“Netherfield has let at last!”
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennett (nosy mother of five daughters) delivers the news that they have a new neighbor, one who is rich and single. It’s this observation that sets off a series of probing conversations, awkward visits, balls, and introductions that unravel the plot of this classic book. While this first event isn’t Michael Bay film exciting, it does serve the purpose of generating characters’ actions and decisions which reveal the objectives of every character. Every good story needs an inciting incident. Is yours exciting enough?
To incite means to be a catalyst, to start something, to set something into motion. Your inciting incident is the thing that happens that gets the story started. Your main character reacts to this incident and chooses to create goals for themselves which may (or may not) be the same goals that he has for the rest of the book. If you have watched any show on Netflix, seen any movie, or read any genre literature, you have seen the inciting incident demonstrated in front of you.
Inciting incidents must reveal a lot of information to your reader about your story. For the first time, your reader will see them in action, see how they handle crises and inconveniences, see what assets they have, and possibly what weaknesses will hinder them. It’s during your inciting incident that the more minor characters can make an appearance. They will be reacting to this event too, but hopefully, they’ll do it in a completely different way.
Inciting incidents must be an interruption of what usually happens to the main character. The bigger the interruption, the more opportunities for emotional drama, the more reactions from others around him. For example, let’s say a bomb goes off at the bank where your main character works. The responses to the explosion are vast and varied. Employees and customers are affected. Law enforcement must be called in. First responders must care of the sick and injured. Besides the obvious pain and injury, emotional upheaval is felt by every person on the scene. This is dramatic.
However, if your inciting incident is much smaller, you’ll have less to work with. Let’s say your main character is out walking his dog. The leash breaks and the dog runs away into the woods. Unlike the previous example, no one is directly affected by the event; only the owner and the dog. But the results of this incident, say, your main character finds a dead body in the woods, can escalate the situation both physically and emotionally.
Inciting incidents must prepare your main character for the crossing of the threshold. This is the gateway from Act One into Act Two, where the meat of the story really takes place. Sometime between the inciting incident and the entrance through the threshold, your main character will have to debate, either internally or externally, about whether or not he should go through the threshold. He will be convinced to do this — whatever this is — because if he doesn’t, then there is no change or growth. The first act just continues into a dull status quo and makes for boring reading.
Inciting incidents eventually ask the question, “What if?” The rest of the book answers the question. Think of your favorite stories: The Fellowship of the Ring, for example. The story itself is about Frodo and his band returning The Ring to Mount Doom, so that’s the big story. But that’s not at all how the story begins. The inciting incident is Bilbo Baggins’ birthday party. From that event, the reader is presented the question: Can Frodo handle The Ring and destroy it in Mount Doom? The birthday party has little bearing on the rest of the story, for it’s job is to put everything in place for the story to begin.
The inciting incident gets everything in place, a question is asked, the main characters go through a threshold and then the story really begins.
Every good story needs an exciting inciting incident. Make yours exciting enough and you’re off to a great start. Your readers will love it!