Young Dorothy wants to run away from home. Later, she’ll move heaven and earth to return home.
Daniel won’t compromise his principles as an artist when he doesn’t like the way he’s directed to play a scene. When he’s later called to play an outrageous roll in order to be close to his children, he’ll perform in any way necessary.
What happens to change the goals/outlooks/lives of these characters?
An inciting incident.
All good stories depend on an inciting incident to get them going.
What distinguishes an inciting incident from other incidents in a story? The inciting incident, the event which jumpstarts the story and prompts protagonists to make lofty goals, is an event which will change a character’s life, his outlook on life or both.
In the Wizard of Oz Dorothy wants to run away from home when a neighbor woman takes away Toto, her dog. Losing her pet is an “incident” in her life, but it isn’t a life changing incident. Landing in Oz is a major event, the inciting incident which is going to change everything about her outlook on life.
In “Mrs. Doubtfire” Daniel gets fired from another acting job because he won’t follow the director’s instructions. Since he has a history of being irresponsible, losing another job is an ordinary incident. When his wife tells him she wants a divorce because she’s tired of his childish behavior, he is faced with a major event in his life, an inciting incident. Everything in his life is going to change.
Usually, an inciting incident will cause characters to set new goals. In “Home Alone,” for example, Kevin’s mother wants nothing more than a nice family Christmas in France, but when she leaves Kevin behind in Chicago (inciting incident) her goal mimic’s Dorothy’s in “Oz.” She will move heaven and earth to get home.
However, an inciting incident can sometimes lead to the fulfillment of a goal. In the Sandra Bullock movie “While You Were Sleeping” she daydreams of having a particular man in her life. One day, out of the blue, this man meets with tragedy, and she saves his life. This inciting incident leads directly to Sandra’s character reaching a goal–sort of. Most definitely, the event changes her life and her outlook on life completely.
When a writer plots a story for screen or novel or short story, whether she’s writing comedy or drama, fantasy or time travel, she chooses a specific event for her protagonist which will challenge him in every way. Then she makes his life really complicated, the more mixed up, twisted up and complex the better–all of it coming from the one major event in the character’s life, the inciting incident.
And, don’t we readers love it?
Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author
To comment on Fran’s blog please click here.