What is an Inciting Event?
Compare the two texts below. Which one is a story?
If I want to expand the latter to a manuscript, I need to add some scenes about its event—enemy attacked village—; about the enemy, threatening the village and finally the brave fight of the person.
What if I want to expand the first example to a manuscript? How can I flesh out the character? I can add some of her thoughts and her daily routines, but does it make a story? In the second example, the event of attacking the village gives the possibility to build the story around the character. That event defines the character and the story.
In literature, this event is called inciting event or inciting incident. No inciting event, no conflict. No conflict, no plot.
The word inciting, most of the time, is associated with a horrifying action scene in movies. But, it is incorrect. The inciting event could be emotional and/or physical. There is only ONE limitation on choosing the inciting event. Let’s look at examples in picture books and discover the ONLY determining factor.
Examples in Picture books
The inciting event can be right on the first line (Don’t confuse the inciting event with the hook. We will discuss the difference later):
The beauty of picture book is that you can have a wordless inciting event; On the first page of Drawn Together (2018) by Minh Lê, the illustrator, Dan Santat, illustrated a boy, with a bored face, ringing the doorbell and an old man, with a big smile, appears at the door frame and waves goodbye to a woman in the car, waiting outside. There is no word and we don’t know who is the old man or why the boy is so unhappy, but from the illustrations, we got the point: the boy doesn’t like to be with the old man—for an unclear reason, so far—and this is the inciting event.
A good example of an emotional inciting event is Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, (2021) by Sarah S.Brannen. On the first two spreads, we read about the emotional connection between Chole and her uncle Bobby and their fun together. On the third spread, uncle Bobby announces he and his partner, Jamie, are getting married. Everyone is happy;
and this is an inciting event.
Inciting event in The Secret Fawn (2021) by Kallie George is very subtle; one early morning mother, father and the elder sister of the protagonist saw a deer in their garden (!) and the protagonist, …, missed it! The inciting event doesn’t directly occur to her, because she was inside the house, putting on her cloth. But, in the next two spreads, she complains that she always miss things and on the fifth spread, we read
Therefore the reader understands why this event matters so much to the protagonist and wants to read the rest to see what did she do.
As we have seen in these examples, all have ONE thing in common: Inciting event disturbs the protagonist’s world. It thrusts the protagonist into a new condition that she cannot figure out straightforward and forces her to act and this action starts the engine of the story. If the protagonist knows how to manage the inciting event, or even worse, immediately fix it, there won’t be a story.
Last but not least, the inciting event can assist you as an indicator. If you an idea for a picture book, how would you predict, by the rule of thumb, that does the idea worth spending some time on or not?
My approach is writing two things: the inciting event and the protagonist’s reaction accordingly. After a couple of days, I look at these:
- If the inciting event doesn’t disturb the protagonist painfully, it won’t be a good story. Then I ponder if I can change the inciting event to have more impact, more confusion or disappointment.
- If the protagonist is strong enough to easily manage the inciting event, it won’t be a good story. In this case, I change the history and the traits of the protagonists, make her weaker. Have you heard that authors need to be ruthless to their character(s) to write a page-turning story? Remember Harry Potter; a skinny, malnourished orphan living with his abusive aunt’s family, often locked under the stairs. Could it be any worse than this?
Confusions about Inciting Event
Before we finish, let’s look at two main confusions about inciting events.
Inciting Event vs. Hook
In picture books, the inciting event may be the first line/page but generally, inciting event and hook have an inherent difference. A hook is a scene that the writer chooses to start the narration from. The aim of the writer is to grab the reader’s attention. The hook can be any scene. You may have heard that some authors write the first chapter when the novel is complete because then they can decide on the best possible opening. Whereas, the inciting event is not arbitrary. As soon as you define the inciting event, the path of the story is defined. You may revise some details, but not changing the inciting event. Because new inciting event, new story!
Pages between hook and inciting event are reserved for describing the story’s setting. These pages must perform an important duty in the story: prepare the reader for the inciting event. An example of this is the first book of the Harry Potter series. Hook is on the first page and the inciting event comes on about page 50, when Hagrid tells Harry that he is a wizard. If the reader didn’t know Harry’s background and his many unanswered questions, Hagrid’s revelation was meaningless.
In picture books, if the setting is obvious, any explanation is verbiage and the inciting event should be on the first page. Let’s take the example of Raja’s Pet Camel, the magic of hope (2020), by Anita Nahta Amin: neither a schoolboy nor a camel needs explanation. But, in The Secret Fawn (2021) by Kallie George, three spreads are necessary to show the reader why the inciting event—missing the deer— matters so much to the girl.
Inciting Event vs. Conflict
Another often confusion about Inciting Event is mistaken it with conflict. Conflict doesn’t materialize from thin air. SOMETHING should have happened to a person to start a conflict. It can be internal when the person doesn’t know what to do. Or, external, when the person doesn’t know what to do with someone else or something. Regardless of the type of conflict, conflict is the consequence of an event—which in literature we call it inciting event.
An inciting event causes a conflict in the protagonist. It matters to split these two, because if the manuscript rambles around the conflict, without punching the inciting event into the protagonist’s face and showing the reader why this event matters, then the reader doesn’t emotionally move with the story and soon leaves.
If the story is a space shuttle, the inciting event launches it. To escape gravity, a space shuttle needs an enormous amount of energy; to escape boredom, a manuscript needs an impactful inciting event.
In the next post, I will look at the story’s structure (or narrative structure) and the place of the inciting event, hook, and other plot points in the narrative structure. Until then, would you like to share your thoughts about inciting events in the comments?
I write blog posts about the craft of writing picture books regularly. The list of the previous posts is on the PictureBookPedia. Also, I publish a quarterly newsletter that includes links to my recent blog posts (subscription link).