An Antidote to Writing Poison: Inciting Incidents

I was just banned from a writing forum for insinuating explicitly stating its poobah was giving shitty writing advice, so I’m going to interrupt your regularly scheduled program for this special announcement.

The problem with your first page is there’s no inciting incident” is WRONG.

Unless your goal is to write a terrible action movie, the inciting incident of the story should NOT be on page 1.

The inciting incident of the first scene most likely shouldn’t be on page 1.

The inciting incident isn’t what incited arrival at the scenario that’s currently being presented. The inciting incident is a disturbance of the norm (at baseline or what becomes the norm following prior disturbances) that creates discomfort for a character that motivates the character to take an action to resolve it.

What the incident is inciting is action to achieve a meaningful goal.

One might even say it’s inciting the character’s transformation from ordinary slob into a hero, whatever that may look like in your particular story.

In order to understand and believe that motivation, which has to be strong enough to withstand all the failed attempts at resolution that will occur prior to the end of the story, readers require insight into the character and the character’s little piece of the world before you shake it up.

Setup is required to establish the norm (so the reader knows what’s being disturbed) and the character (so the reader has a filter through which to process the disturbance as uncomfortable, undesirable, and demanding action).

Stories (and, on a smaller level, scenes) are vehicles of change. In order to show change, you must first establish what the character/situation is changing from. If you have BLAM-O!!! on the first page, a character the reader has never met reacts for reasons the reader doesn’t know with a goal the reader can’t begin to guess. That creates a number of significant blanks the reader has to fill in in order to achieve comprehension. When you attempt to create context after the fact, readers will blame you — and rightly so — for all the wrong conclusions they had to supply up to that point because you failed to provide sufficient background information to draw them into the story as you intended it to be understood.

The inciting incident of the story is more likely to occur toward the end of the first scene, but I’ve seen more complex setups that, by necessity, delayed the inciting incident of the story until closer to the end of the first act.

Whatever amount of time you need to put readers in a position to care when you rip the rug out from under their feet is the right amount of time.

There may be a ton of things wrong with your first page, but lack of an inciting incident isn’t one of them.

Furthermore, I recommend taking any other advice from someone who tells you something as wrong as “it is essential to have an inciting incident on the first page” with a heaping serving of sodium because that is a BIG thing to be stridently wrong about.


6 thoughts on “An Antidote to Writing Poison: Inciting Incidents”

    1. THE Inciting Incident™ that everyone talks about is the event that causes the protagonist to pursue the story goal.

      Every scene also has a goal. Every goal has a little-i inciting incident. Therefore, scenes also have inciting incidents.

      To get SUPER macro about it, if you’re familiar with the MRU (motivation-reaction unit) school of beats, the motivation is an inciting incident for the reaction.

      Almost everything you learn about story as a whole can be applied to the smaller components of the story (acts, chapters, scenes, paragraphs, occasionally even sentences). It’s just a matter of scaling the amount of elaboration each component receives relative to its size and making it fit like a nesting doll within the requirements of the next largest component.

    1. You’re not missing anything except baking misadventures. There’s not going to be writing news!

      Sometimes blocking is an accident (cat walks across keyboard, tablet screen is an inch out of alignment and the wrong thing gets clicked, I misconstrue a blockable offense because I can’t see what it’s in response to because I already blocked the person it’s in response to…). Usually, however, it’s one of two things:

      1. I see someone being a raging asshole and never want to see them again.

      2. I block a raging asshole I never want to see again and use a plugin to also block all of the people who choose to follow that raging asshole because I assume only raging assholes would want to see a continuous stream of raging assholery.

      If you want me to investigate, email me your @ and let me know at that time if you want an explanation if it turns out the block was intentional and will continue. Beyond that, I’m not going to debate my efforts to make my social media feed less of a shitshow.

        1. If you’ve already ruled out the possibility of unintentional blockage, continuing this discussion is disingenuous.

          Few people do interact with me, and vice versa, and yet I see thousands of tweets a day. People retweet and screenshot things. I click on threads that interest me and see all the comments. Someone doesn’t have to be an asshole to *me* for me to recognize they’re an asshole. In fact, someone can be perfectly nice to me, and I will still recognize they’re an asshole when they’re an asshole to others, causing me to not want anything to do with them.

          If you don’t want to be judged (and sentenced to THE HORROR of having to circumvent a Twitter block with incognito browsing), maybe do some soul searching about how you engage with the people you DO interact with in public spaces lest you discover you’re blocked by far more people you’ve never interacted with.

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