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The Ultimate Checklist for Writing an Inciting Incident

Every story has to start somewhere, and in fiction, it’s the moment when a character’s world is disrupted by forces beyond their control. From this point onward, the survival of something important to them depends on their steps and strategies to save their world or forge a new one.

This is the inciting incident, the moment in your story that starts the chain of events in the plot.


It’s Elle Woods’s boyfriend dumping her. It’s Anne Shirley realizing the guy who came to adopt her was expecting her to be a boy. It’s Adam and Eve sinning against God.


(Yeah, I realize that first one isn’t an example of great literature, but it was the first thing that came to mind.)


It’s not just the plot that unravels from the inciting incident. It’s the conflict your character faces and what they stand to gain or lose.


But how do you launch a story from this essential spark of action? Here’s a checklist of the elements of a good inciting incident in writing so you can capture your readers’ interests and make them care about what is to come.


It Happens Early in the Story


There’s no mathematical formula for where to start the inciting incident, but it should happen soon enough that you have an idea of who the character is and what their world is like.


Without a key moment that launches the story, you’ll just be writing a lot of exposition and setup that goes nowhere. But you also need to give readers just enough information that they understand the following things:


·      What is the character’s general external environment? Where do they live, and who do they live with? What do they do for a living? What do they do for fun?

·      What is the character’s general internal environment? How do they feel about their current situation? What brings them pleasure? What annoys them?

·      What does the character want? What about their situation feels empty or unfulfilled? What is missing from their life that would change everything if they got it?

·      What does the character value? What is generally important to them? What shapes their general view of the world?


Once readers understand these things, they’ll be ready for the next element . . .


It Disrupts the Character's Sense of "Normal"


All stories are about a character making a journey from whatever their definition of “normal” is toward a “new normal.” I use that phrase with trepidation because we all remember when it became a buzzword during a certain event in recent history that we’d all rather not talk about.


But it also depicts just how much an inciting incident needs to shake up a character’s world. Picture this: their day-to-day is a comfortable routine, predictable and safe. Suddenly, an uninvited and transformative event crashes into their world, challenging their sense of self and their reality.


This disruption we're talking about is a jolt out of their complacency that urges the character into action. It could be as dramatic as discovering a hidden secret that threatens their existence or as seemingly mundane as an unexpected encounter that shifts their perspective.


Whatever its nature, this disturbance is non-negotiable. This catalyst propels the character into the unknown, stripping away the veneer of their "normal" and compelling them to face the disruption.


This shift is crucial for stirring the reader's curiosity and empathy, laying the groundwork for a story that promises growth, adventure, and transformation. Through this upheaval, you’re not just witnessing a change in circumstance but observing the beginning of a journey that promises to redefine the protagonist.


This is also why it’s so important to establish the answers to those questions I just talked about. Unless readers know what this character’s sense of “normal” is, what comes next won’t make sense, and they won’t understand what’s at stake.


It is Out of the Character's Control


The inciting incident’s element of surprise is vital because it underscores an essential truth of our own experiences: life's most transformative moments often come without warning. We live in a constant state of unpredictability, and the trappings of our daily routine are scaffolding we erect to keep us from thinking about this fact.


This is why the interruption of a character’s life resonates so much with us—it speaks to our moments of disruptions and the resulting fear and confusion. The situation must be big enough that the character cannot fix it alone. It should significantly disrupt their world to the point where the solution will not be simple.


The steps the character needs to take to recover their “normal”—or something resembling it—comprise the story’s unfolding events.


This is also why knowing the character’s values and goals is essential. When this event disrupts the character’s life, the things they most value and desire are now in balance. If readers aren’t aware of what the character needs to maintain stability, it will be harder for them to care.


Just as a side note: what the character wants does not have to be something honorable. In fact, it might be something destructive that stands to harm them or others. Compelling stories can result from characters who engage in corrupt activities changing due to the events that take place.


It Has Immediate Consequences That Need Resolved


This means that the longer the character waits to act or takes the wrong action, the less likely they are to recover their “normal.” Ideally, the inciting incident will produce a domino effect that leads to the rest of the story’s events.


For example, the character might at first be reluctant to take action. They may think there is an easier or better way to deal with this situation that will ultimately be more convenient. Sure, they’ll have to make some sacrifices, but that’s a solid trade-off compared to disrupting their life even more.


But then, the situation worsens, and now, they have no choice but to act.


The point is that the inciting incident has to produce urgency. Sooner or later, the character can’t avoid confronting the event any longer.


Another side note: denial can also be a compelling response. Remember Hamlet? He keeps taking the wrong actions and ultimately keeps making the situation worse. Again, inciting incidents don’t always demand a heroic protagonist who takes the bull by the horns and springs into action.


It Results in Some Sort of Character Change


The true magic of an inciting incident isn’t just in how it shakes up the story's plot, but in its power to transform the protagonist. This pivotal moment is more than a hurdle; it’s a doorway to growth, compelling our main character to evolve.


As they navigate the trials set before them, they're not merely moving towards resolving the story's central conflict but embarking on a profound journey of self-discovery. This transformation might manifest as a newfound strength, a value shift, or a deeper understanding of their own heart.


Through this change, the story gains its depth, resonating with readers on a personal level. The character’s evolution ensures that by the story’s end, they emerge fundamentally altered internally and externally. Readers should be able to look back at those questions you answered in the story’s exposition and see how the character has changed.


This character arc is the silent testament to the inciting incident's impact, a reminder that the opportunity for extraordinary growth lies within every challenge.


Want More Resources for Inciting Incidents and Story Development?

Check out the Ultimate Writing Project Workbook, a free tool for developing an ongoing project or starting a new one.


This workbook contains tools, templates, writing prompts, and helpful tips for attacking each element of a good story so your project can be set up for success.


Click the link below, fill out the form, and I’ll send you one!

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