Redefining the “Inciting Incident” — Part 2

Continued from the previous post.

The movie Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, is a perfect example of an early Inciting Incident that could easily make you believe that it’s actually the story’s First Plot Point.

In fact, if it happened in the right place, it could be.  But it doesn’t, it’s too early, at the 15th percentile.  Which makes it part of the Part 1 (Act 1) set-up. 

It’s an inciting incident, if you define the term literally.  Which you should.  Because it incites everything that follows.

But it doesn’t define the actual intended story (rather, it tees it up for launch), which illustrates what I often cite as the first step, the most important step in writing one: you must know what your story is really about before you can write it well.

One way to help keep this straight is to separate the definition of the term “inciting incident” into two realms.

The first realm, the one we’re used to regarding as synonymous with the First Plot Point, is the literary-tool definition.  When an Inciting Incident occurs at the proper place and with an effective execution of the mission of a First Plot Point, then the two milestones merge.  They are one and the same.

The First Plot Point is the Inciting Incident, and vice versa.  Happens all the time.

But when an inciting incident happens before that point, perhaps as a plot-twisting, game-changing scene somewhere nearer the middle of Part/Act I, then it becomes part of the set-up for the FPP, rather than being the FPP. 

And in that case, you are obliged to deliver a real FPP in the proper, assigned place.

In the case of Collateral, the crashing body represents a bonafide plot twist, and indeed sends the story spinning in a new direction.  Foxx suddenly has a new mission – survival – with new stakes.

But what does it mean at that point?

Answer: we don’t really know.  Or at least, we don’t know enough in context to what the Big Plan of this story really is all about.

Which means, you, the writer, need a Big Plan for your story before you can optimize pacing, dramatic tension and impact.

When the First Plot Point of Collateral finally arrives at the 25th percentile mark, we now learn what it all means.  The hero’s journey launches – meaningfully – right here.  Much more so, and much more dramatically, than when the body fell on his cab.

At that point we really didn’t know anything about this story, other than obvious.  What the story is really about isn’t obvious.  So the FPP is required to turn that corner, and it only works once the impact of that early Inciting Incident has sunk in, allowing us to feel and empathize with Foxx’s sudden terror.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how the body was just an element of set-up for the actual First Plot Point. 

Even if it looked, smelled and sounded just like a plot point.

The FPP of Collateral happens two scenes later (after the falling body and its aftermath), in the taxi as Foxx drives, barely holding it together.  There is no action, nothing visual, and yet it trumps the earlier inciting incident – labeled here the dictionary sense, because the body indeed incited the ensuing story – and yet, it’s a classic FPP.

Cruise reveals who he is.  Why he’s here.  What his stakes are.  And what lengths he’ll go to in pursuit of his goals.  He offers Foxx a deal – drive him through the night on his deadly appointed rounds and get paid $700… or die. 

Now the story really begins. 

With stakes, inner demons, an antagonist and a dark agenda, and the nature of the hero’s impending journey… all right there in front of us. 

None of that stuff was present in the story when the earlier inciting incident (the  dropping body that had you fooled into believing was the FPP) happened.  You thought you knew, but you didn’t.

This is a better story now.  Deeper, with more tension, more stakes and a ticking clock.

A Slap Upside the Head

This hit me last week while riveted to a deck chair in Hawaii reading Nelson DeMille’s latest, The Lion (sequel to The Lion’s Game).  The book is 440 pages long, which made me expect the FPP at about the 20th percentile or around page 88 (once you know this stuff, you can’t help but look for it).  But when I got to page 60 the entire story spun into a new direction, and in a huge way, focusing on the sudden and unexpected appearance of what would become the antagonist.  

Enough so that one could easily think it was the FPP.  It wasn’t.  If by virtue of nothing other than its placement.

It was, however, a moment that incites the rest of the story.  It was, simply from a dictionary perspective, an inciting incident.  Or from a writer/reader perspective, a plot twist.  An injection of threat and fear.  Of potential – but not yet defined – danger to the hero.

But it wasn’t the FPP.  That showed up in a series that takes place after page 80, where the antagonist and the hero’s agendas suddenly, and violently, collide.  Where the hero suddenly has a new journey, a new need and quest, with deeper stakes and an even more meaningful relationship with the bad guy.

And, because we’ve been set-up for it, the reader has significant empathy (emotional involvement) at this point.

When an inciting incident happens early in a story, our world may indeed be rocked.  But chances are we won’t know what it means to the story, especially to the hero.

That’s the job of the First Plot Point. 

Start watching for this in the stories you read.  And then start engineering this evolved sequential technique into your own stories – whether you deliver an early II or you combine it with the FPP – proactively and with confidence.

It’s all about optimizing pacing and dramatic tension.  And, planned or pantsed, that’s never a happy accident on the part of the writer. 

It’s always a function of structure, rendered in context to character.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

11 Responses to Redefining the “Inciting Incident” — Part 2

  1. Debbie Burke

    Hi Larry,
    Excellent delineations of hook, inciting incident, and first plot point. I’ve always confused the three, especially II and FPP. I now really understand the differences among them, as well as how their functions can overlap. Thank you!

    Here comes the monkeywrench (there’s a troublemaker in every crowd!). Bestseller DeMille has the luxury of waiting to p. 88, but what about us unpublished novelists? If we’re lucky (and aren’t rejected outright), we’re allowed only the first three chaps (20-50 pages) to hook and reel in an agt or editor. If the FPP is at the 20-25 percentile into the story, the editor likely won’t even get to that point.

    How do unpubbed novelists craft a hook and II strong enough to induce the editor to read beyond them without diluting the impact of the FPP?

    Thanks as always for your intelligent, detailed discussion of the finer points of story-telling.


  2. Larry, you touched on something that has been driving me batty lately – “once you know this stuff, you can’t help but look for it”. I love being a writer, but the more I learn, and the more I practice refining my skills, the more difficult it is to read for nothing more than pure pleasure. I’ve been finding specifics in regard to structure in books so much lately, (without even looking for it), I’m having a hard time keeping myself from marking the book up, rather than just reading. But that’s a good thing, right?

    Another fabulous post that further helps me to understand what structure is all about. Thank you so much!

    P.S. Now if only my characters would quit changing their agenda on me. 🙂

  3. @Debbie – sounds like you’re deep in this, keep going. Also sounds like you may be confusing “hook” with “first plot point.” DeMille’s FPP isn’t late, it’s actually a bit early. When you say you have three chapters to hook an agent or editor, I think you my be referring to the hook, or perhaps an early first plot point. Depends on how long the chapters are, but remember, the FPP doesn’t happen until the 20th to 25th percentile mark, which in a 400 page book is from page 80 to 100. This is an easy and risky mistake to make in the belief that the early Plot Point is good… but what you need early is a killer hook, not a Plot Point.

    Hope this clarifies.

  4. If the Inciting Incident is in exactly the right place, structure-wise, to be considered a first plot point, but doesn’t provide the hero with “… a new journey, a new need and quest, with deeper stakes and an even more meaningful relationship with the bad guy”, then it is a crappy First Plot Point, no?

    I agree with the premise that the FPP needs to be in the 20% – 25% point. But if it doesn’t fundamentally alter the hero’s journey, can it be effective?

    In a novel I just finished, the II starts on the first page – the hero is involved in, and helps quell, a terrorist hijacking, but other than shake him up, it doesn’t alter his fundamental view of life. the FPP, on the other hand, is at the 26% point, and happens when the organisers of that hijacking kidnap him. The remainder of the story is the hero dealing with being a captive and working out a way to escape (and foil their nefarious plans).

    The FPP alters his life-trajectory. The II just sets it up.

  5. Patrick Sullivan

    Hm, maybe I’m just thinking about it the wrong way, but, per major plot thread, can there TRULY be more than one II? After all, if you are already on some particular trajectory (fleeing for your life) then you can’t be re-placed on the same trajectory, at least with the same impact. And if it changes said path significantly, is the prior one TRULY an II, since the thread was short lived enough to all happen within the first act?

    Maybe I’m wrong but it just feels odd. Though if you have multiple significant plot threads, each of those probably HAS to have some form of II, just like they need their own shifting point and resolution.

  6. @Patrick — I actually agree with you. You can only light a fuse once (unless someone steps on it), and while there may be three real “inciting incident” opportunities in Part 1, you really can’t “re-incite” the story once you’ve implemented one. The other two become “twists,” even when one of them is, in fact, the Plot Point (which does continue to have it’s own criteria and timing, in comparison to the earlier hook and a mid-part plot twist).

    And you’re absolutely on the money about a sub-plot inciting incident… which means, in that context, that you could have two such moments in your Part 1 exposition.

    Good stuff, Patrick, thanks for contributing. I think the thread here has been invaluable, and I’m going to post about it today for tomorrow’s feed.

    If anyone else has input to this discussion, love to hear it. L.

  7. Kelly

    Hello, Larry. Kelly here.

    First, to Deanna. Don’t know if this might help: I sticky note 25%, 50%, 75% before I start reading– keeps me from getting distracted looking for FPP, etc. Larry has spoiled me for reading without checking placement!
    Regarding II: I agree you can’t “unlight” a fuse, but you can light more than one– subplots. These seem to qualify for ignition.
    The FPP can be subtle– doesn’t have to beat you over the head. A plot twist can beat you over the head without being the FPP. And II can be either, although I’d favor using an II that is not the FPP.
    Welcome back to the first 48 states, Larry. I’ll get DeMille’s new one on vacation next week…
    Thanks– Kelly

  8. Rosetta

    A question

    How many plot points and inciting incidents should there be in the entire story?
    My story plan thus far uses four II and two PP. Does this sound right?

  9. Pingback: Write Romance? Get Your Beat Sheet Here! | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

  10. Graham

    What would you say the crisis and climax are in this film? Is the crisis when Max has to visit felix and the climax when he topples his cab?


  11. Pingback: Recipe for a Successful Synopsis | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author