This is the moment where a door opens for your character and they choose whether or not they should cross the threshold. After this, their lives will never be the same… which is why many of them initially refuse to answer the call to adventure. The inciting incident in your bestseller will set the story in motion and there’s no going back after this.
But where should the inciting incident go? Your first act will be tens of thousands of words long. Do you open with it? Or does Act One end with the inciting incident, kicking off Act Two?
Let’s look at some examples:
Jaws opens with the death of Chrissie Watkins, attacked by a shark while swimming at night. In the first chapter this is the inciting incident that will make this summer in Amity unlike any other.
Lucy steps through the wardrobe into Narnia on page 4 of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis’s story is about evacuee children out of place and time and looking for adventure, and he knows he needs to deliver on the promise of his premise to his impatient young readers as soon as possible.
Dorothy is swept away by a twister to Oz some 16 minutes into the film, not long after she’s sung her “I Want” song Over The Rainbow. (The “I Want” song is a musical phenomenon where the protagonist tells us exactly what their desires are in song. Think of My Fair Lady’s Wouldn’t It Be Luvverly, Hamilton’s My Shot, The Little Mermaid’s Part of Your World.)
In The Godfather, the Don refuses a deal by Sollozzo 35 minutes into the film. Puzo and Coppola are careful to take their time — the entire first act, in fact — to establish the world of the Corleone family before we have the meeting that changes everything and hurls us into Act Two.
So there’s no exact spot for the inciting incident, other than “somewhere in Act One”. Ideally, if we follow the principle of making life as difficult as possible for your protagonist, try and make it at the worst time possible. There’s nothing worse than meeting the love of your life when you’ve got a stinking cold, or lipstick on your teeth, or both.
In summary, the inciting incident is:
- An interruption to the protagonist’s life
- An event out of their control
- And urgent enough that everything else can wait. This problem needs to be fixed now.
And they’re not always necessarily a bad thing. The inciting incident for most romance stories is a “meet cute” where a couple meet and discover they’re attracted to one another. This will create an upheaval in their lives that will change them forever.
And try and make a distinction between the inciting incident and the call to adventure. These can often be confused, though sometimes they are the same thing...
I can never decide if the inciting incident in Star Wars is Darth Vader capturing Princess Leia, or Leia’s holographic message to Luke (the call to adventure!). You can waste a lot of time arguing over these definitions, but either way something has to come and turn your protagonist’s life on their head, and get it in as soon as you can. A bestseller hooks the reader and never lets go.
A quick word on Chekhov’s Gun and the perils of setting up characters, situations and threads that go nowhere… and why you should do it anyway.
The great playwright Anton Chekhov once gave some advice (paraphrasing): “If you show a pistol in the first act, then it should be fired in the final act.” He uses it himself in The Seagull: the protagonist Konstantin carries a rifle onto the stage and by the end of the play -- spoiler alert -- he kills himself with it.
Your readers will take note of something extraordinary and instinctively expect it to play a part in the story. If you draw attention to something, then sooner or later you need to reveal why you’ve done that.
And the flipside of that is true: If a character fires a gun in the final act, then establish it in the first act… Your hero can’t just pull out a magic sword to defeat the dragon. It’s deeply unsatisfying and has a whiff of deus-ex-machina (“God from the machine”… it comes from early Greek Theatre where the gods would descend and fix everything with magic, making for a deeply unsatisfying ending) about it. Establish your magic sword early on, and the reader will be all the more delighted when it comes to the moment when it’s most needed. A few examples:
- Think of the gun above the bar in the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead
- The load lifter in Aliens
- And pretty much any gadget James Bond is given by Q
But Chekhov’s advice doesn’t just apply to weapons or devices. This principle applies to all the major themes and threads and even characters in your story. Establish them early, resolve them by the end.
This is what Billy Wilder was talking about when he said any problems in the third act are caused by a problem in the first act. If these themes and ideas aren’t established in your opening, it’s usually too late to introduce them at the last minute. Really satisfying endings have their roots in the story’s opening.
First Acts and False Promises
Another common error I see in first drafts is when an author creates characters and story threads that go absolutely nowhere. I do this myself. In Back to Reality, Mr D and I tinkered with a whole subplot where our protagonist’s manager Lawrie owed money to a gangster… It was a fun idea, but it distracted from the main story. Our choices were:
Make more of it
Dial it down
Get rid of it
If we made more of it, it threatened to overwhelm the main story.
And it’s not the sort of story thread you can dial… it was a life and death dilemma for Lawrie.
So in the end we dropped it.
But we never saw this as some egregious mistake. We were simply doing what writers do, which is to explore as many story avenues as possible. There’s no doubt a version of that story where that Lawrie’s thread would have been pivotal, but in this case it was not to be. It’s one of the great dilemmas of writing: which story thread is stronger? Truth is… no one really knows until they write it. That’s why writing is rewriting, folks. Keep chipping away at it till you get it right.