Insights into Your Inciting Incident

I want to take a look today at your inciting incident (since it’s one of the ten key scenes you need to have in your first layer when plotting with my layering method.

Since I did a lot of posts on the ten key scenes you need to layer in first, I’m not going to go over all that. If you don’t want to wait for my book Layer Your Novel to come out to start mastering your turning points and pinch points and midpoint and twists, jump into those posts and be sure to download my ten key scene chart.

While not every novel is going to follow this basic novel structure (and I’ll be sharing some examples and how, if you are writing in certain genres, you can tweak this framework), I’d suggest you at least start by identifying, at very least, those basic key scenes.

Let’s first consider the inciting incident. Every great novel is going to have something happen at the start of the book that sets up the premise. Most novels will have that inciting incident (or opportunity, or initial disturbance) that shifts the character’s focus from their ordinary life or routine or opinion and gets them turning in a new direction.

This can be big or subtle. It may be one specific scene; it may take place over a few scenes. It all depends on your story. But it needs to be at the start of your novel.

This should answer this oft-asked question: Where should I start my story?

Why, at or directly before the inciting incident.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

A lot of beginning writers spend chapters setting up their world and characters, explaining the backstory, and boring their readers. Your job as an expert storyteller requires you to know your world and characters and all their backstory but to hold back almost all of it. And especially in the opening chapters.

What do I mean here? Most of the info you create on your world and characters should inform the story. It should seep through your characters’ attitudes, dialogue, behavior, thought processes. Not told about. Readers want to watch and learn about your characters as they act, respond, process, and opine on what goes on around them.

Too many beginning writers are missing the boat on this very simple structural rule. Just start the story in action, showing something “already happening” in your protagonist’s life in a way that reveals him and his situation. Objective: to get your reader to know him ASAP and to care about what happens to him.

What the “Setup” Is All About

The setup is tricky but essential to nail. You have to be concise, succinct, and deliberate on what you show and tell about your character. Because . . . you don’t want to take a whole lot of time (numerous chapters) to do this. Little bits, small tells, that quickly get your reader on board with your protagonist.

So really, coming up with a starting point for your novel shouldn’t be all that hard. Opening scene: set up your protagonist, then hit him with the inciting incident. (Now, you may have an opening scene, such as a prologue, that doesn’t feature your protagonist, so I’m talking about the first scene with your protagonist, which, if it isn’t the first scene, should be the second scene.)

I just read The Fault in Our Stars, a YA contemporary novel by John Green about two teens with cancer who fall in love. A challenging story because, well, it’s a depressing topic. So while, one assumes, it would be easy to write a novel that quickly gets the reader to pity the heroine, Hazel, the last thing an author wants for his characters is pity.

The inciting incident, since this is a romance, is “the meet.” (If you want more on romance structure and layering with my 20 scene romance chart, read this post, to start.) So the opening scene shows how Hazel meets Gus.

That opening setup scene has to get readers to like and care about Hazel, and Green, a master wordsmith and fabulous writer, gets across Hazel’s character powerfully and quickly.

Think about it. Here’s a sixteen-year-old girl who basically has a death sentence and has been around dying kids for a few years. She doesn’t get to have a normal life. She doesn’t get to think happily about her future because she probably won’t live into adulthood. To survive, she has to cop a certain hard attitude, yet, for readers to like her, she has to have a measure of self-deprecation balanced with yearning, angst, and misery.

I’m going to share the opening page or two so you can see what a great job Green did in inspiring empathy in readers as well as setting up Hazel’s health, relationship with family, attitude about life, and the situation she is in that becomes the inciting incident.

NOTE: I’m putting in bold all the important elements that being set up and that come into play strongly in the plot or serve as repetitive motifs (the latter are important to set up in the opening scene).


Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.) But my mom believed I required treatment, so she took me to see my Regular Doctor Jim, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my meds should be adjusted and also I should attend a weekly Support Group.

This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying.

The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church
shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.

I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus
every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred heart and whatever.

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and
lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story— how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.


Then we introduced ourselves: Name. Age. Diagnosis. And how we’re doing today. I’m Hazel, I’d say when they’d get to me. Sixteen.
Thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs. And I’m doing okay.

Once we got around the circle, Patrick always asked if anyone wanted to share. And then began the circle jerk of support: everyone
talking about fighting and battling and winning and shrinking and scanning. To be fair to Patrick, he let us talk about dying, too. But most of them weren’t dying. Most would live into adulthood, as Patrick had.

(Which meant there was quite a lot of competitiveness about it, with everybody wanting to beat not only cancer itself, but also the other people in the room. Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five … so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlast four of these bastards.)

The only redeeming facet of Support Group was this kid named Isaac, a long-faced, skinny guy with straight blond hair swept over one eye.

And his eyes were the problem. He had some fantastically improbable eye cancer. One eye had been cut out when he was a kid, and now he wore the kind of thick glasses that made his eyes (both the real one and the glass one) preternaturally huge, like his whole head was basically just this fake eye and this real eye staring at you. From what I could gather on the rare occasions when Isaac shared with the group, a recurrence had placed his remaining eye in mortal peril.

Isaac and I communicated almost exclusively through sighs. Each time someone discussed anticancer diets or snorting ground-up shark fin or whatever, he’d glance over at me and sigh ever so slightly. I’d shake my head microscopically and exhale in response.

So Support Group blew, and after a few weeks, I grew to be rather kicking-and-screaming about the whole affair. In fact, on the Wednesday I made the acquaintance of Augustus Waters, I tried my level best to get out of Support Group while sitting on the couch with my mom in the third leg of a twelve-hour marathon of the previous season’s America’s Next Top Model, which admittedly I had already seen, but still.

Me: “I refuse to attend Support Group.”Mom: “One of the symptoms of depression is disinterest in activities.”
Me: “Please just let me watch America’s Next Top Model. It’s an activity.”
Mom: “Television is a passivity.”
Me: “Ugh, Mom, please.”Mom: “Hazel, you’re a teenager. You’re not a little kid anymore. You need to make friends, get out of the house, and live your life.”
Me: “If you want me to be a teenager, don’t send me to Support Group. Buy me a fake ID so I can go to clubs, drink vodka, and take
Mom: “You don’t take pot, for starters.”
Me: “See, that’s the kind of thing I’d know if you got me a fake ID.”
Mom: “You’re going to Support Group.”
Mom: “Hazel, you deserve a life.”

That shut me up, although I failed to see how attendance at Support Group met the definition of life. Still, I agreed to go—after
negotiating the right to record the 1.5 episodes of ANTM I’d be missing.

I went to Support Group for the same reason that I’d once allowed nurses with a mere eighteen months of graduate education to poison me with exotically named chemicals: I wanted to make my parents happy. There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.

 I hope you were as “wowed” by this opening as I was. Do we like Hazel? Of course. Yes, we feel pity for her. But we feel more.

She is tough, snarky, but also so sensitive. Doesn’t it just break your heart to read that line about her wanting to make her parents happy? She often thinks (and the scenes show) about how much her parents are in anguish over Hazel’s cancer and impending death. She hates that she is putting them through this, through no fault of her own (yes, it is the fault of the stars—sorry, Shakespeare, you’re wrong here).

Her sense of humor is tainted with heavy cynicism, and rightly so. But we don’t blame her for that. In fact, we applaud her use of it to stay brave.

The meet? She’s already talking about when she met Augustus (Gus), the love interest, close to page 1, but then we get to watch her play out the scene in which she meets him, shortly after this intro. In fact, the purpose of chapter one is to reveal the meet.

But it’s also, as I said, meant to hook you into the story via Hazel’s character.

All this to say: you need to start your novel where it needs to start, and that’s right at or shortly before the inciting incident. This is the first of five important turning points you need in your novel, and I’ll be exploring this deeply in my upcoming release Layer Your Novel. Get YOURS HERE! 

Don’t have an inciting incident? Then you have a BIG problem.

Sure, as a caveat I will say that I imagine there are some terrific novels floating around out there without inciting incidents. But honestly, I can’t think of any. Can you?

What’s your inciting incident? How does it set up your premise? Does it show up in the first scene or two with your protagonist? Share some of your thoughts on this in the comments.

12 Responses to “Insights into Your Inciting Incident”

  1. Ed Markel August 14, 2017 at 11:44 am #

    Ms.Lakin, this is the best explanation of what an inciting incident is and where to put it I have ever read. Most “how to write” advice is confusing to me on these two points. And the excerpt from “The Fault in Our Stars” makes me want to read it right now. But I will instead buy it and read it later and then go back to writing my WIP. Thanks for another great blog. You’re the best!

    Ed Markel
    Co-author of “The Menopause Murders”

    • cslakin August 14, 2017 at 11:57 am #

      Thank you, Mr. Markel. Looking forward to working with you on your next book at the boot camp!

      • Ed Markel August 14, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

        Me, too. “King of Hearts,” or whatever the final title is, should be an fun read, with your help.

  2. Kate August 14, 2017 at 3:18 pm #

    I come from screenwriting, where structure was drilled into us. I found a way to think of the inciting incident as an event that throws the main character’s world off-balance and makes her try in vain to recapture her normal world as it was. But she can’t turn back. She’s forced to learn new lessons and skills that will change who and what she becomes by the ending. It has become the simplest way for me to clarify the inciting incident as a catalyst of story trajectory that also forces the character on her journey (usually to transformation). The appearance of the “Alien” changes everything for Ripley, who has to become braver, stronger, smarter to survive. “The Martian” is abandoned, and will test his skills and courage in order to endure and leave Mars. Marriage, divorce, a new job, a meeting, a competition–just some events that can kick off a comic, dramatic or tragic adventure. You’re so right that inciting incidents are absolutely essential to define.

    • cslakin August 14, 2017 at 4:17 pm #

      Thanks for sharing that, Kate! I use The Martian as an example in numerous places in Layer Your Novel. It’s a terrifically structured story.

  3. Victoria Marie Lees August 16, 2017 at 9:23 am #

    The inciting incident does in fact kick off the story present. In my memoir about attending college as a mother of five, the inciting incident is when the school counselor informs me that my special needs daughter couldn’t handle college [that’s what my father had told me all those years ago] and that my daughter needs to stick with special ed classes in high school. The counselor makes me sign a paper saying I’m responsible for my daughter passing high school, not the Special Ed team because I wanted my daughter in regular classes as much as possible. Hence, I needed to face my own fears about failing in college in order to help my daughter succeed in high school and beyond.

    Thanks for a great post. I’ve shared it online.

  4. Adam Blumer August 24, 2017 at 5:51 am #

    Thank you for the post and the example. I hate to be the dissenter here, but I’m not sure I even see the inciting incident in the example, but maybe I missed it. Her normal is cancer, and the support group, sure, goes along with that and lets us know about snarky Hazel and her life and people she meets. But I’m waiting for the event that turns her world upside down and makes her go in a new direction. I must be blind because I don’t see it. So the cancer diagnosis is the inciting incident before the novel starts? I guess I’m confused. Sorry.

    • John Whitten January 21, 2022 at 8:56 am #

      I agree. I had the same opinion as I read it–the excerpt was primarily setting up the story’s stasis (ordinary world). I also have a son who died from leukemia, so I am heavily steeped in both the experience and the drill. But, I think and agree that it’s important to set it up for the reader and give them a taste of what it’s like for the protag before moving them into the rest of the story.

  5. Freya Shipley January 6, 2020 at 1:58 pm #

    Your blog is wonderful, and now I’m working through the even-more-inspiring “Layer Your Novel”. Thank you so much for everything!

    I’m currently outlining Joan Aiken’s MG novel “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” to get insight into its (amazingly economical and powerful) structure. I’m having trouble pinpointing the Inciting Incident. Before the novel begins, the villains have hatched their villainous plan to murder our heroine’s family and steal her estate. As the book begins, that scheme is already underway, but our main character doesn’t fully realize it until the Midpoint. From the beginning of the book to the Midpoint, the two main characters meet each other and respond to challenges in the moment, but they don’t seem to have a clear goal (because they don’t yet know what’s going on around them).

    Could the Inciting Incident be any of these?
    •The anatgonist arrives on the scene. (Even though the other characters don’t yet know she’s the anatagonist.)
    •The 2 heroines meet for the first time and join forces (even though they don’t yet know that they’ll soon be fighting as a team for their lives).
    *The good-guy adults all depart, leaving our 2 heroines alone with the villains.

    None of those feels quite right to me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    • freya shipley January 6, 2020 at 2:00 pm #

      PS: Is it possible for the Inciting Incident to happen before the story starts?

      • cslakin January 6, 2020 at 4:17 pm #

        Nope. See my other comment. Things can happen before the book starts that has the character involved in something. But it’s the inciting incident that shifts her direction in a way that plays out the premise.

    • cslakin January 6, 2020 at 4:16 pm #

      If a novel is structured well, the inciting incident will be clear. It should take place by the 10% mark, and it moves the character in a new direction. So it needs to be an actual development (disturbance, opportunity, etc.). It could be when two characters meet so long as something happens when they meet that, again, moves the protagonist in a new direction. Thanks for the kind words about my blog and book! I have about a million words of instruction on Live Write Thrive, so dig in!

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