The inciting incident is the event that sets your plot into motion. It’s the thing that shakes your protagonist out of stasis (Act 1) and into change (Act 2).
- Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia’s ship
- Jon Arryn is murdered
- A fly falls into a typewriter, turning the letter “T” into a “B.”
Like most concepts in art, the inciting incident is the subject of various debates. One is whether the inciting incident must itself be a scene in your story. I’m of the mind that it does not – in the examples above, for instance, #2 occurs before the story itself begins. The inciting incident will often be a scene, but not always. Some, particularly in screenwriting, believe the inciting incident should always come at the end of Act I, and lead into Act II. Once again, I strongly disagree – this “setting out” by the protagonist is a reaction to the inciting incident, not the incident itself.
The second point of frequent debate is on what, exactly, constitutes THE inciting incident. Some will argue it’s the moment at which the main character can no longer turn back, but I disagree. My opinion is it’s the event on which things begin to turn, the cause to which all reaction can be traced – the fulcrum of the story, if you will. I also disagree with those who say the inciting incident must be something that happens to the main character. It can be fun, at least for those of us who find pointless intellectual exercises “fun,” to argue over what exactly the inciting incident is.
- Is it when Frodo gets the One Ring from Gandalf? Or is it when Bilbo finds the ring in Gollum’s cave? Or is it the Council of Elrond?
- Is it John Arryn’s murder? Or King Robert’s demanding that Ned Stark serve as Hand?
- Is it Vader attacking Leia’s ship? Or Luke finding the droids? Or maybe even the initial theft of the Death Star plans?
Key to identifying the inciting incident, I think, is figuring out exactly whose story you’re telling. For a writer struggling with a plot structure, this can also help to determine what your central conflict is, and where the climax will fit. Conversely, deciding on whose story you’re telling might change your inciting incident.