A simple guide to planning a novel – Part 4 – The inciting incident

In Part 3 of My Simple guide to planning a novel, we explored the beginning and the end of the story, including the opening hook / question, the closure chapter, and the epic ending.

The inciting incident

Today we will see an overview of the book structure, which we will explore in more detail next week, and then we will identify our inciting incident.

Book structure

Books are broken up into 3 Acts, the 2nd Act being the longest and spanning the middle 50% of the book.

The acts of a story

What are the key plot points, and what exactly is an inciting incident

The key plot points (1st, 2nd, 3rd) bring change, and the subsequent chapters (quarters of the book), that follow, are all about our characters reaction to this change.

You need a significant EVENT.

You need a CHANGE catalyst.

You probably have a number of events already identified against each character’s timeline in Part 1, and you are probably wondering how you decide which ones are the key plot points, and which are just other key events.

The secret lies in the characters reaction to the event. Think of these 3 key plot points as triggers that colour the subsequent quarter of the book, which is all about the character’s reaction to the event.

We will explore the 3 key plot points in more detail next week, but for now it is important to just be aware of them as it will help in the next section when we look at the inciting incident.

What is the Inciting Incident?

The inciting incident is the very first Key plot point. Definition: It is the point of the plot that begins the conflict. It is the event that catalyzes the protagonist to go into motion and to take action.

The inciting incident can occur:

  • right at the very start as part of the hook /question
  • as late as the 1st plot point
  • anywhere in between

Note: If the inciting incident occurs before the 25% mark, you still need another EVENT at the 1st plot point in the book.

Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate the inciting incident in the story.

Star WarsStar Wars: The star wars inciting incident happens right at the end of the first act, and is the first plot point. Let’s look at the lead up to the inciting incident.

The escaped droids are found wandering around the desert by a band of dubious traders. Luke’s uncle buys them, not knowing where they came from. One droid escapes in the night, and Luke fearing his uncles wrath, pursues it. The droid is following the Princesses orders and searching for ‘Old Ben’, a former Jedi Knight. Luke finds the droid and meets Old Ben, where he hears the message from the Princess and her desperate plea for help.

Let’s explore this: Luke doesn’t want to get involved in the Princesses problems, besides he’s awful busy tending to the harvest at his uncles farm! But when the Empire tracks the droids to his beloved Uncle and Aunt, Luke races back home to find they are dead (inciting incident EVENT), killed by the Empire.

A little more detail: A whole heap of events are happening here, but the theme throughout the first quarter of the story is Luke’s awareness of something untoward happening. He knows there’s a war between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance, but he is not yet directly involved, even when he hears the Princesses message and Old Ben urges him to help, he still refuses. But the death of his Aunt and Uncle brings the catalyst for change. This happens right at the very end of the first act, when Luke vows (CHANGE) to go with Old Ben and help the Princess

Toy Story Toy Story: The Toy Story inciting incident happens immediately after the hook. It’s Andy’s birthday and the toys are all worried about being replaced by a new toy that may be much cooler. They are also about to move house, which adds to their sense of unease. When Andy runs into his room and pushes Woody off his bed to make room for his new toy: Buzz Lightyear, their fears are realised.

They know right off that things will never be the same!

Let’s explore this: Unlike Star Wars, where the entire first act leads to the inciting incident, Toy story neatly chops the first act in half with the arrival of the dreaded new toy (inciting incident EVENT). The second half of the first act is then dedicated to Woody’s reaction (CHANGE) jealousy which soon becomes a deepening sense of his own failure. After all, Woody can’t fly.

Now the Toy Story first plot point: Woody is gripped by his jealousy and is fearful that he no longer has a place in Andy’s world. Woody sets a trap (1st plot point EVENT) for Buzz – to eliminate the competition.  Buzz falls from the window. The other Toys are now angry (CHANGE) about Woody’s behaviour.

Hopefully this exploration of the first Act will provide you with some clues when you come to look at your own novel.

Step 1. Find your own inciting event

Remember: You are looking for first significant event that brings irrevocable change and calls your protagonist to action.

  • Review your hook / question in chapter 1. Is this the inciting incident?
  • If not, explore your story notes, character timelines, and summary, and see if you can identify the inciting event
  • Finally, decide where this inciting incident should sit, whether it is part of your first chapter, your 1st plot point or somewhere in-between.
  • Write this down against the selected chapter in your framework.
  • For all major plot points (including your inciting incident) we want to record in our framework the EVENT and the resulting CHANGE

Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.

In Part 5, we will be covering the remaining key plot points.

A simple guide to planning a novel part 1 – Pre-work and character timelines

A simple guide to planning a novel part 2 – Word count and creating a framework 

A simple guide to planning a novel part 3 – The beginning and the end

A simple guide to planning a novel part 5 – The key events in a book

A simple guide to planning a novel part 6 – Filling in the chapter notes (scheduled 7-Jan-2016)

20 thoughts on “A simple guide to planning a novel – Part 4 – The inciting incident

  1. Interesting to think of how this appplies to mysteries. In many cases, of course, the murder is the inciting incident. In other cases, particularly with professional detectives, the murder has already happpened, and the inciting incident is the client bringing the case to the detective (and the detective deciding to take it, of course).

    But in some cases, the murder is way past the 25% point of the book. In that case, if we want to apply this model, I think you have a concealed inciting incident — the thing that caused the murder to happen, which may not be revealed to the reader until the end.

    But the reader knows that the book came labeled as a “mystery,” and therefore knows that there will be a cause, and is therefore examining every interaction in the early part of the book, wondering which one of them will be the one that leads to a murder.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great points Anthony. I probably watch more mystery in terms of TV or movies than I read. Some inciting incidents, and even the later key plot points, can be very subtle and it is not always about a big bang event. It could be a conversation even that provides the catalyst to change. 🙂


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