For those who aren’t familiar – the inciting incident is the event which starts everything off for the main character. It’s not necessarily where we first meet the characters, nor is it where the characters first come in contact with the role that they’re going to fill, its their beginning within that plotline.
It’s the point which disrupts life so much that it forces the main character to go forwards. For Harry Potter, it’s being told he’s a wizard, and being given the means to leave his aunt and uncle. He will never approach life the same way again. OTOH, the start of the storyline, rather than his part in the story, was the death of his parents. Or Voldemort’s rise. Or any number of things. The inciting incident is where the story starts for your MC, not for anyone else.
Traditional ideas of story structure have this event happening about one quarter of the way through a story. I think that’s… not generally the case. It can be, but generally not.
The Hunger Games – I’d put it when Katniss’s sister is selected as tribute. In The Fugitive, it takes place before the story even begins, when our MC is blamed for the death of his wife. In Lord of the Rings it could be argued that the event is when Bilbo first realises how dangerous the ring is, or when Gandalf doesn’t show up at the pub in Bree.
Notice it’s not when Bilbo gets the ring. He has no idea what this little thing means, and it doesn’t truly disrupt his life. Its his entry point to the event that will be the inciting event. Nothing really changes until he’s almost caught by the Riders, or when the person he was relying on, Gandalf, doesn’t show up in Bree. Then he’s really involved.
So where the hell do you put your inciting incident? If it’s not 100% guaranteed to fit at the 25% point, how does anyone know where it goes?
I think that question is less important then having an inciting incident. You need to know why the story started for this character. Because that’s all it is – where the character starts to be involved in the story. I feel it’s also important for the audience to see this incident at one stage or the other, so they understand why the character is doing what they are doing. It lends the character sympathy, lets the audience understand why all of this matters so much.
Because I think if you think about the purpose of the inciting incident, you’ll know where to put it. It’s purpose, in terms of plot, is to show the audience when the character committed to their part in the story. This provides the audience a glimpse into the reasoning of the MC, provides motivation for their actions, provides sympathy. We understand, as readers and watchers, why the MC is doing what they are doing, and why it is so important to them. Nothing provides empathy quite like understanding.
It’s also why inciting incidents tend to be shown early on – they work to pull the audience in, they’re moments of suspense (what will they do now!), and they create connection with the characters. But at the same time, if there are other things already doing this, if there is already suspense and empathy – think about where you show your inciting incident.
I think inciting incidents that happen off page/screen work well when we have a lot of sympathy for the main character already. We’re generally introduced when everything has gone wrong, and continues to go wrong. We wonder why this person got to this point. And then when that’s revealed to us, generally over the space of a couple of chapter/scenes, that revelation becomes it’s own story.
At the end of the day, the precise page of the inciting incident isn’t important – the impact it has is what’s valuable, and if there are other things already providing reason and empathy and understanding, then it’s entirely possible to delay the inciting incident, or to have it happen in flashback, or what-have you. Because as long as you understand what you’re trying to achieve, I think it’s fine to play with the structure to see what sort of effect you can get.
Image taken from flickr, creative commons, attributed to Jon Candy