Developing Themes In Your Stories: Part 6 – The Inciting Incident

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

It’s hard to say which plot point is most crucial to a story. Each has a purpose for moving our characters physically and emotionally from Point A to Point B. However, the inciting incident has a unique responsibility. It’s not just the first major event – it’s the launching pad that thrusts a character into the conflict. And, the way it shakes up the character’s world often crackles with literary themes.

Thus, the inciting incident will be our focus for today’s installment of Developing Themes In Your Stories. This post also features brainstorming and writing activities that can help at any stage of the writing process.

What Is the Inciting Incident?

In Part 1 of this series, we focused on how a character’s arc can reflect literary themes. We also touched on the inciting incident (i.e., the arc “trigger”), but never delved into specifics. Let’s do that now by identifying the components of the inciting incident:

  • It occurs during the story’s Act I, usually around the 10% mark.
  • It launches the story by drawing the protagonist into the external conflict.
  • The protagonist and his/her world are introduced as or before this event occurs.
  • Another character, an organization, or other outside influence is responsible for setting this event in motion.

Keep in mind that these four essentials only define what an inciting incident is. In order to find possible literary themes, we have to dig deeper and make the event personal for the protagonist. For now, let’s introduce the two examples of inciting incidents that we’ll follow during this post:

sabriel2Garth Nix’s Sabriel: Sabriel is confronted by an undead creature that carries a bundle. She enters the realm of Death to retrieve the bundle and finds the tools her father uses as an Abhorsen (i.e., a necromancer). Thus, Sabriel learns that her father is either alive and trapped in Death, or possibly dead.

Andy Weir’s The Martian: In a computer log entry, astronaut Mark Watney reports that he’s stranded on Mars after a dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet – and leave Mark behind when he’s struck by debris.

Strike Your Character Where It Hurts Most – The Soul

In order for an inciting incident to succeed, it needs to tug at the protagonist’s emotions. The most effective inciting incidents threaten a character’s home, loved ones, dreams for the future , even his own survival. These and other scenarios threaten something that the protagonist holds dear – and that threat is going to hurt.

This shakeup will be inextricably linked to the story’s themes. As we discussed here, the protagonist should emotionally invested in the plot’s outcome. The best way of ensuring this is by tying his fears and desires to the external conflict. This will give him a goal to work toward, since he cares about the results of reaching that goal and the consequences of failing to achieve it. Any ideas or concepts arising from this shakeup will most likely grow into themes as the story continues.

So, when crafting your inciting incident, consider the protagonist carefully. What does he care about? What is his greatest fear? Does he have a false belief about himself or the world at large? Then, imagine what would happen if the protagonist’s worst fear came true, or if he lost the things he cares about most. How would his life change in unexpected or undesirable ways?

If you need some guidance, here’s how our two sample inciting incidents tug at each protagonist’s soul:

9780804139021Sabriel: The event threatens Sabriel’s father. If Sabriel loses him, she’ll lose all that’s left of her family and her only mentor for her future role as Abhorsen.

The Martian: The event threatens Mark’s survival. Without enough food, oxygen, communication with NASA, or a rescue / escape plan, he could (in his own words) become the “the only human being to have died on Mars.”

Activity #1: Take a new story idea or your current WIP, and brainstorm your protagonist’s fears, desires, and other values. How would the character’s life change in undesirable ways if his worst fear became reality? Or if he lost the people or objects he cherishes most? What kind(s) of inciting incidents could rise out of these scenarios?

Force the Protagonist to React to the Inciting Incident

Remember Newton’s third law, “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction”? If the inciting incident hits the protagonist where it hurts most, it should provoke an equally strong reaction from him. He doesn’t have to do something about it right now, but he’ll be overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings now that one of his fears has been triggered.

Again, put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes and gauge his reaction to the inciting incident. What emotions does he feel? What is he thinking at this moment? These nuances can reveal more layers to the protagonist’s dilemma and provide additional insight into possible literary themes.

In some cases, the inciting incident might force the protagonist to make a decision. Don’t resist this if it happens in your story. Let the protagonist’s emotions, thoughts, and other details guide him (and you) in making that decision and establishing his initial goal. It’s still part of the character’s reaction, and it can shed even more light on the story’s themes.

Let’s go back to our examples and see each protagonist’s reaction:

Sabriel: Sabriel picks up her father’s sword and bandolier and decides to travel into the Old Kingdom to find out what happened to her father. She makes this decision because she realizes she might be the only person who can save him. She also wonders what could have trapped her father in Death, and whether she can remedy it despite her limited Abhorsen training.

The Martian: In his log entry, Mark recounts the crew’s decision to evacuate, the moment he was separated from them, and how he managed to return to the Hab. He also speculates how his family and the rest of Earth are reacting to the news of his “death” and the various ways he might truly die on Mars. Unlike Sabriel, Mark doesn’t make an immediate decision about his situation, putting it off until the next morning / log entry.

Activity #2: Choose one of the inciting incidents from Activity #1, and free-write about your protagonist’s reaction to it. What thoughts, emotions, and physiological responses does he experience? Does he make an immediate decision about his circumstances, or does he postpone it for later? Feel free to answer these questions for the other inciting incidents, too.

Deduce Your Story’s Themes From There

See all the groundwork you’ve laid for your story’s beginning? Not only do you have at least one possible inciting incident, but you also know how it affects your protagonist. Now you can apply DIY MFA’s working definition of “theme” to that groundwork and identify the high-level concepts that emerge.

Review what you’ve brainstormed so far for your inciting incident. What ideas are touched on through the fears and desires connected to this event? Do other values or concepts arise from the protagonist’s reaction? Most of all, what could the protagonist learn because of the journey that has now been launched? Some themes will be easy to spot, so don’t be alarmed if you need to think outside the box to find others.

Below are some of the themes that surface from our two examples. Do you have any to add to either list?

Sabriel: Family, mortality, coming of age, loss, the supernatural

The Martian: Man versus nature, mortality, isolation, home, fear

Activity #3: Using your answers to Activities #1 and #2, determine the high-level ideas or concepts that rise out of the inciting incident(s). Consider every angle of how the event affects the protagonist, from his fears and dreams to his reaction to the event. List any possible themes you find as a result.

The protagonist isn’t the only character we can turn to for literary themes. Come back in July for our next installment of Developing Themes In Your Stories, where we’ll focus on the antagonist.

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.


Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she’s revising a YA fantasy novel and reviewing tea for A Bibliophile’s Reverie. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

  • I really like how you broke the writing process down into 3 activities for the inciting incident. Sabriel and The Martian are excellent examples, and I could easily follow along. Deducing what my stories’ themes are have been difficult, but using the approach above I think it will be much easier.
    Another great article, Sara!

    • Sara Letourneau

      Thanks, E.! Let me know if you end up trying these activities and finding more about your themes.

  • These are some neat thoughts! I need to incorporate more things about the character personally in my inciting incidents. Thanks for sharing!

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