Commandment Number One

The inciting incident is the big event scene that kicks off your story.

It is also an equal or somewhat lesser event scene that opens your Middle Build or Ending Payoff.

It is an even smaller event scene that kicks off a sequence.

It is also a minor event that destabilizes a supporting scene within a sequence.

And lastly, the smallest inciting incident is an action in a beat that unsettles the relationship between two characters.

No matter the unit of story (beat, scene, sequence, act, or global Story) what the inciting incident must do is upset the life balance of your lead protagonist/s. It must make them uncomfortably out of sync…for good or for ill.

An inciting incident can occur in one of two ways:

  1. Cause
  2. Coincidence

A causal inciting incident is the result of an active choice—a wife leaves her husband, a man enlists in the Marines, a dentist molests a patient he’s put under anesthesia.

A coincidental inciting incident is when something unexpected or random or accidental happens—a simple man wins the lottery, a woman takes the wrong suitcase at an airport, a piano falls out of a window and kills a man’s dog.

What your choice of inciting incidents in every unit of story (beat, scene, sequence, act, and global story) must do is arouse a reaction by your Protagonist. For the examples above: perhaps, the man resolves to get his wife back, the recruit decides to fight against his Paris Island instructor, the patient hires a detective to investigate the dentist, the lottery winner decides to give away all the money, the woman with the wrong suitcase decides to keep it, the man who barely escapes the piano quits his job.

Obviously, the most crucial inciting incident you must choose is the event for the beginning hook. If you have a weak hook, no matter the genre (even the most mini of miniplots requires a compelling hook), there is little that can be done editorially to make your story work.  Unless you start over.

Remember also that how your character acts—and refusing to do anything is an action too, especially in miniplot stories…it’s actively hiding—must be in tune with your choice of external and internal genres.

That is, the inciting incident of a global story must make a promise to the reader…the ending. The ending must be a perfectly reasonable and inevitable result of the inciting incident. But it must also be surprising. If it is not surprising, it will not drive anyone to recommend it to his friend to read. Don’t promise something and then not deliver it. That is the telltale mark of writer writing a book that will not work, no matter how great bits and pieces are within.

Many genres have conventional inciting incidents that set up obligatory climaxes. If you’re writing a murder mystery, the inciting incident must be the discovery of a dead body. The climax of the mystery will be the solving of the crime. If you’re writing a love story, the inciting incident will be when the lovers meet. The climax of the love story will be the answer to whether or not the couple stays together. If you’re writing a horror novel, the inciting incident will be an attack by the monster, which sets up the obligatory climax, which is the ultimate confrontation between your lead character victim and the seemingly indestructible monster from your inciting incident.

Without inciting incidents, a writer has nothing…just a collection of riffs that don’t add up in any coherent way…character sketches or meticulous Proustian descriptions of inanimate objects that have zero emotional payoff. That kind of writing is what most people think of when they think of what a writer with a capital “W” is and does. But being able to put words together in unique and poetic ways without anything happening that requires an action or reaction on the part of your cast of characters is not storytelling. It is showing off your way with words, gold plating inertia. As Truman Capote said so well “that’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Without an inciting incident nothing meaningful can happen. And when nothing meaningful happens, it’s not a story.

To put it in Hollywood terms, the inciting incident is the High Concept for every unit of your story, the golden “What if?” It’s the intriguing lure to get people to care not only about what you are going to tell them right now, but also what you are going to tell them later. If you are writing a novel and your inciting incidents are ho-hum, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of pain. You’ll twist and turn inside trying to use language as a crutch to inflate the importance of trivial events.

Instead why not take the time before you write anything be it a beat, a scene, a sequence, an act, a subplot or the global story, and make sure that your inciting incident is compelling and appropriate for the unit of story you are about to tell. Remember that every unit of story has an inciting incident. So every scene you put in your Story has to have one, no matter its position on the work’s progressively complicated hierarchy.

Years ago I had the surreal experience of working with Bill Murray on a book project. One day we were having a cup of coffee. I’d just returned from doing a lot of talking at a sales conference and my voice was shot. Bill laughed and told me I sounded like Mike Ovitz back when he worked with him.

“He spoke very softly so you’d really have to concentrate to make out what he was saying.”

I asked what happened to that relationship. Bill no longer works with an agent, he just sort of lets people find him and offer him stuff to work on. If he likes the idea of it, the What if? he’ll do it. If he doesn’t, he won’t.

Bill explained to me that Ovitz called him one day and told him that he’d met with a studio and pitched an idea to them that they loved. They were willing to write Bill a big check if he signed on to the project. Bill asked Ovitz what the idea was and he simply said “Bill Murray and an Elephant.”

While not even close to half-baked, that five-word phrase inspired an inciting incident that Bill found attractive. All they needed now was for someone to bang on a word processor for a few months and they’d be ready to go. Roy Blount Jr., a wonderful writer and author of my favorite sports nonfiction About Three Bricks Shy of a Load was given that impossible task.

Blount took that single phrase and spinned it into the far more fleshed out conceit “a down on his luck motivational speaker finds out that his father has left him a huge inheritance…the twist is that his father was a circus promoter and the son’s inheritance is an elephant…”

They did make that movie. It was called Larger than Life and unfortunately, it bombed.

Soon after that experience, Bill decided he could make those kinds of mistakes himself. He didn’t need an agent to do it for him. From that point forward Bill decided to only talk to the creators of material directly. If he gets a good feeling about the writer/director and their commitment to the story (and of course what they’ve put down on actual paper) not just the inciting incident but the whole story, he’ll do it. If he doesn’t, he won’t.

But getting Bill to talk to you is a whole other story. I left a message for him about five years ago and I’m still waiting for him to return the call. So Bill, if you’re reading this, could you mail me back that laptop I lent you before you left for Tokyo?

Again, global inciting incidents are most often determined by the genre the writer chooses. But what about the great American novels? What were their inciting incidents?

The Great Gatsby—The cousin of a man’s long lost love moves next door to him.

Moby Dick—a young man gets a job on a monomaniac’s whale ship

Catch-22—fighter pilot can’t get grounded for being crazy because he says he’s crazy and crazy people don’t know they’re crazy.

These are examples of global inciting incidents. Like the peanut butter that lures a mouse into a mousetrap, the global inciting incident must be irresistible to the writer’s intended audience. And yes, even the big literary writers have an intended audience.

But alas, a fantastic global inciting incident does not make for a slam-dunk commercial success. You must load every beat, scene, sequence, and act with tantalizing inciting incidents to keep the reader turning pages or to keep the viewer in their seat. Creating these kinds of inciting incidents are all about zigging when the reader expects a zag. They require singular imagination. Ideally, the writer fulfills the conventions of a particular genre’s obligatory inciting incidents in a completely unique way. A way that the reader never sees coming.

Here’s some advice…

Mix up your inciting incidents. Don’t make them all causal or all coincidental. When the reader is expecting a causal event, swap in a coincidence and vice versa.

Next up is Commandment Number Two, Progressive Complication.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

28 comments on “Commandment Number One

  1. While I’ve been clear about the hook and the first plot point, I think one of my writing weaknesses is not injecting enough of these into beats and scenes. Perhaps my books are short because I’m not complicating my character’s lives enough.

    This is where memories of raising teenagers would come in handy. Every time they thought they were smarter than the old man I found a way to whip the rug out from under them.

    Guess my characters will just have to be a new batch of teenagers dressed up as adults.

  2. Michael Beverly says:

    I’m writing these few pages of back story so I can present the serial killer kidnapping the twins and placing them in a cave on a deserted island before one escapes and the other succumbs to my treachery….

    Chapter One [present day]:
    Main character blows out the candles of her birthday cake and wishes to herself, if only my beautiful sister, who I lost oh so many years ago, was here to celebrate…

    So, question, I’ve noticed this device is almost automatic in some genre books, it’s in The Da Vinci Code, it’s in so many thrillers, etc., in the book I’m in the middle of reading now, Mystic River, the story opens some 20 years before the actual story, with a boy being abducted, which ends up being a major part of the characters lives as the story continues “in the present day”; so is this:

    A., a good and accepted way to present the hook
    B. cheesy and contrived
    C. maybe one or the other, depending?

    I guess I’m conflicted because in some books it seems like if the author doesn’t use this device, he’s going to have to have a bunch of flashbacks, like in the case of Mystic River, the abduction is a major influence, but on the other hand, sometimes when I pick up a random book and I read some cheesy prologue, I’m just done.

    Oh, thinking further, forgive my wordiness, in Twilight, I don’t know if the editor just did this, or what, but the book opens with some actual text from later in the book, they just grabbed an exciting scene, “Oh, the drama, I loved him and he was about to bite me after I looked into his eyes….” I’m making fun, but I loved the book…

    So, right after this hook, we enter the story, which, like all openings trying to introduce “things as they are” is a bit slow at first…so to hook the reader, we get a little taste of something that’s coming later.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Michael,
      Yeah, what most often happens is that when a novel is first turned in to the editor, itt starts a little slowly so the editor suggests a prologue to jump start the story. That jump start serves as the global inciting incident as well as a means to create a little forced suspense/mystery to keep the reader glued to the first few scenes. There is certainly no crime in doing that kind of edit (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done it myself), but it is a bit of a cheat. You mentioned that you’ve recently read William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN, the novel. Check out the inciting incident in that book. It literally starts the whole story. Without Zell’s brother/uncle/father (don’t remember which) dying in that car crash, Zell would have stayed in South America. That was a terrific opener because it seems like a random act of road rage when it fact it turns out to upend a whole slew of lives and indicts the U.S.’s dirty deals with Nazis too. MM is one of my top thrillers of all time.

    2. Jule Kucera says:

      Hi Michael,
      As I was halfway through your question, it started to feel familiar. The reason it felt familiar was because someone else asked me this same question today (different content but it feels the same) and my answer was, “If you’re asking the question the odds are good that you already know the answer, it’s just not the answer you want.”

      And since I don’t feel very helpful by writing that, let me offer this encouragement from Annie Dillard, from THE WRITING LIFE, because she’s an exquisite writer and because this forum could stand a little estrogen, for balance:

      “The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving may years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay , or everything else will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.”

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Yes, I was kind of knowing both the answer and the thought that maybe there isn’t exactly “an answer”…

        Take Twilight, for instance. Did it have to have that excerpt in the front of the book?

        No, it was totally cheesy, completely melodramatic, and so forth.

        But it worked for a hook. It worked for me, and the million gadzillion teenage girls that loved the book.

        If anything, it promised that if you started reading, you’d get to the juicy stuff sooner or later.

        I suppose marketing plays a role. I was reading some stuff by Sol Stein, and he mentioned this study they did, he was part of it, where they watched people pick up books in a bookstore and they realized that people would open, start reading, and in a few moments they’d either put it down or buy it.

        So, I guess, in a way, that opening hook/scene or even excerpt is a little bit like a commercial, if it doesn’t grab the reader you’re done (unless you already have an audience).

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Yes very true Michael. It’s like anything else. If you meet a stranger and they bore the Hell out of you in the first 30 seconds of the interaction, chances are you’ll excuse yourself and look for someone else to talk to. Same with a Story.
          All the best

  3. Micky Wolf says:

    Lots to digest. Savoring each entree you put out there.

  4. Steve Stroble says:

    In your article, I did not get hooked until you told the story about Bill Murray, but maybe that’s because he’s 1 of my favorite actors and I think Larger Than Life is 1 of his best movies. My point is, the hook for me did not happen until about halfway through your article.
    So, is it possible that what hooks some readers is missed, misunderstood, or even flat out rejected as “just filler” by other readers? In other words, do we need to put in as many hooks as you call for because only a certain percentage of the entire readership will take it hook, line, and sinker as the rest swim by without a second glance?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Steve,
      Well, yeah. Could I have led with BILL MURRAY!! GET YOUR BILL MURRAY STORY HERE!! Sure I could have, but the blog isn’t really about me or the books I’ve worked on the past. It’s about the editorial process. So when I write one of these things I think about who I want to attract. Do I want to attract the people who just want to read another wacky Bill Murray story? Or do I want to attract fellow Story Nerds who want the true gen with a dollop of fun every now and then? I think you know where I stand.
      So the inciting incidents are crucial of course to the audience you want to attract. And the genre in which you’ve chosen to explore. It all comes down to Genre. This blog ain’t in the ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT genre, it’s in the BLUE COLLAR WRITER arena. So trying to pull in the big crowd with a headline that uses Bill Murray isn’t going to help me all that much. Or more importantly…YOU! And it just exploits Bill, who gets exploited enough.
      All the best,

      1. Jule Kucera says:

        Shawn, these posts educate me but this–your response– touched my soul. And why is that? Because I have always felt that writers are special (and they are, of course), some sort of sanctified being graced by Tinkerbell or Glinda with fairy dust and alas, I had not been sprinkled. But this I can do. I can be an apprentice Blue Collar Writer. I can grab my toolbox, put on my Carhartt, and do the work. This I can learn.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Absolutely Jule. The dust sprinklers leave the birth-anointed who do not work in favor of those who do.

  5. Mary Doyle says:

    I have much work to do to build additional inciting incidents into my scenes. Thank you for the clarification – I wouldn’t have figured this out on my own. I’m curious to know your position on this – is it possible for an inciting incident to happen before the story begins? I remember reading (I think it was in McKee’s “Story,” but I couldn’t find it for reference) that the inciting incident in Judith Guest’s “Ordinary People” was the accidental death of the oldest son, which took place prior to the start of the story. The younger son’s return home from the mental hospital at the beginning of the novel is also an inciting incident, but…well, to borrow from Joel a week or so back, I think my head is going to explode! Thanks for all of this though!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      The thing about all of this stuff is that you could go crazy if you keep it too close to you when you are writing. Remember that the bottom line is whether or not the story Works or Doesn’t Work. If it doesn’t work, it’s then the time to put on the editor hat. When you are writing your first draft, let yourself write. The thing to remember is that all of this jargon and theory I’m writing about is hardwired into each and every human being. So when you are drafting something, you won’t be able to help putting in an inciting incident and all the rest of it.
      Now when you have a draft in hand, this is the time to actually figure out what it is your “unconscious” mind did when it was writing. You’ll be amazed at what you did without even knowing it.
      Steve Pressfield and I laugh about this all the time. Once you write enough, you begin to trust your first draft…even the weird stuff. There will come a day when your first draft will survive the editorial process to a degree that you can’t imagine. Steve’s BAGGER VANCE was almost pure “winging it.” When he put on the editor hat, he couldn’t believe what he’d done!
      All the best,

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        As someone’s grandmother used to say (and someone else’s grandmother probably still does), “from your mouth to God’s ear.” Thanks Shawn!

      2. Faith Watson says:

        Oh phew, thank you so much for saying this. (If I might suggest, please say it a tad more often? heh) I was worried I might never write anything that works if I have to know all of this well enough to address it upfront. Could go crazy. Yes. Will do much naturally… aha, yes that is a bright and happy thought. It’s like what if I had to be a physician in order to live a healthy life, right? My book is pretty weird, and one day an editor might have his or her hands full with it, but it will be with something much better since it met you. Big fan peeking in all the time. 🙂 PS About the hook here, you had me at Commandment Number One. I think we like it when you tell us what to do, Shawn.

    2. Mike says:

      This approach (off-screen inciting incident) feels to me suited for the theater, lit fiction or “indie” movies , though I can’t come up with any examples off the top of my head. I’m not saying that in a judgmental way, just my first instinct. I agree with Shawn (no surprise) that anything *can* work depending on the story. But you could use an off screen inciting incident in so many awesome ways. You could start by having people talk about the off screen incident, or better yet, show your characters’ reactions to it and never tell the reader exactly what the event was. Bonus points for having the characters react while doing something interesting that would keep the reader engaged anyway.

      I think the key to inciting incidents is to make the reader want to keep reading. If you (as the reader) see people reacting in interesting ways to an unknown event, it’s only natural to want to keep reading, if for no other reason than to find out what’s going on.

      Lee Child wrote a great piece in the NYT about posing a question to the reader and holding out for as long as possible without giving them the answer. He says that’s the key to compelling fiction (couldn’t agree more). If anyone hasn’t seen it, check it out. The craft (or structure?) or the piece is a perfect example of his point.

  6. Elizabethe says:

    Blowing my mind. I’ve always thought of story as a fractal but this is what all the patterns are made of. Bur please, what is a “beat” in writing?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I will cover the beat in a few weeks when I walk through the units of story. Hang in there.

      1. Michael Beverly says:

        Hi Shawn,
        I was going to ask about this too, as it’s a bit confusing.
        I’m sure you’re going to explain all this, but I thought maybe if I asked a few questions, it would help you see what was confusing (at least to me, maybe others).

        If a beat is the smallest unit of story (other than, I guess, a sentence) how can it have more than one aspect (inciting incidence, complications, etc.)?

        When I outline something for a scene, I was writing what I thought were beats:

        Man walks down sidewalk.
        Man sees car swerve.
        Man sees car hit scaffolding.
        Man sees pile of bricks fall towards a baby.
        Man thinks about stopping time.
        Time stops.
        He realizes he’s inherited his fathers super powers.
        He saves the baby.
        He now realizes that his fathers death wasn’t an accident.
        He vows to find the killers.
        He goes home.
        There’s a knock at the front door.

        Am I wrong to call these beats?

        What I was then doing was working these “beats” as I called them into bigger scenes, where maybe the above set could end up being two scenes.

        Maybe the inciting incident is the car crash and bricks falling towards a baby in a carriage, and the complication is the Protag realizing he has indeed inherited the super power (maybe he’d hoped he was normal).

        My confusion is, if these aren’t beats, and you seem to be saying the beat has more than one element, what separates a beat from a scene?

        Thanks Shawn.

        Oh, yeah, I did like MM, but I can really see how thrillers have evolved in style and pacing. It’s weird to think that Princess Bride came just a few years later and became a cult classic, I’ve only read PB three times, and I’ll probably read it again someday, MM I’d never pick up again, even though I enjoyed it.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Michael,
          I’m afraid I can’t offer you specific advice. I can let you know that I’ll be covering the beat in a few weeks in great detail when I do a series on THE UNITS OF STORY. My advice is to not sweat beat stuff unless you’re scene is a complete disaster. Instead just focus on the 5 commandments for each scene and then make sure you progressively complicate and escalate the stakes from one scene to the next. The unit of story that is most crucial to the novelist (the one that must be mastered and nailed without fail) is the scene. Once you take care of that, the rest of the architecture falls into place.

        2. Tina Goodman says:

          Marathon Man is a classic in my home. Princess Bride is perfect for hyperbole, plus my ‘tween can watch it.

  7. Andrew says:

    Nothing to add to the discussion but I wanted to thank you Shawn for these posts. I’ve went through them all and they’ve helped rekindle my writing enthusiasm. Please keep up the excellent work.

  8. Tina Goodman says:

    Just so you know, it’s Parris Island, not Paris Island. (I spent three tough months there.)

  9. DA says:

    Hi, I’m not completely clear on the difference between the inciting incident and the turning point — wouldn’t they often be the same event?

    1. It’s the difference between “incite” and “turn.”

      One is a beginning, a causal event.

      The other is a midpoint, a change.

      Both should be a surprise, a revelation of sorts. But one incites action, drives new activities, and the other changes actions already in motion.

      1. Jule Kucera says:

        Joel, that is a most excellent explanation! Thank you.

  10. ohita says:

    I suppose the inciting incident comes after a quotation or a universal truth which you would like to state to begin your novel.

  11. Patrick says:

    I’m trying to wrap my mind around “the” inciting incident… the event which sets the protagonist’s life in a new direction. What would you say is the inciting incident in the movie, Gladiator?

Leave a Comment