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The inciting incident can be a controversial (or misunderstood) part of the novel. What makes an inciting incident? Where should it happen? Find out today!

What Is the Inciting Incident?

The inciting incident is the event that moves your plot from exposition to rising action. Something happens which sets the rest of the plot into motion.

a plot diagram with the inciting incident labelled

If you’re looking at a plot diagram, it’s the point where the exposition ends and you start moving up (the rising action begins).

Ideally, the inciting incident should occur no later than 15% into your novel. Let’s break that down – if your novel is 90,000 words, the inciting incident should occur before 13,500 words.

Don’t confuse your inciting incident with your hook. Your hook should occur right away and it’s something to intrigue the readers. Your inciting incident is a turning point at the beginning of the plot – it’s where the protagonist’s life/world/something could change.

Not sure what elements make up a plot? Check out the Guide to Plot!

Elements of a Strong Inciting Incident

There are four elements that almost every successful inciting incident will have.

#1 – It has Urgency

Your inciting incident has to affect the protagonist soon (the sooner the better).

How soon?

a) The world will end at some point if you don’t find the secret elixir.

This is a vague timeline that implies some time in the future. Your protagonist might want to prevent the world from ending but it’s not going to be an urgent priority. This week they have a lot to do so maybe they’ll start looking for the elixir next week.

b) The world will end in 204 years if you don’t find the secret elixir.

204 years is a long time. Well beyond the protagonists’ life. This is another case of maybe they’ll start when they get back from vacation or something. Or they’ll be selfish and never do it because it doesn’t really affect them.

c) The world will end in 2 years and 12 days if you don’t find the secret elixir.

This is still too far away to create a sense of urgency. 2 years and 12 days is tons of time to find the elixir, there’s no reason your protagonist can’t also take that vacation to Hawaii next month and then start looking.

d) The world will end in 2 days if you don’t find the secret elixir.

2 days? 2 days? It’ll never happen! Your protagonist will have to focus all their energy on finding the elixir without distraction or else the world will end! This is urgency.

Now, 2 days is an extreme case. Depending on your novel the timeline might be more or less but the effects of the inciting incident are always going to be soon enough to drive urgency.

#2 – It Raises Questions

This is why your readers keep reading. If your inciting incident doesn’t provide questions for the reader, why would they keep reading?

Remember this is happening really early in your novel so the reader isn’t invested in either the characters or the plot. You need to be providing a reason to keep reading.

#3 – It Provides Deep Character Information

Who are your characters? Not a list of their names, but who are they as people (or whatever beings you’re writing about)?

The inciting incident should provide information about your main character types. Not just any information but something deep. How they react to the inciting incident should provide valuable information about something deep like their weaknesses, values, flaws, strengths, etc.,

#4 It’s Life-Changing

The inciting incident needs to change the main characters life. It’s likely also going to change the lives of the other major character types as well. Without the inciting incident, there would little or no change in the main characters life. The change in the character’s life is what drives the plot of a novel forward.

a neon sign that says GO UP AND NEVER STOP

Inciting Incident Examples

Let’s evaluate the inciting incidents of bestselling and award-winning modern fiction.


The cover for the bestselling novel ME BEFORE YOU

ME BEFORE YOU, published in 2012, is a women’s fiction novel by Jojo Moyes. ME BEFORE YOU is book 1 of the Me Before You Trilogy.

ME BEFORE YOU spent 7 weeks at #1 on the NYT Bestseller List. It has sold over 14 million copies worldwide. The movie was released in 2016.

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident of ME BEFORE YOU occurs when Lou and Will meet. ME BEFORE YOU is about 123,000 words and the inciting incident starts around the 10,000th word (about 8% into the novel). It’s a short scene of about 500 words.

#1 It has Urgency

The urgency is established earlier – Lou needs this job. She can’t afford for it to not work out.

#2 It Raises Questions

The scene is short but the reader is left wondering several things. Can Lou handle the job? Why did Will make those sounds? Why won’t his mother look at him? Why does he have a ‘latest’ minder?

#3 It Provides Deep Character Information

We learn about Will, without being expressly told anything (he enjoyed making Lou uncomfortable).

We learn about Lou (she’s easily timid).

“I—I’m Lou.” My voice, uncharacteristically tremulous, broke into the silence.

We get information about the mother (she wouldn’t look at Will).

#4 It’s Life-Changing

What’s more life-changing than the person you fall in love with? Love gives someone else parts of your life – they can help you or hurt you. It enriches you and makes you vulnerable. Lou’s life will never be the same after meeting Will.


THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, published in 2015, is a mystery, thriller & suspense novel by Paula Hawkins. The movie was released in 2016.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN spent 26 weeks at #1 on the NYT bestseller list. It had sold an estimated 15 million copies worldwide by October 2016.

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN occurs when Rachel goes to see Jason. This is also when Jess/Meghan goes missing (although we don’t learn that until later in the book). THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is about 102,000 words and the inciting incident starts around the 12,000th word (about 12% into the novel). It’s a short scene of just over 400 words.

#1 It has Urgency

This is clearly a bad idea but Rachel can’t stop herself. Her alcoholism, obsession and sense of failure are all driving her to act now, now, now.

#2 It Raises Questions

So many questions!

What happened to Rachel? Was her husband cheating on her and leaving her to start a new family really enough to drive her to this point? Who’s the man on the train? Is he smiling at her?

But the most important one – what happens when Rachel gets off the train?

#3 It Provides Deep Character Information

The inciting incident demonstrates how deeply troubled and obsessive Rachel is. She’s transferred her issues to “Jess” and “Jason” and it’s furthering her own decline.

#4 It’s Life-Changing

This decision changes the trajectory of Rachel’s life. In the short-term (the length of the novel), it gives her life a renewed purpose. She’s still a troubled, obsessed alcoholic but she’s no longer meandering through life. She ends up focused on an action. Over the course of the entire novel, this one decision ultimately leads to a new Rachel.


The cover for the award winning novel

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, published in 2016, is a historical fiction novel by Colson Whitehead. Amazon Studios is planning a limited drama series based on the novel.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction.

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident of THE Underground Railroad occurs when Cora intervenes in another slaves beating. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is about 87,000 words and the inciting incident starts around the 9,400th word (about 11% into the novel). It’s a very short scene of just under 200 words.

#1 It has Urgency

The reader knows that bad things are going to happen to Cora – and they’re going to happen now.

Cora is a slave. It’s not safe for her to protect anyone, but especially not protect them from the slave-owners.

The reader knows that Cora was offered an opportunity to escape and now they’re hoping she takes it.

#2 It Raises Questions

Will Cora live? Will she escape now? How?

#3 It Provides Deep Character Information

At the start, Cora seemed accepting of her life. Bad things happened, but that was just the way it was.

When Cora intervenes, it demonstrates that deep down she’s not as accepting of her life as she’s always thought.

#4 It’s Life-Changing

There’s really no way for Cora to go back. Everyone is always going to know that she intervened. Her life will be permanently changed no matter what happens next.


The cover for the award winning novel ANCILLARY JUSTICE

ANCILLARY JUSTICE, published in 2013, is a Science Fiction novel by Ann Leckie. It’s book 1 in the Ancillary World trilogy.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE won the 2014 Hugo Award. Fox Television Studies has purchased the option to create a TV series.

The Inciting Incident

Sometimes, novels just don’t conform and Ancillary Justice is one of them.

The inciting incident of ANCILLARY JUSTICE occurs before the book begins and is presented to the reader later. The first 15 chapters of the novel alternate between the present and prior to the inciting incident. Odd chapters show the present and even chapters show the buildup to the inciting incident. The inciting incident is shown to us in chapter 16.

The inciting incident when Justice of Toren decides to shoot Lieutenant Awn and Anaander Mianaai.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE is about 108,000 words and the inciting incident is revealed around the 68,200th word (about 63% into the novel). It’s a scene of about 1,200 words.

#1 It has Urgency

The inciting incident lacks urgency because you know (at least somewhat) what happens. “Breq” gets away. She remains alone. If the inciting incident hadn’t occurred over halfway through the novel, it might have felt urgent.

#2 It Raises Questions

The inciting incident of ANCILLARY JUSTICE doesn’t raise questions – it answers them. It’s when we finally learned what happened and why Breq is on her current mission (for lack of a better word).

#3 It Provides Deep Character Information

While the inciting incident does offer a moment of clarity, it does not add further depth to our characters.

#4 It’s Life-Changing

This is the only element that ANCILLARY JUSTICE does have. Justice of Toren is fractured apart here. Its life is forever changed. From here on out, we have a better understanding of how life changed for “Breq.”

a typewriter

Inciting Incident Writing Practice

Practice makes perfect so let’s do some writing exercises and prompts for the inciting incident.

Exercise: Analyze More Novels

It’s time to analyze more novels. Choose a few of your favorite novels and a few novels in the genre you write in.

How does each novel use (or skip) the 4 elements of the inciting incident?

  • It has urgency
  • It raises questions
  • It provides deep character information
  • It’s life-changing

Exercise: LITTLE RED Adaptation

What is the inciting incident of Little Red?

Today, you should expand the LITTLE RED story by rewriting (or adding? no spoilers here!) the inciting incident. Make sure to include the 4 elements.

Exercise: Analyze or Create Yours

If you’ve completed a novel, take a look at it. Where is the inciting incident? Does it have the four elements? Why or why not? Now’s a great time to make any necessary edits.

If you have an idea you’d like to write, plan out the inciting incident (just like with the Red adaptation).

Where to Write?

For a full-length novel, I prefer Scrivener. However, you can write in any word processor (Microsoft, Google, whatever).

For short writing exercises and writing prompts? I prefer to write by hand. I feel more connected (and less likely to edit). Plus, I can carry a notebook around with me and write anywhere. Check out these (cheap & fun) notebooks.

The Inciting Incident is Important

Pin This: How to Write an Inciting Incident (The inciting incident is when a novel goes from setup to stuff happening. Master it today with examples, prompts, and exercises).

The inciting incident is when your novel goes from setup to stuff is happening. The best way to make sure your novel is interesting is to make sure your inciting incident includes the four elements above.

Once you understand the inciting incident, it’s time to move on. Check out How to Write Rising Action next.

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Pin This: How to Write a Book (Want to learn how to write a book? Check out this comprehensive list of resources for novel writing (like outlining, plot, character development, and more).


Pin This: How to Write Rising Action (rising action is a crucial part of your novel. Learn about the 4 ways it works).

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