A common piece of writing advice—and in fact, one I take very seriously—is to start with a bang. Hit the ground running. You want to hook your reader so that they keep reading, and the first paragraph—the first line, even—is vital to that, but the element of your beginning that is most important to your plot is the inciting incident.
Quite simply, this is the moment when everything changes for your protagonist(s). Their life is irrevocably altered as they are pushed into the main storyline. In The Hunger Games, this is when Prim’s name is drawn at the Reaping, prompting Katniss to volunteer to take her place.
The inciting incident is the match to your story’s gasoline. Without it, your story never begins. So how do you do it right?
There are a lot of ways to craft an inciting incident, but these are some of my favorite elements of a successful one.
The protagonist may have little or nothing to do with it happening. This sounds backwards, because you want your protagonist to be active in the story. However, in order to pull them into the plot, something has to shake up their everyday life. Humans are stubborn creatures who love the stability of routine, and we’re unlikely to change our routines without good reason. Thus, your inciting incident should have at least one element that is out of the protagonist’s control.
One of my favorite reads of the past year is Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Córdova. In this story, a young bruja (similar to a witch) comes of age and it’s time to perform a ritual in which her powers come to fruition. However, she doesn’t want to have these powers, so she tries to perform a counter-ritual to reject them—and of course, it goes terribly wrong. The protagonist can’t control her coming of age, the traditions of her community, or the onset of her magical powers. But these things she can’t control do drive her reaction, and that reaction results in the accident that sends her family to the underworld, which becomes the main problem she has to navigate in the story.
Ultimately, your story is about how your protagonist responds to the inciting incident, and the consequences of the actions they take in that response, and the consequences of their responses to those consequences, and so on. Therefore…
The protagonist should have no choice but to respond. In the TV series Game of Thrones, the king’s top advisor dies, so Ned Stark is asked to take the role. Clearly, Ned is forced to make a choice—he either accepts or declines. The important thing to note here is that it’s directly personal to Ned. Not only was the former advisor his mentor, but the king is his close friend—and he is also being asked to make a decision with only two options.
Not all inciting incidents are as clear-cut as this one, though. More often, the protagonist experiences a dramatic event and (technically) can choose to ignore it or do something about it. But you’ll want it to be something that forces their hand. Katniss loves her sister too much to let her go into the deadly games. Giving the protagonist a personal stake in the inciting incident is an excellent way to make them take action. That said…
The inciting incident should come soon, but not too soon. The Goldilocks Rule applies here. You want it to be just right—and “just right” will vary based on your genre and your story’s individual needs. Because the inciting incident is something that changes the protagonist’s life, we first need to see what that life looks like before the change. This will also help you build up the personal stakes in the inciting incident, since you get to establish the protagonist’s values—for example, if your inciting incident involves harm to their family, we need to understand how much the protagonist cares about their family.
That said, although you want to show off your protagonist’s world as it is before the drama happens, don’t wait too long to shake it up. A slow beginning is the number one thing that will make me put a book back on the shelf. A good goal is to place your inciting incident between the one-tenth and one-fourth marks in the story. This gives you enough time to introduce your protagonist’s environment and their character while not making the beginning drag.
None of these are hard and fast rules, and I encourage you to tinker with them and break them if you can. If you’re particularly crafty, you may be able to get away with an inciting incident that is off-screen and before the narrative even starts. Regardless of where you put it or how your protagonist reacts, just make sure it’s strong enough to kick-start the plot.