Redefining the “Inciting Incident”

Part one of two.  Maybe three. 

Yeah, it’s that worthwhile if you’re serious about story structure.  A bit complicated, too.  Because it challenges what we thought to be true.

Allow me to contribute to the potential confusion relative to what has been long referred to in the vocabulary of storytelling as the Inciting Incident.

A classic term.  Writing 101.  And just possibly, outdated.

Not confused?  Read on, you might be in a moment.  Because what you think you know about the Inciting Incident may not be completely correct.  Maybe not even complete.

Let me add, too, that I’ve contributed to this confusion.  Both here and in my ebook, Story Structure Demystified, which I’m revising accordingly.

This isn’t something I read about elsewhere.  This is something I’ve discovered.

I realized the conventional definition of an Inciting Incident was perhaps deficient while I was wrapping up the final submission draft of my manuscript for my Writers Digest Book project – Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, due out February 2011.

Sometimes our work informs us, when all along we thought it was the other way around.

This issue – the purpose, nature and location of an Inciting Incident within a story, and why we will all benefit from a better definition of it – needs closer inspection.  Greater clarity.  An enthusiastic drill down into the nuances.

Great storytelling is nothing if not dependent on nuance.

I’ve also realized that in going there, this might actually stir up more fog than it settles.  So be it.  Nobody said this storytelling stuff was easy. 

Wrap your head around what I’m about to share and you’ll be a significantly better writer.  Promise.

The Present Take on an “Inciting Incident”

So what is an Inciting Incident?  The highest ranking search engine answer was this: It’s when the story gets humped up and leads to the climax.

Swear to God.

Wow.  Color me under whelmed.  That’s like answering the question, “What is puberty?” with: It’s when you grow hair in strange new places and babies happen.

Virtually everywhere in the vast oeuvre of conventional storytelling wisdom the Inciting Incident is considered synonymous with the First Plot Point. 

In fact, while screenwriters toss around both terms, novelists hardly ever use the term First Plot Point at all, which is perhaps why so many of us are confused.

A First Plot Point is the partition/break moment between Part (or Act) One and Part/Act Two in a novel or screenplay.  The place where set-up yields to a game-changing revelation or action.  The place where the hero gets her/his marching orders, where the stakes are plopped right into her/his lap, and where the antagonist surfaces to an extent that we understand what the hero must do and what will oppose them along the way.

The First Plot Point is where the hero’s story – the journey – really begins.  Everything prior to that moment, regardless of how huge it is, is part of the set-up of that moment.

All of that still applies to the First Plot Point.

And it applies to the Inciting Incident, too… unless it doesn’t.

Because – get ready to get dizzy – while the Inciting Incident can indeed be (and often is) the First Plot Point, it doesn’t have to be.  It can actually happen earlier, somewhere in Part/Act One prior to the optimal 20 to 25th percentile FPP mark.

It can even happen right off the bat.  When it does, that’s called a hook.  Yes, a hook can be an inciting incident, but it’s never a First Plot Point.

When an inciting incident happens early in a story, even mid-way through the set-up, then you still need to deliver a proper First Plot Point in the target zone of your story, right at the end of Part 1.  When this is the case, the FPP is preceded by an inciting incident that is actually part of the set-up for it.

In which case, they are very different milestones, not to be confused

The risk is in allowing your early Inciting Incident to – in your writerly mind – serve as your First Plot Point.  Big mistake.  Maybe a deal killer. 

The good news is you get to keep that early inciting incident scene, and your can make it as big as you want.  The other news (not bad) is that you still need to push your story forward later, at the First Plot Point, and in the proper way, and in context to what you’ve put into play with your early Inciting Incident.

Put another way… an Inciting Incident can be part of the Part 1 set-up itself…or it can be the actual Plot Point One itself.  Either way works.

Which means the terms Inciting Incident and First Plot Point are not really – or at least, not always – synonymous after all. 

They are two powerful storytelling milestones than can be the same thing at the same time… or not.

What’s not flexible is this: when they aren’t the same, the Inciting Incident must precede the First Plot Point.  Never the other way around.  Because, as stated above, when the Inciting Incident comes earlier in the story it becomes part of the set-up (in Part/Act One) for the forthcoming critical, game-changing, story-launching FPP moment.

Where this gets really sticky is when you realize that the definitions of the two milestones, even when they exist in different places (for example, the early II occurs at the 15th percentile, and the FPP at the 24th percentile), can seem almost identical – something huge happens… a game-changer is thrown into the mix… the hero’s path is suddenly altered or even blown to smithereens… etc.

All of that can be either an Inciting Incident or a First Plot Point.

Here’s the difference.

So why, if an inciting incident (notice how this is not capitalized in this instance, to help make this point) shows up early, isn’t it simply an early FPP?  Especially when it does most of the assigned work of a FPP?  Who cares if the FPP happens at the 15th percentile, anyhow?

Well, a prospect agent, editor or reader, for starters.

Because when that moment does happen early, even when it knocks the criteria for an FPP (other than sequential location) out of the ballpark, you still need to deliver a proper FPP at the proper location for purposes of optimal pacing and drama.

It’s like telling your 15-year told to move out of the house.  It’s too early.  Not smart.  Not good parenting.  Wait until the proper time to allow reality to overwhelm them.

When you do follow up an early Inciting Incident with a properly placed FPP, you’ll be building on the earlier II in such a way that the story is imbued with meaningful stakes and the hero’s journey once again takes on new direction and tension, which weren’t there when the earlier II occurred.

That’s why this is so important.

When the FPP is too early, an empathy-grabbing set-up is the sacrifice.  And in fiction, reader empathy is everything.

An example will help illustrate. 

If you’ve been on Storyfix for a while, you may recall me discussing the 2004 movie Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.  Rent the DVD, it’s a structural and character storytelling clinic, especially on this issue.

Foxx is a humble but ambitious taxi driver in Los Angeles.  Our hero, a great guy.   Instant empathy.  Cruise is the bad guy, an assassin arriving in L.A. to whack five different clients. 

After some initial set-up that establishes stakes and reader empathy for our hero, Foxx picks up Cruise as a fare-paying passenger.  Delivers him to an “appointment” and is told to wait in the cab for Cruise to return.

Foxx relaxes, munches a sandwich, goes over his business plan for the taxi company he dreams of starting.   More sandwich.  Family pictures.  Dreams at stake.  Soft background music.  And then…

… a body sails out of a window above and comes crashing down on the roof of the taxi.  Followed moments later by Cruise appearing, pointing a gun at Foxx.

Everything changes.  What Foxx does in these next moments determines whether he lives or dies.

Sounds like a First Plot Point, doesn’t it. 

All of the criteria are in place… except one: placement.

This scene occurs at the 16th percentile.  Too early for the FPP.  As such, and because there is indeed a proper and legitimate First Plot Point lurking later at the 25th percentile, which also nails the requisite criteria for an FPP, this cab-crashing body moment becomes part of the set-up for the FPP.

Even though – and here it is – it is actually an inciting incident.  Because it incites the story.

Call it what you will.  Just don’t call it the First Plot Point.  Functionally, the body dropping on the car is an inciting incident, pure and simple.

Next — Part Two of this brain scrambler.

21 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

21 Responses to Redefining the “Inciting Incident”

  1. Darren Cox

    Hi Larry,

    Long time no speak. You know, I’m glad you’ve elaborated on this one. I was speaking to my wife about this after I finished reading Story Structure – Demystified as I was totally and utterly confused as to how my book didn’t “fit” within the constraints of the structure you put forth. The rest of it fit – like pieces of a puzzle. But the beginning, for this story has an inciting incident on the first page!!! Yes, there’s a setup (we come to understand the character and his motivations, and get an idea on the simplicity of his life leading up to the first plot point, but the inciting incident (which I thought was the first plot point) made me think I need to write a bunch of pages prior to the beginning of my novel to “set things up”, when I didn’t WANT to do! I loved how it just jumped straight into the story.

    I’d like to know more about your thoughts on this. Perhaps some more examples of how this has been written previously. I know Dean Koontz writes a lot of books where the inciting incident is on the first pages.

    Just out of curiosity, will we have to pay for an updated version of the book?

    Speak soon mate,

    Regards

    Darren

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    Hm, this is giving me a lot to chew on, mostly because it’s making me look at a story I’ve started plotting out in a very different way. It’s 55 scenes, and scene wise the various major points (FPP, SPP, MP, pinch points, etc) are all in place… but first page of chapter 1 (still up in the air about a prologue, though without it that cuts me to 54 scenes in the current plotting) is something that feels like MORE than a hook, since it’s going to be the INITIAL story driver (there’s still a major about face at the FPP to make the story bigger than it was before that point) where the MCs daughter has disappeared and he’s calling the police.

    But if I treat that as the Inciting incident, it makes perfect sense. It sends the initial plot into motion, but still within the framework of his normal, pre-FPP world. HMmmmmm I will have to play with that a bit.

  3. Kelly

    Larry. What a way to spend your Father’s Day, not to mention your jet-lag recovery time. Very ambitious entry right off the bat.
    After reading this twice, I see your point about II not equalling FPP.
    Like Darren and Patrick, I have an early hook in my WIP. Page one, scene one, as a matter of fact. And it really is an inciting incident. It just doesn’t directly affect the hero until about the 27th percentile, when he’s forced to alter the course of his life because of the bad guy.
    Is “hook” the same as “inciting incident?” To me, this implies that there might be multiple inciting incidents before the FPP.
    Yes?
    Thanks– Kelly

  4. @Darren, Patrick and Kelly — all three of you are right on the money here. When an inciting incident happens to be the opening of a story, then it is indeed a “hook.” And that’s good. A hook — which can take many forms and formats — is always an effective part of a great Part 1 set-up, leading to a Plot Point that lends meaning to it while adding stakes and the context of an antagonist with other plans and needs than those of the hero.

    I alluded to this in the post, but didn’t want to hammer it, because this is already a complex issue. But when you consider the role of “hook” for an inciting incident, you now have three possible destinations where an inciting incident can pop up — hook, middle of the set-up, or as the First Plot Point. It can be one, two or all three of these things. It can even be more, with the inclusion of yet another killer twist in the set-up, but then you’re getting a bit cluttered for an opening act, and possibly at the expense of the other things Part 1 is called upon to accomplish.

    I love stories that open big, and it sounds like you guys do, too. Anything that “incites” an ensuing story qualifies as an “inciting incident” — including an opening hook — leaving it up to the writer to decide how to apply this powerful technique.

    Thanks for contributing to this… great stuff from you.

  5. Wow, what a brain twister Larry, but, when reading with a clear mind, (yes, that would be the 4th time), this makes so much sense.
    I too thought I had an II right off the bat [in my WIP] – first scene – but, now that you’ve explained the difference between II, FPP, and hook, I would consider it to be “just” a hook. The good news is that it sounds as if I may actually be on track with pacing, something I’ve always found challenging.

    Thanks so much for this post and I look forward to more!

  6. Mary E. Ulrich

    “you now have three possible destinations where an inciting incident can pop up — hook, middle of the set-up, or as the First Plot Point.”

    I need another example

  7. I like it when some stories start with a bang! and then go on from there. Yes, the story does still need a PP1, I know that now. Thanks!

  8. Laureli Illoura

    LOVING this stuff! Thank you for further clarification (I thought it was just me- lacking some necessary logic to understand the post before this one). I’m on the right track … however, without bullets and car chases or other mystery/thriller material, I’m dealing with a character-driven girly story, and no where near the end though I do have an outline-and inciting incidents… but how does one know the 25% mark?
    WHEW!

  9. This makes sense to me especially in the romance genre. I can think of romance books I’ve read that very much follow that earlier II timing.

  10. JW Newcum

    Elsewhere, the II has been known as ‘the call to adventure’…an invitation to a quest. The FPP is the acceptance of the call. Between the two, the hero may, in fact, try to avoid the quest which could lead to dire consequences, but still part of the setup for the FPP. Finally, though, if there is to be a story told, the hero accepts the call, either willingly or not, and enters the ‘magical’ land of the story, whatever and wherever that is.

    So, the II and the FPP are about the hero. The hook is about/for the reader.

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  12. @Mary — you’ve asked for another example, so here goes. I’ve suggested three placed where a valid Inciting Incident can be placed within Part 1, and to add to the confusion, two of them also have other names. Since there isn’t an example that comes to mind that uses all three — though I’m sure they’re out there — allow me to be hypothetical and make one up for you.

    In the second scene of this story, a woman is kidnapped. That’s really early, so it’s a hook, not a Plot Point. It’s also an Inciting Incident, because it “incites” the forthcoming story.

    At the 12th percentile, our hero (the woman) escapes. But she has to be clever since the original kidnapper is right on her tail. This is a plot twist, but it’s not the Plot Point (for two reasons: it’s still too early, and it doesn’t give the story the “meaning” — with regard to the hero’s ultimate quest in this story — for the stakes and tension to become fully realized.

    At the Plot Point (let’s say, at the 23rd percentile mark), our woman is still on the run. In fact, she’s run into the arms of her husband in the scene right BEFORE the plot point… but in the next scene — and this IS the plot point — we learn that the kidnapper is none other than her husband himself. So she has to run again, and because her husband is a U.S. Senator, nobody will believe her when she tries to get help.

    Three Inciting Incidents… one the story’s hook… another a killer plot twist… and the third the intended Plot Point that fully defines her story-quest and the stakes, as well as the opposition (none of which were present with the “false/early PP at 12%).

    Hope this helps. Let me know what you think. Larry

  13. Thanks for recommending we go back and read the comments on these last two! Somehow they did clarify exactly what I was struggling with.

    I have a story that I’m practicing this on, and my hook is that this girl is trying to get her friend, a courier, to take her to her home city with him, so she can care for her sick mother. She doesn’t know that Kieran is carrying something that the enemy will kill for…and the enemy’s on his trail right at that moment. He can’t tell her about it because he’s sworn to absolute secrecy.

    So he’s telling her ‘no’ and she’s insisting. (She’s strong-willed and stubborn and too apt to get into trouble on her own on a normal day, so the prospect of trying to keep her safe on a journey like this isn’t pretty, even without what he’s carrying.) And then her father joins her, begging Kieran to take her back to help his wife. He succumbs…and then wonders if he’s lost his mind. heeheehee!

    That’s my hook, the first scene. The story is the journey home, and them falling in love along the way. (This is YA.)

    So I was REALLY struggling with figuring out what the FPP should be/could be, etc.

    But somehow, these comments clarified it for me. You see…the next few scenes are them leaving the city, her innocently thinking it’s a journey with the normal low-level danger, and him doing all he can to lose those on his tail. I have him marginally successful until a few chapters in.

    Now I realize, all I have to do is make him THINK he’s successfully lost those after him. He failed in keeping her from coming along with him, but he thinks he’s okay as long as he really has lost them. So then, that FPP is the moment he realized he failed in that, too. The moment he realizes that he really DOES have the now-enormous task of not only getting himself home alive with what he’s carrying, but also getting his headstrong, adventuresome, and clueless friend home safely as well…and keeping her from making the whole thing even more difficult without telling her what he’s sworn not to.

    That’s my huge BINGO!!!! This fits SOOOO well. Thanks!

    And BTW, this is a short story/novella, which is why the FPP is only a couple of chapters in. I really does work on short stories as well. I tested an older story I wrote with your story structure, and realized that if I’d added another chapter in box #4, all of the points would have wound up in the exact right spots…which explained why the ending felt rushed. It NEEDED that extra chapter.

    So THAT answers the Laureli’s question about how this stuff helps you when you don’t know how long the story will be yet. You just keep it in mind and write, but once your story is written and you’re editing, you use it to help smooth out your pacing.

  14. flibgibbet

    If you rename the First Plot Point as the First Major TURNING Point instead, this dicussion is easier to grasp, at least for me. The latter is exactly what it says it is: The moment the story turns and the hero HAS to become PROACTIVE and change directions if he wants to survive.

    Sometimes, only restrospect allows you to separate the II (or II’s in some cases) from the FMTP, because only then can you see how much more important/significant the one is from the other. If a character is simply trying to survive, going along to get along (as in the II of Collateral Damage), it’s not a Major Turning Point.

    If you think of a story as having three Major Turning Points in all, I think it’s easier to understand the structure of most successful stories. Each MTP requires a serious change in stakes, a major sacrifice from the character who’s being squeezed tighter and tighter, with the final (third) MOST MAJOR Turning Point setting up that Belly of the Beast moment when our hero is trapped and must risk everything single thing he personally holds dear. (And I’m not just talking action movies here. The definition of Risk depends on the character/genre).

    What muddies the waters, I think, is that within each Arc of the story, there are mini-turning points which exist to set-up the Major Turning Points. (II’s, I consider minis). The Mini’s set up the Major, but they’re also the place where the originality of the story/characters shines through. Particular characters whose particular lives are interrupted by particular circumstances.

  15. @flipgibbet — first off, great name there. May I call you Flip? Flipper? The Flippster?

    Can’t argue with your semantics. If an Inciting Incident early — which, technically, is a plot “point” in the sense that it is a “story point,” then the FPP isn’t really the “First” plot point. But rather than rename it, as you say, I have to say that in novels the term “First Plot Point” is already a bit of a renaming. And, perhaps ironically, the thing it was initially called in some circles was, in fact, the Inciting Incident. That said, can’t argue with your suggestion — think of it (if not rename it) the First Major Turning Point.

    But I could argue that’s not always true, either. An early Inciting Incident is still a choice, and when that happen then “the turning point moment” were’re talking about here really isn’t the “first” afterall.

    It gets muddy when the line between noun and adjective blurs in this regard. For me, I’m trying to bring a screenwriter’s structural discipline and sensibilty to novels, and in doing so I contend that the vocubulary (where “First Plot Point” is an untouchable term) to it. And many readers are getting it, and clearly, for the first time.

    Your contribution will help all of us “get it” even more clearly. So thanks for that, Flip.

    In any case, it’s all semantics, and the real issue — as you clearly and poignantly state in your Comment — is that the writer be able to wrap her/his head around it. Whatever works is all good. L.

  16. Monica

    Seems my post from a few days ago never made it here thru cyberspace. Don’t know if a post to an old entry is ever seen, but I’ve got to try again.

    I MUST express my gratitude to u, Larry, for clarifying this issue. It has plagued me for some time, & when diff. authors use the terminology diff., it doesn’t help. You’ve cleared up all my confusion & let me confidently assess my opening of my WIP. (My hook/II is too late, so I’m combining that scene w/ my first, sort of.)

    You said:
    The FPP lends meaning to the hook while “…adding stakes and the context of an antagonist with other plans and needs than those of the hero.”

    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Put that on Ur monitor. Put that on Ur bulletin board. Put it on Ur forehead. It’s a keeper.

    You’ve done it again, Larry.

  17. flibgibbet

    Thanks for the response Larry. Stumbled upon your website very recently and am glad to have found it. I read McKee’s “Story” and found it fascinating, even though I’m not a screen-writer. Stories are stories, so now will check out your books.

    A little trivia to brighten your day: “Flibgibbet” is short-hand for “flibbertigibbet”—–a flighty, frivolous and restless person. What a great word! Wish I’d invented it.

    Cheers.

  18. About six months late to this conversation, but it’s given me six months to think about this.

    If (and this is how I think about it now) the First Plot Point is the event that knocks our hero out of his status quo trajectory, then the inciting incident is the rocket that is launched to impact his (or her) trajectory. The hero may or may not know about that rocket, it has to launch well before the fist plot point, and even if the hero thinks s/he sees it coming, when it hits it alters the hero’s actions to the final conclusion.

  19. @Tony — absolutely perfect analogy. Love it. Think I’ll pass it on, if you don’t mind (and give you credit). Nice. L.

  20. No problem, Larry. After all of the good advice I’ve taken from your site, you can certainly take one back.

    Refined it a bit in the shower this morning, though…

    FPP is the rocket that changes hero’s trajectory, inciting incident is the lit fuse (or however rockets are launched these days).