just add water and you have an instant story starter.

To me, this is cheating. (But if you read romance and you read the reviews, you’ll see that there are a lot of people for whom this is not an issue, so while I take the stance that it’s lame, you should determine for yourself how you feel.) I’m cool with instalust; we’ve all been there. But I don’t think it’s a strong enough story element, and I always want something more. You can have a moment like I’ve described above, but I’ll also make the argument that you still need a proper inciting incident, because him simply deciding he wants her isn’t enough (or vice versa). How does that change the story? How does that affect her? It doesn’t, unless she’s like, “OMG he’s the best, I just know it.” That’s cheating, too. (Also, picture this as a movie. What do we see in this moment? The hero gazing very, very intently at the heroine for an awkwardly long time? Laser beams shooting out of his eyes? Fingers curling into fists and lifting to beat his manly chest?) Don’t just tell me what they feel. Show me something. An incident, if you will.

Stellar example 2: How about the hero sees the heroine in the lobby of an office building on his way to make a major pitch to a VIP client. They get in the same elevator. They eyeball each other. He mentally thumps his chest. She preens gorgeously. He must have her! NOT AN INCITING INCIDENT. They walk down the hall. They stop at the same office. They enter the same office. The VIP comes out and greets them both. “Oh, great. You’re here. I’m ready to hear your pitches.” Wait a second—they’re rivals? They pitch. They try to one-up each other. The VIP says, “I like what you’re both saying. You know what I’d like better? If you both worked on this. After one month, the winner gets the job.” THAT’S AN INCITING INCIDENT. That’s the moment your reader says, “Ohhh. That’s what this story is about. Two people fighting for a job while also fighting their sizzling mutual attraction.” (Now, because you’re dying to know what happens next, both of these sane (but insanely attractive) people try to outdo the other, but around page 25 they realize they can only succeed if they work together and call a truce. (Though they’re both lying and will slit each other’s throat if given the chance.) The truce moment is the First Act Turning Point, which I’ll get to next post.)

If you check out the handful of reviews for my first novel, Just Once, you’ll see that the main criticism is that the story starts off too slowly. (There are other criticisms, too, but ignore them.) Sometimes when I read negative reviews I think, “YOU’RE WRONG! YOU’RE ALL WRONG!” but that point I have to concede. The story starts off way too slowly. Upon reflection, I know that when I was revising it I kind of hurried past those opening chapters to get to the “good stuff.” That’s because the inciting incident happened too late, and too subtly. Lesson learned.

The second book I wrote (third published) is Time Served. In that book the main characters meet at the end of chapter one. That’s the inciting incident, because whether or not they know it (or are willing to admit it), neither of their lives will ever be the same after this. The basic story in that book is that the heroine, Rachel, abandoned the hero, Dean, in their trailer park when she took off to go to college. He robbed a store and went to prison. Ten years later they meet up again. Dean wants answers, Rachel wants them to be ancient history. Dean, however, gets Rachel’s business card and basically threatens to show up at her office if she doesn’t meet with him to clear the air. That’s the inciting incident. If he didn’t take the card, she could have just said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll meet you,” and vanished into the city. But that moment cements a second meeting, and the story grows from there.

The third book I wrote (second published) is Going the Distance. In that book the characters meet on page one. (They didn’t fall in love on that page, they just met.) That’s me, making a concerted effort to get my story started faster. (Side note: I submitted this book to a handful of agents. One very nice agent wrote back and said she liked my writing and the premise, but she felt like there should be a chapter before this to set up the world more. I gave this a lot of thought, but felt like I’d be writing words just to fill space, and ultimately never wrote it.) The hero is a former army interrogator, and in this chapter he notices that the heroine has a tan line on her ring finger, but no ring. He’s intrigued. That’s his personal inciting incident. At the end of that chapter the hero asks the heroine to go running with him so he can get some answers. (They met at a gym and he knows she’s a runner.) She agrees. They live in China and the heroine’s desperately lonely, so the chance for companionship appeals to her. That’s both her and their inciting incident. (That’s the spark. It’s fanned into flames after they watch Love, Actually, for those taking notes.)

In my most recent book, Undecided, the inciting incident is the moment Nora, the heroine, agrees to move in with Kellan, the campus heartthrob. If you’ve read the book, note that the story’s unexpected hero, Crosbie, is there, too. That’s not an accident. It’s also not an accident that Kellan’s first words are “Ignore him!” (Ah, irony.) The first chapter is Nora showing up to view the apartment, getting a tour, and ultimately agreeing to move in, even though she knows that’s a bad decision. The inciting incident is the end of chapter one when they shake hands and agree to be roommates. Because if she decides not to move in? No story. Or a very different story, in any case.

So what happens between pages one and six if your inciting incident is on page six? World building. Set up. Ideally this is something you show, don’t tell. Don’t spend six pages inside the protagonist’s head, telling me what they feel. Don’t just describe the world. I recently re-read one of my favourite romances, Cara McKenna’s
After Hours. It’s the story of a nurse and an orderly who meet when the nurse starts working at a psychiatric hospital. Because this environment is going to be foreign to most of us, McKenna spends some time setting up the atmosphere and the heroine’s expectations for her new career/life. (If you’re so inclined, you can read the opening pages using Amazon’s First Look feature.) When the inciting incident happens, we’re grounded in the story, invested in the protagonist (the heroine), and ready for what comes next.

My book In Her Defense uses the entire first chapter to set up the heroine and her world, her expectations. She’s a ruthlessly ambitious workaholic attorney who has no need for anyone or anything. Chapter one sets up a case she’s working on, sees her mistreat a coworker, and work herself into exhaustion, resulting in an error that in turn results in her being ordered to cut back on her excessive work hours and take a vacation. The first inciting incident (for her character arc) is the moment she makes the mistake, since without it, the rest of the story wouldn't occur. The romantic plot inciting incident comes in chapter two when she confronts the IT guy who plays a part in her punishment. This story is really about the heroine’s personal growth, so taking the time to establish her character at the beginning is important. I also like the thrill of discovering a difficult character who’s about to meet their match—the anticipation keeps me turning the pages.


What does your inciting incident do? Is it inevitable? Is it exciting? Does the reader shiver eagerly when they read it? Does it set up their expectation for the story? How did you feel when you got to that moment in the book? Were you like, “FINALLY SOMETHING GOOD IS HAPPENING?” Or did it arrive quickly but organically, making you think, Okay, just one more chapter…

If the inciting incident is the cigarette being tossed out the window, the
First Act Turning Point is the moment a breeze comes along, rolls that cigarette into a pile of dry branches, and starts a fire. That’s the instant where there’s simply no turning back, and we’ll talk about that next time.

Questions? Comments? I’m still on the fence about adding a comments section to these pages because a) I’d have to figure out how to do that, and b) I’m not sure I have the time to moderate it. But I do monitor my social media accounts with astounding unpredictability, so feel free to message me on
Facebook or tweet me  or email me, and I’ll do my best to respond and, if necessary, update my post accordingly.




May 9, 2016

On Writing