What is an inciting incident?

I would like to write, “Depends who you ask,” and be done with this post, but I think I owe my readers a bit more than that. But to be perfectly honest, it does depend who you ask. Lucky for me, this is my blog so I can ignore what everyone else says and tell you what I think (mwoo ha ha…the power, the power!)

Whether you want to call it an inciting incident, a turning point, an opportunity or a donkey, this is the event that kicks off the story. For example, the main character gets a new job, moves to a new city, meets a new boyfriend. Note the multiple appearances of the word “new”. The new is very important here as the inciting incident must be something that has never happened before. After all, if your main character takes the train every single day, you can hardly expect his world to be rocked if he, all of a sudden, takes the train.

In screenplays, the inciting incident occurs at exactly the 10% mark, but in novels, it tends to occur at the end of chapter one or in chapter two. Its purpose is to put the main character in a new situation where he/she will discover the outer goal. The inciting incident is NOT when the main character starts to pursue the goal. The thing that happens to make the main character start to pursue the goal is called the first plot point, second turning point, or change of plans.

Since I like examples, I will give you one.

Bob is miserable in his current job. He sees an ad for a new job at X so he applies for it and is hired on the spot. (inciting incident) When Bob goes to his first day, he finds out that the person he is replacing disappeared after a meeting with Jack.  (first plot point) Bob decides he must stop Jack. (goal).

What does this mean for loglines? Well, I’ve always said that you need to have your inciting incident and you do because that is what sets up the story. Do you need the first plot point as well? Depends. If you can show an obvious link between the inciting incident and the goal then you might be able to skip it, but if it leaves readers saying, Huh?, then you need to include it as well. For example:

When Bob takes a job at X, he discovers that he’s replacing a man who disappeared after a meeting with Jack. Bob must find out why the man disappeared, or he will end up the next target on Jack’s list.

I realize this is the worst logline ever written. My point is to show that, if you left out the first plot point here (italics) the logline wouldn’t make sense.

Category: On Writing