The inciting event is the event that kicks off the main plot. It’s an external event that occurs in the protagonist’s life and interrupts their status quo. Note that I mentioned “external event,” that’s because the inciting event should be something that happens out of the protagonist’s control – in other words, the protagonist doesn’t cause the inciting event – an outside force causes the inciting event.
The inciting event will force the protagonist down a path to change. Without the inciting event, there is no story.
The inciting event typically happens around the 12% to 13% mark in the book. You can figure out where this should occur by estimating the total number of words in your manuscript and multiplying the total number by .12 or .13.
For example (using .12):
Wordcount Inciting Event Happens at Approximately:
45,000 Words 5400 Words
60,000 Words 7200 Words
80,000 Words 9600 Words
Because the inciting event is when the plot is launched and when readers really sit up and take note of what’s happening, try not to go too far past the typical wordcount mark. Although going past the typical wordcount to reach the inciting event is not advised, an inciting event can happen sooner if it works for the story.
In the opening pages (before the inciting event), readers learn about the protagonist’s normal world. They learn what the status quo is for the protagonist, which should also include the following two important elements:
What the protagonist wants more than anything in the world (also referred to as the protagonist’s goal)
The protagonist’s fear, flaw, or misbelief
The inciting event will force the protagonist out of their comfort zone – the zone they’ve been “safely” living in even though they are dissatisfied with their life currently. This is because going out of their safe zone is hard, it’s uncomfortable, it might cause pain or hurt and they are avoiding it, so they have never attempted it before. But the inciting event forces them to leave their safe zone and pursue their want. It also forces them to conquer a fear, overcome a flaw, or reconcile a misbelief by the end of the story. See Character Arc in A Nutshell for more information on character arcs.
Below are some examples of inciting events:
How to Train Your Dragon
When the dragons arrive at Hiccups village; Hiccup decides to try and shoot one down.
The Hunger Games
When Primrose is selected for the Hunger Games; Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place.
When Nick realizes his wife Amy is missing.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
When Hagrid tells Harry he’s a wizard.
Note that in all cases, an external force interrupts the protagonist’s status quo. This is because the protagonist is in their safe zone and must be driven out by an external force.
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