The F Words: Inciting Incident

In fiction the main character experiences an “inciting incident.” The inciting incident is an event — not just any event, but one that propels the main character into the actions that will constitute the story. To state it another way, the inciting incident  (which need not be the first event in the book) triggers the primary actions of the story. 

In The F Words the inciting incident, which thrusts Cole into the actions of the story, is his spray-painting the f word on the brick wall of his high school (not just once, but fifteen times) — and getting caught by Mr. Nachman, his tenth-grade English teacher.

The inciting incident should occur early in the story: within the first three minutes of a movie, and within the first twenty pages of a novel. The inciting incident of The F Words starts on page one. (My attitude is, if you’re going to incite, don’t delay!)

In some novels there is backstory before you get to the inciting incident. But it’s the incident, not the backstory, that propels the main character forward into the conflict/journey/struggle. 

When I first started to write fiction I didn’t put my inciting incident on page one. In She’s on First, I think the inciting incident is in Chapter 2 — when Al Mowerinski signs Linda to play for the Chicago Eagles. Chapter 2 is a long way into the story for an inciting incident. I might have sensed that, because I began the novel with a strong hint of what the inciting incident would be. I then continued with backstory, and in Chapter 2 fulfilled the expectations of the inciting incident.

But by the time I was writing my second novel, Dirty Proof, I had somehow or other decided that the inciting incident should go on the first page of that particular story.

And speaking of page, it’s important for a writer to understand that the best inciting incidents are events/actions that take place on the page (not in summary or narrative or flashback). Not only should the main character experience the inciting incident, but so should the reader. The reader should be able to feel everything the main character feels about that incident, be it fear, surprise, anger, befuddlement.

A writer must make certain that the inciting incident makes the main character act in a way he or she would not have normally acted. Consider the incident of Cole being caught by his English teacher. When he catches Cole in the act of tagging the high school wall with the f word, Mr. Nachman tells Cole he will not report him to the principal if Cole fulfills two conditions. First, he must volunteer to clean the words off the wall. Second, he must, for every week of the school year, write two poems, each about a word that begins with f, and he must hand these in to Mr. Nachman every Friday morning. 

You can see that, had Cole not been caught, he would not have volunteered to clean the spray-painted words off the school wall. Nor would he have volunteered to write two poems a week for his English teacher. The inciting incident pushes Cole into a different set of actions than he would have taken without that incident. Because the inciting incident causes the main character to take actions he wouldn’t have taken otherwise, it causes the character to change — and change is important in fiction. The character on the last page of the story is different from that character as he appears on the first page of the story. He (or she) has undergone a journey and has changed.

At the end of a novel, the reader should be able to see the arc of the journey the main character has undergone. And, it is always rewarding to a reader when she can see the first step of that journey and the inevitable link between the first step and the conclusion.

The importance of the inciting incident can’t be overestimated. Yes, it grabs reader attention and kicks off the story. But more than that, it draws a line between the character’s previous life and this moment: Now. In fiction the inciting incident and its results change the character’s life forever.

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