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I've been struggling to find a clear definition of what exactly an inciting incident is.

According to Masterclass, an inciting incident is:

The inciting incident of a story is the event that sets the main character or characters on the journey that will occupy them throughout the narrative. Typically, this incident will upset the balance within the main character’s world.

Masterclass then categorizes the inciting incident into 3 types:

  1. Causal inciting actions. Inciting actions involving a deliberate choice made either by the protagonist or about the protagonist. This deliberate choice informs all story elements to come. An example of this is Luke Skywalker’s recruitment in the original Star Wars film from 1977. The inciting action is the first step in Luke taking the archetypal “hero’s journey,” as famously described by Joseph Campbell. Learn more about the hero’s journey here.

  2. Coincidental inciting actions. Inciting actions stemming from random chance, coincidence, or a protagonist “being in the right place at the right time.” In C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, the children inadvertently stumble upon a magical land through a portal in the back of a wardrobe. This chance discovery leads to all subsequent actions in the story.

  3. Ambiguous inciting actions. Inciting actions that occur under circumstances that are not fully explained. The audience is left to guess whether the protagonist is placed in her situation by choice or by chance. Such inciting actions are common in thrillers and mysteries like The Sixth Sense, and the true story is rarely revealed until the very end of the film.

I feel that Masterclass' definition of an inciting incident is too vague because it does not help writers identify which stories have an inciting incident and which stories don't. I also feel that it doesn't helps writers cleary identify what the inciting incident of a story is.

Masterclass' categorization of inciting incidents suggests that an inciting incident does not have to be caused by a specific character's choice and can instead be caused by an arbitrary or inevitable circumstance.

According to The Write Practice, the definition of an inciting incident is:

The inciting incident is an unexpected event in a story that upsets the character's status quo. This begins the story's movement, either in a positive way or negative, that culminates in the climax.

I feel that the problem with this definition is that there are stories in which the inciting incident does not upset the status quo of the main character and not all stories begin with the main character or protagonist being in a state of psychological or emotional stasis. Screenwriter Matt Bird points out in The Secrets of Story that police chief Brody's status quo wasn't upset by what is commonly considered the inciting incident in Stephen Spielberg's Jaws:

Now that we’ve established these three steps, let’s go back to Jaws, the book/movie that supposedly exemplifies the inciting incident paradigm. Is it really as simple as it seems? The attack that begins the story certainly could be described as something bad happening, and for most of the islanders, it is indeed an unwelcome intrusion into their complacent status quo—but not for our hero. Our hero, Chief Brody, is unhappy with the status quo. He feels unwelcome and disrespected in his new job. He needs an opportunity to establish his authority. The shark attack is atrocious, but it’s just the opportunity he needs. That’s why he’s the hero.

Bird also argued that the inciting incident is usually defined in such a way as to be rendered meaningless:

One problem I have with most structure guides is how vague they are. They’re presented as magic one-size-fits-all prescriptions for success rather than lists of common trends in successful stories, so they feel the need to phrase everything as generically as possible. As a result, everything the guide says is true for every story. There’s just one problem: A rule that’s true for every story provides no actual guidance.

As a result, we get generic terms like “inciting incident” that are essentially meaningless. The problem is, it’s impossible to create a story without something that could be called an inciting incident. The purpose of rules should be to separate strong choices from weak ones, so you can explain why some stories work and others don’t (or at least why some stories have broader appeal than others).

Bird then explained that Steven Spielberg's Jaws is often used as an example of how to write a story with a clearly defined inciting incident. In Jaws, the inciting incident occurs when the shark attacks the town.

He then described what he thinks are the 3 components of the inciting incident:

In most stories, the inciting incident actually consists of three distinct events:

  1. A longstanding social problem
  2. An intimidating opportunity
  3. An unforeseen conflict that arises from pursuing that opportunity

The 3 components that Bird describes look like the events of a story or the parameters of a story that writers can use to identify what a story's inciting incident is. The problem is that Bird never actually provides his own definition of what an inciting incident is and his readers are left to piece together what his implied definition of an inciting incident could be. I think Bird wants writers to define a story's inciting incident in such a way as to exclude the possibility of an inciting incident occurring in a story that has a passive or reactive main character or protagonist. Bird seems to be more concerned about the best way to write an inciting incident than what an inciting incident actually is and how to identify stories that have no inciting incident.

Bird uses the romance genre to further explain what an inciting incident is:

For example, the setup for most romances is as follows:

  1. Longstanding social problem: The hero’s loneliness (or dissatisfaction with a current relationship) intensifies.

  2. Intimidating opportunity: A new love interest appears who is unavailable or out of the hero’s league.

  3. Unforeseen conflict: Someone is opposed to the match (sometimes another lover, parent, or the actual love interest, who isn’t interested).

It looks like writers can use a story's genre to better identify what a story's inciting incident might be.

A video essay on the latest Dune movie adaptation led me to conclude that it's possible to write a coherent story without an inciting incident. The Closer Look made a video apologizing for the fact that he harshly criticized Dune (2021) for having a few fundamental problems in its story, but he also claimed in that same video that it didn't have an inciting incident. It looks like he deleted his old video on Dune (2021).

I think the creators of Dune (2021) either forgot to include or made the mistake of choosing not to include the business dealings between the Choam corporation and emperor Emperor Shaddam IV that led to the events of the first part of the Dune book, which the movie is based on.

What would the definition of an inciting be if one were to use the 3 parameters that Bird described? What are the most commonly cited definitions of an inciting incident? And what is the most common definition of an inciting incident? Is there a definition of an inciting incident that encompasses stories whose main characters or protagonists are either passive, active, or reactive? And is there a definition of an inciting incident that would enable writers to identify stories that don't have an inciting incident?

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    @MattThrower I already posted my question on WritingSE and I was told that my question was better suited to LiteratureSE. Here is the link to my WritingSE post: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/67061/… Commented Oct 6, 2023 at 13:49
  • The inciting incident in Dune is Paul's move from the safety of Caladan to the unsafety of Arrakis. It puts him on the journey from his current role as scion of a moderately powerful household to becoming the messiah. That's basically the same in the novel as the film/s
    – Valorum
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 17:54

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The reason for this confusion is that the Inciting Incident isn’t a real thing. Or at least, it isn’t a single specific thing. When people talk about the Inciting Incident, they usually mean whatever event gets the protagonist involved in the main plot. Sometimes this is relatively easy to spot, like when Luke meets the droids in Star Wars (though even there, you have people arguing whether it’s meeting the droids or the empire killing Owen and Beru). But in many other stories, there is no clear Inciting Incident because the protagonist is either involved in the main plot from the start, or becomes so through a series of smaller events. For example:

  1. In The Martian (Andy Weir), Mark Watney is involved in the plot of being stuck on Mars since before the first page. We could say that the inciting incident is the sandstorm that he tells us about after the fact, but that doesn’t meet anyone’s definition that I’ve ever seen. We could just as easily argue that the inciting incident is Watney blasting off from Earth, or first joining NASA. It’s just a term that doesn’t apply to the story in question.

  2. In Wrath of Khan, there’s no single incident that gets Kirk and his crew involved in the plot. It could be Khan stealing Reliant, Khan sending a signal that lures the Enterprise to him, or Khan’s surprise attack (which is pretty late into the movie). When the protagonist gets involved gradually, there won’t be a single inciting incident to point at.

TL:DR, the Inciting Incident is something that people retroactively look for because it fits the writing advice they were given. What matters is that the protagonist is involved in the main plot, not whether there’s a specific moment they become so.

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  • And it could be a chain of events. Luke’s guardians had to die and the droid thing had to happen and…. If any link in the chain were left out, he wouldn’t have joined the plot. But I agree it makes no sense to shoehorn all stories into a single rigid structure. E.g. in The Hobbit (book) it’s some strangers showing up and an arguably bad decision that gets Bilbo (sp?) into the plot. Pretty tame but necessary.
    – bob
    Commented Oct 7, 2023 at 14:21

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