Inciting Incident - how soon is too soon?

Hello! We all know that with only a few exceptions, you want to get your inciting incident to occur fairly early in your novel. Otherwise, you risk boredom for your readers.

However, is there such a thing as too soon? Can the inciting incident happen on page one? Or right at the beginning? I am working on a new story and although I’m still figuring out my outline, I have written my opening paragraphs and the inciting incident is what kicks the story off.

I don’t think I can make the story work any other way but I’m wondering what your opinion is. Technically, I suppose you could say that the inciting incident actually happens “off-screen” in that my opening is the beginning of the aftermath but it’s definitely what sets the path for my main character.

Are there any examples of books that have done this successfully? I don’t want to figure out a beginning that suits a rule if it doesn’t feel right but I guess I just want reassurance that this does work!

How do you define “inciting incident?”

It’s quite common for mysteries and thrillers to open with something dramatic: someone is killed, a body is discovered, the bad guys steal the bomb, whatever.

In romance, the eventual couple usually meets pretty early, but it isn’t always clear to them or to us: the eventual Prince Charming may be just one guy at a party, and maybe not even the most appealing one.

Or, the first chapter or two can be pretty expository: introducing characters, introducing setting, introducing looming sense of doom, but the plot doesn’t really get going right away. That’s more common in genres that require a lot of worldbuilding – fantasy, science fiction, historical – or in “literary” books.

Overall, I’d say it’s a matter of pacing: for a “faster” book, start the action earlier.


Someone here once said something that was clever. I am not clever so I will paraphrase it poorly;

If your story is solid then it won’t matter where you put the “inciting incident”. Heck, I leave them out altogether

But then my writing isn’t any good :wink:

I’m going based on the idea that the inciting incident is where the path changes for the main character. I can’t really go into a whole ton of detail because I’m still trying to piece the story together in my head, but the gist is that the MC is surprised to find herself dead and is about to embark on life after death. (Completely non-religious, more of a “beyond the veil” concept.)

So my opening paragraph is the MC’s surprise at how anticlimatic it was. We will learn about some of her previous life as the book goes on but I feel like it would be a bit “meh” to write her regular life first.

Thank you, this was helpful!

That is a great reminder, thank you! I think I knew that but self-doubt gets in the way.

And I do not believe your writing isn’t good! :smiley:

Unless you’re going for an “I see dead people” twist like The Sixth Sense, the main character being dead is a pretty critical fact. So yes, probably good to start there.


Haha, yes, definitely not going for a surprise. The only one who is surprised is my protagonist, which I guess is pretty normal if you suddenly realize, “well crap, I’m dead!” :laughing:

The key, I should think, is how your character discovers she’s dead.

The idea of the Inciting Incident is borrowed from 20th Century screenwriting. Many modern novels hew to movie conventions.

Michael Arndt, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Toy Story 3 and Little Miss Sunshine has a good description of an Inciting Incident:

It’s a moment of big change for the character and a call to adventure, but the most important thing is that it must either change their life irrevocably, or offer them a vision of a new future. Before the Inc/Inc, the protagonist is in stasis – their future is set, for better or worse. They know exactly what their future will hold. The Inc/Inc either changes their future in a way the protagonist can’t control, or it’s an invitation to a new life.

You can start your story after the Inc/Inc, but you’re going to have to explain it in an anecdote or a flashback eventually so the reader understands the situation. Many satisfying stories begin with showing the protagonist’s stasis, and then shake everything up with the Inc/Inc.


If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing and writers, it’s that no two are the same and what one writer considers inalienable fact is anathema to another. So, appeals to authority are vacuous, because there is no authority.

Do whatever the story tells you.

And, in my opinion. you can’t possibly know your story until the first draft is done, and even then, you only have the starting point.

I now feel compelled to write something where the “Inciting Incident” is revealed in the final paragraph.

Mixing this with The Crying Game twist is starting to be a proper story.

Next NiaD? Eh, Rog?

Been done. Memento. (Link has spoilers.)


Movies are different to books… By the time you “read” the first few ”paragraphs” of a movie, you’ve already found a babysitter, driven to a theatre, bought a ticket and invested in some popcorn and a large soda. You’re not going to get up and walk away because the narrative playing early enough in the movie to still have actors’ names flashing on the screen is some slower scene-setting stuff about someone’s life before their inciting incident.

You might just leave that book in the bookstore, though.

As a general rule, if you think a chapter is less interesting to write, your audience will find it less interesting to read. It sounds like you’re less inspired by the steady state so don’t worry too much about it. “Marley was dead” is a great opening line.

Heh, that’s a coincidence. I erased a bit of text before posting where I alluded to committing to storytelling by tattooing it on oneself and, naturally, Memento came to mind.

Everything has been done before, of course.

Even the first line isn’t too soon if the storytelling is strong.

Here’s an idea: Unless the title and premise of your book is obvious before the reader opens it, you could begin the first chapter like a normal story-building setup and then have her die when the reader is least expecting it, before the chapter ends. Creating the expectation that she is the main character and that something else being setup in the first chapter is ‘obviously’ the thing the book will be about, can be done in a number of ways.

Imagine picking up a Michael Crichton novel and in the first chapter we meet a female scientist working for a oceanic non-profit and it’s a big deal because all the cutting edge marine biology entities tried to hire her in vain, and suddenly she gets a call on her personal cell phone -the number to which she gives out to no one but immediate family- from the Pentagon, about an undersea site that they want her to see immediately and that they are coming to get her right that moment to take her there… and then she dies in the helicopter crash to the site. No one is going to see that coming. That would certainly be an unusual twist that many would like, even if they already know it’s going to be about dying.

Cormac McCarthy is one of my favorite authors and my style is influenced by his (and Ron Hansen’s), but I put down The Crossing for two weeks before being in the mood to pick it back up, because of an unexpected event (no the main character didn’t die) that removed a huge part of the buildup and the draw of the book for me to that point. It was a long way into the novel as well and I felt like that wasn’t the intended effect he was after, as I always love his style of surprises and twists.

So even the best authors don’t always get the major direction change down perfectly.

Good luck

Opening line inciting incident challenge: make a 3k short story that makes this opening line the inciting incident

As stated earlier there will almost certainly be a flashback of some kind to show the changes, the before/after growth/decline. It may not be a flashback scene but may be a simple statement of “before”. I think it can be done with no flashback but it will make a secondary scene feel more like the incident.

And for the record I’ve been thinking “how can you do this” since my first reply. I think It’s possible. I think it COULD BE powerful. But it my just be seen as an opening line when all is said and done.

Thank you so much to everyone for providing your thoughts on this. For now I’m going to start my first draft with the inciting incident - my character being dead - right at the very start because I can’t see any other logical way to do it (and I’m really pleased with my opening line which came to me while I was out walking one morning). After that, we’ll see what happens in revisions.

Thanks again! You all really gave me a lot to ponder.

I think there are two categories for ‘inciting incident’, which is that they exist for the full story arc (such as when lovers meet in a LS) but they also exist as the (usually) first story element in a scene or sequence, and in almost all of them. So there are inciting incidents all throughout a novel.

A good place to get a handle on this concept is Story Grid.

And you honestly don’t have a story if you don’t have one, including the full-arc story as well as the encapsulated story-like moments inside scenes. It is essential. Story does not work without it.

Also, it is very difficult to write a compelling story or novel or even a sequence or a full scene without the inciting incident preceding the other story elements, which usually follow in the order: progressive complications, turning point, crisis question, climax, and resolution.

There are other ways to do that, but none really work well.

As to when to have the full-arc inciting incident, one of the ways to have things work nonlinearly with regard to the timeline is in medias res, which means starting a story or story event or scene or sequence in the middle and then flashing back to explain it by showing the beginning (which usually includes the inciting incident) a bit later.

That confused readers in 1800, but today it is so common that it is more common than having a strictly-linear timeline.

But to simplify, for the sake of argument, let’s assume your story is fairly linear, adhering to cause-effect. In my experience, when I see the inciting incident as the very first thing, it sort of leaves me cold.

My opinion, and this is just an opinion, is that a good story can’t be just plot, and that the best stories concentrate also on character. So even in a very plot-driven thriller, for instance, I think the first thing you want to do is establish the MC. Make them likable, admirable, and interesting, and give them an issue that draws empathy. IOW, get the reader to bond with them. Get them to care.

For instance, in the thriller ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, the first thing that happens is that Thomas Harris introduces the MC, Clarice Starling, and then gets the reader to bond with her. Only then do we get the inciting incident, which is her boss sends her on an assignment to speak with Hannibal Lecter.

The point here is if the reader doesn’t care about the character, the reader will hardly care about what happens in the inciting incident. Once they are invested, they will care.

This does not imply that you can’t use the inciting incident as the problem that causes the MC to draw empathy, you can. But in my opinion it’s best to get the character and the reader to bond first, then go directly to the inciting incident.

I have seen stories begin with good action scenes or sequences that seem almost wasted because the author has not yet got the reader to bond with the characters first.

Readers put books down for 2 reasons: 1) ‘I can already predict what is going to happen’, and 2) ‘I don’t care what is going to happen’. Make them care early, if not first. Then, tell their story, which typically begins with the inciting incident.

Very often not true in mysteries. The protagonist may not even appear until the second chapter. (Chapter One involving introduction of the victim, the death, the discovery of the body, etc.)

And as I said, while there are various ways to tell a story, I don’t consider this the best way to tell a story.

In ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’, highly revered and in the canon, Agatha Christie does not bring in Hercule Poirot until ch 3. But she establishes the viewpoint character on page one chapter one paragraph one.

She even talks about the death of a completely-different character well before the name ‘Roger Ackroyd’ is even mentioned, or before he is murdered. So the inciting incident (in a murder mystery it is always the murder) happens well after the main characters (other than Poirot, who is really an unchanging cipher) are fully introduced and the setting is well-established and the reader is fully oriented to the ‘ordinary world’ before the murder.

But of course she published this a century ago, and was already a century behind the times as to her style of writing, even then.

Times change. But she did introduce the other main characters well before the inciting incident (and it makes no sense to bring Poirot in before the murder, does it?)

One more thing: This was the third novel where Poirot was the investigator. So in reality, he already was established, two novels earlier.