An Incendiary Inciting Incident for Your Author Toolbox

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After months and months of agonizing and writing and editing and changing and freaking out and writing some more, my newest book is done. Finished. FIN. Clocking in at 51K, the book is crammed full of love, silliness, superpowers, and the reason supervillains don’t wear yellow. I rewarded myself by sending it off to an editor, so I can find out exactly where I did everything wrong, and buying three new books I’ve been wanting for my Kindle. And then I realized . . .crap. I have to write the next book.

I already have an idea (or six) floating around waiting to land. In fact they’ve already landed, usually as I’m trying to get to sleep. The problem right now is— how do I get this party started?

I need an inciting incident. And I need it to be incendiary.

  • The inciting incident is the pebble which gets the story avalanche rolling. Reedsy Blog defines it as “the narrative event that launches the main action.”
  • I like to picture the inciting incident in my mind as the match touching the end of the fuse. Which will wind and twist and spark all the way to the explosive BOOM of the climax. The image helps remind me that all of the story is interconnected.
  • It generally happens in the first act of the story, because it propels the action.

Okay. Cool. I know what an inciting incident is. But…how do I write one?

You’d think I would know the answer to this with six finished manuscripts under my belt. SURPRISE! I feel lost every single time I stare at that blank Word document getting ready for a new story.

shrug gif
Me: Wat r werdz? My Brain:

So off I go to consult my colleague Mssr. Google. After perusing lots of articles (most of them directed towards aspiring screenwriters, but hey) I’ve written a bit of a list to help get started. Please feel free to keep and use it yourself if you’re also getting started on a new project. The Flying Wrestler‘s Erik Bork, Write-L.A. Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Margaret Moore (romance author) are my main sources for this post. If you’re in a fact chasing mood yourself I really recommend taking a look at their sites.

Types of Inciting Incidents


The Worst Possible Thing has happened

Example: the definining thing about your character is suddenly taken away (like their identity, well being, or mission in life). Woody’s position as Andy’s favorite toy is taken away when Buzz arrives in Toy Story. Bilbo is dragged out of his comfortable Hobbit hole on an adventure in The Hobbit.

Example: your character joins/is thrown into a group, setting, or institution which either seems like a dream opportunity (and will turn out to be the exact opposite) or seems like the worst place to be (and will turn out to have unexpected benefits). Mike and Sully desperately try to work their way to the top in Monsters Inc. Ariel wants to join the ranks of humanity after she falls in love with a human in The Little Mermaid.

Example: an enemy directly threatening your character arises. This is a super common movie theme, everything from The Matrix to The Avengers to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho utilize it. Romantic suspense novels, like Adriana Anders’ Whiteout, use it too.

Example: your character’s deepest, darkest secret is exposed to everyone, or comes back to bite them hard. The 40 Year Old Virgin beats the hell out of this idea. Sarah’s selfish wish gets her brother abducted by goblins in Labyrinth. In romance it could be a secretly failing marriage which needs a dose of good ol’ sexual healing, like When The Duke Returns by Eloisa James. Or something like a mistaken identity, or a secret baby plot.

Example: your character finds out a fact about their life or past which changes everything. In Halloweentown Marnie finds out she’s a witch, from a family of witches. In The Parent Trap, Sharon and Susan meet at a summer camp and figure out they’re identical twins, separated at birth. Percy Jackson discovers he’s a demigod in The Lightning Thief. Beth Randall finds out she’s a half-breed vampire in Dark Lover by J.R. Ward.


The Best Possible Thing has happened

Example: an opportunity for a new identity or way of life comes along for your character/a new mission for them to undertake appears. Emma Woodhouse decides to happily marry off the neighborhood in Emma by Jane Austen. Maria is hired as the nanny for the seven Von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. 

Romance Specific Example: Your character encounters or has a ‘meet cute’ with someone who seems like they could be perfect. Of course it won’t be that simple! Steve saves Mary’s shoe from a runaway dumpster in The Wedding Planner (I adore that movie and always will, fight me on this, I dare you). To avoid suitors or marriage, Maddie has sent letters for years to a completely made up Scottish beau, ‘Captain Logan MacKenzie’. But surprise! The Captain is a real soldier, got every single letter, and appears on her doorstep insisting she keep her promises in When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare. Honestly the meet cute is a romance staple and coming up with the obstacles which separate your characters after the meet is most of the battle anyway.

Example: Something unexplained and MAGICAL happens to your character. Cora wakes up one morning in an alternate magical reality to find out she’s switched places overnight with her otherworld twin, who is married to Prince Noctorno (oh and btw he hates his wife) in Fantastical by Kristen Ashley. Jenna is sick of being a teenager and gets everything she thought she wanted in 13 Going on 30. Fletcher’s son gets tired of him lying and wishes he would only be able to tell the truth in Liar Liar.

Example: an opportunity arises for your character to do the one thing they’ve always wanted. Obstacles making this harder than they hoped will abound. Charlie finds a golden ticket in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Lucy has the chance to land her dream job, if she can only beat Joshua to get it, in The Hating Game by Sally Thorne.

16 thoughts on “An Incendiary Inciting Incident for Your Author Toolbox

  1. Love this post. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the incident in this way. Will certainly keep these ideas when I’m struggling to figure out the conflict my characters face in the next story.
    Congrats on finishing up your story!!!! and you’re not the only one that feels like they are starting over and figuring out how to write when beginning a new book.

  2. I love this post! Starting a novel is one of the most difficult things to do as a writer. We have so many ideas begging for the chance to fall out of a pen, but we hardly ever know where to start.

    Your breakdowns of inciting incidents (and examples) are excellent! I like how you showed the positive and the negative types. I think I tend to start with the negative ones, personally.

    1. The negative ones do make a more compelling story, right from the start. I seem to start with those type too 🙂

    1. This could definitely be because most of the posts I found on the topic were for screenwriters and used movies/TV shows as examples, and I used those posts to organize my thoughts.

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