Understand The Inciting Incident

roller coaster full of people upside down

What Is An Inciting Incident?

An inciting incident is a story event that pushes your protagonist out of their everyday world, eventually forcing them to make a choice. It turns their world upside down. That choice is the main thread of your storyline. The inciting incident changes the life of the character and sets them on the story journey.  

In a mystery, after you introduce your protagonist sleuth, the inciting incident connects your detective to the crime that drives your mystery puzzle. 

Not the First, but the Second

The inciting incident is not the hook. The hook at the beginning draws your reader into the story and gets them to care about your character—the one who will lead them through the story. In order for your reader to care about your story, first, they need to know about your detective. Then when the inciting incident occurs, they care. 

The inciting incident comes next, after your reader bonds with your protagonist.

Pro Tip: If you follow Scott Myers, as I do, on Go Into the Story, the terminology can be confusing. He writes about screenwriting. He calls the inciting incident The Hook. He means the thing that hooks the hero into the main story action, not what hooks the audience into the story.

Launch the Main Action of the Story

After you show your protagonist functioning in their everyday world, meeting a minor challenge that displays a skill they will use to solve the mystery puzzle, it’s time to launch them into the story.

The inciting incident is just that: an event that incites them to take action. Your reader sees the challenge and wonders if your character is up to the summons to action. The inciting incident launches the story’s main action and inspires your hero’s motivations in the story. 

Your protagonist sleuth may be winding up another case or on a ski vacation or delivering the wedding cupcakes in their normal world, and then the crime happens. Then, they become involved. The commanding officer sends them on a new investigation, or the local ski lodge owner asks for their help when a guest dies mysteriously, or the cupcake baker’s best friend’s brother died in an auto accident, but she doesn’t believe it’s an accident. 

You get the idea. Something happens that places your sleuth smack dab in the middle of the problem. 

How to Write Your Inciting Incident 

As you plan your story, think of the inciting incident as the disrupter. Whatever is happening in your hero’s world, the inciting incident disturbs the status quo. Be sure that your planning includes five main elements:

  1. Happens early
  2. Interrupts your hero’s life
  3. Out of the character’s control
  4. Requires an urgent response
  5. Creates questions for the reader

Happens Early

Once you’ve introduced your hero and their world, it’s time to get to the story. There’s no hard and fast rule, but the inciting incident usually happens somewhere in the first 30 pages of your novel. You’re leading the hero and your reader from the world that was into the world that will be.

Interrupts Life

From things as usual to a new adventure, the inciting incident interrupts the status quo. Whatever your detective was doing in their regular life, the new crime calls them to something different. It’s not the kind of case they usually handle, or they went on vacation to take a break from solving crime, or they have another wedding that requires new baking.

Out of The Character’s Control 

The inciting incident is one of the few times when your protagonist does not create the action. Yes, you want a proactive hero, but the inciting incident comes from somewhere else. In the mystery genre, someone else asks the detective to solve the crime. In other words, it’s done to not done by your hero. 

Urgent Response

For some genres, urgency can be a challenge for a writer, but not for mystery writers. Your detective needs to get to the crime scene, interview witnesses, and consult with the forensics team. And the person who requested their help will put pressure on them to get the crime solved as quickly as possible.

Creates Reader Questions

The inciting incident creates the central problem of the story. Your reader will wonder if they are up to the task. Will your detective be able to solve a crime they don’t normally handle? How will the sleuth solve a crime out of their jurisdiction without help when they are on vacation? Can a local cupcake queen really get into the nitty-gritty of solving a murder that the police think is an accident? 

Present the Story Problem

The goal of the inciting incident is to present the story problem. An outside force says, here, deal with this. The inciting event’s job is to bridge the opening scene and the core conflict of the novel. It transitions the protagonist into the main plot by giving them an interesting problem that leads to the novel’s bigger issues and themes.

Your protagonist may challenge the inciting incident’s call, but first, you need to start the story by presenting the problem.

Ready to write your mystery? Write A Killer Mystery walks you through all the steps with clear guidance from story idea to The End.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

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