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Incite and Excite

March 30th, 2018

Plot, suspense and conflict are probably the terms which are most familiar to those who write fiction, and to some readers. Less familiar but in many ways just as important as these elements of story is what is termed the inciting incident.

It’s the inciting incident which gets the story going and is crucial to what happens in the whole tale. It is something which will be of interest and will hook the reader so that he or she wants to read on, find out what happens, and how things will end.

The idea of the inciting incident is most easily illustrated by reference to two of the most popular genres of fiction: crime and romance. In nine out of ten crime novels the inciting incident will be the committing of a crime or finding that a crime has been committed and then the engaging of someone (often a detective) to solve the crime.

In romance novels the most common inciting incident will be the meeting of two people who will subsequently fall in love, have problems or obstacles to their relationship but, as most romances have happy endings, they will walk together into the sunset!  It’s not always that straightforward; the inciting incident could be a couple getting divorced.

Having decided on an inciting incident for your story, where do you place it? It can come in the first sentence, but it doesn’t have to. To engage interest, though, it is desirable that it occurs soon after the opening, and in the short story as opposed to the novel, it should probably come in the first few paragraphs.

Note that the inciting incident must create expectation in the reader. It should make the reader want to know the significance of the incident, what conflict it might engender, what adventures it could provoke, what relationships might be created, who committed the crime, what was the outcome of the incident, and so on.

In order to further illustrate the idea of the inciting incident some examples of stories, novels and films which most readers are likely to know will be cited.

In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins it is when the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the games.

In H G Wells The War of the Worlds it is the landing of Martians in England.

The incident in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is the plane crash which lands a group of choristers on a deserted island.

Two novels with rather dramatic incidents are Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love and Joyce Carol Oates’ The Fall. McEwan’s novel starts with a celebratory hot air balloon ascent. But the balloon founders and a man falls to his death although a boy is saved. The repercussions from this form the substance of the novel. In Oates’ novel a newly married couple go to stay in a hotel adjacent to Niagara Falls. When the wife wakes on the first  morning, her husband isn’t there and she soon discovers that he has plunged into the falls.

The 19th century novel The Mayor of Casterbridge (Thomas Hardy) has a drunken man selling his wife at a fair. This was apparently based on a true event.

The inciting incident does not have to be melodramatic. A TV play of 2012 began with a boy dropping a crisp packet outside someone’s house – a trivial incident which had unexpected and dramatic consequences. Also the novel The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas opens with a man slapping an extremely naughty child at a neighbour’s barbecue. The repercussions on half a dozen of the families who attended the barbecue are out of all proportion but entirely believable.

Some inciting incidents are used a lot by authors. Obsession is an example but probably the best written and a model of the genre is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. A teenager’s holiday obsession with a girl who dies soon after they have met leads the protagonist to have a lifelong obsession with similar girls and this leads to his committing paedophilia and eventually murder.

So, think about your inciting incident and excite the reader.


Colin Bulman’s latest books are Fiction – the Art and the Craft (Compass Books) and Creative Writing: a Guide and Glossary to Fiction Writing (Polity Press). He is a tutor at The Writers Bureau.





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