An inciting incident will start the series of events that eventually lead to the climax. Depending on the story, it could be anything. Perhaps the protagonist suffers a loss, such as the death of a family member. Maybe they lose their job, find out a secret, win the lottery, or anything else. It might be something positive or negative. But, just because the story starts out with a positive inciting incident doesn’t mean it’s going to stay positive. Someone winning the lottery might lead to a series of other terrible events because of it.
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Definition of Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is something that stimulates the story. It is an event that occurs within the story, or specifically within the life of the main character/characters that sets events in motion. As mentioned above, it could be negative or positive. It also sets up the main questions that should be answered by the end of the story. For example, what’s going to happen when someone makes a specific decision, or how long can the characters maintain a certain state of affairs. There are going to be consequences because of the inciting incident, and those consequences are going to lead to more twists and turns in the narrative.
One of the most commonly cited examples of a story with a powerful inciting incident is “The Most Dangerous Game.” In this story, the inciting indecent occurs when the protagonist, Charles Marlow, finds out about Mr. Kurtz.
Examples of Inciting Incidents in Literature
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
In this famous tragedy, Shakespeare creates a complex story of death, lies, betrayal, and madness. These elements all had a starting point, though. The inciting incident occurs at the beginning of the story. In this case, Hamlet’s father’s death. King Hamlet dies at the hand of Claudius, how poured poison in his ear while he slept. Here are a few lines from the play that demonstrate how effective this inciting incident was in Hamlet’s life:
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly. These indeed “seem,”
For they are actions that a man might play.
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
In this passage, Hamlet speaks to his mother and tries to demonstrate how changed he feels since his father’s death. He has a deeply emotional nature, and he can’t get over what happened. No matter how he seems on the outside, he says, he is more upset on the inside. He has more real grief inside him since his father’s death than anyone could ever say. It’s is due to these overwhelming emotions that Hamlet sets out on the journey that seals his fate and many others.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
In Woolf’s masterpiece, she starts the novel with a famous opening line. It reads:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
This starts off the novel, informing readers who Clarissa is and the key event that’s going to set the story in motion. She’s having a party, and she’s just going to get the flowers herself. This inciting incident is a good example of how stories don’t have to start out with a traditional bang, such as in Hamlet. It’s possible to create an event that sets the story in motion that’s more subdued.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby contains an example of an inciting incident that doesn’t occur right at the beginning of the novel. It’s not until readers have a good understanding of the characters that Fitzgerald provides brings Nick Caraway and Gatsby together at the party. The lines read:
This is an unusual party for me. I haven’t even seen the host. I live over there — ” I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, “and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation.” For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand. “I’m Gatsby,” he said suddenly.
When the two meet, everything changes for Nick and his understanding of the man. He becomes a part of his life, and readers begin their entrance into the complex web of his life and his relationship with Daisy.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
In this famous play, the inciting incident occurs when Romeo sets eyes on Juliet and immediately falls in love with her. He asks the serving-man who she is, and he answers that he doesn’t know. Then, Romeo uses the following lines to describe how he feels:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows […]
Despite the fact that he doesn’t know who she is, he expresses his admiration for her. This sets the events of the play in motion.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry including his 154 sonnets.
Why Do Writers Use Inciting Incidents?
When writing, it’s incredibly important for the writer to craft an interesting and exciting inciting incident. This doesn’t mean that every story needs a disaster, death, or thrill to send the protagonist on their journey, but it has to be something that inspires the reader to keep reading. Usually, writers use the inciting incident to disrupt the protagonist’s day-to-day life and provides them with motivation to change or make new choices.
Related Literary Terms
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the central conflict of the story.
- Foreshadowing: refers to the hints a writer gives a reader about what’s going to happen next. It’s a common literary device that’s used every day.
- Cliffhanger: a narrative device that’s used to end a story abruptly before an action or segment of the plot is concluded.
- Flashback: a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
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