Recently, I was explaining the concept of an inciting moment to my five-year-old (he’s a bit young, but one might as well start early, right?), and it got me thinking about how critical the concept is.
Some writers may call it an inciting incident, and others have probably never heard of it, including the idea without any formal title or understanding of how it works, but the inciting moment is what happens to make the world of the story change. One of the many rocks dropped in the story-pond that set off a series of ripples. It’s the spark that jolts the story to life.
Once you figure out your inciting moment, you more or less have the story running away by itself as the chain of events keeps going. In Cinderella, it’s the invitation to the ball. For Frodo, it’s being given the ring of power. For Hamlet, it’s discovering that his father’s ghost is prowling around.
Sure, there were problems and difficulties beforehand, like Cinderella’s father dying or his marrying the step-mother in the first place, but none of those moments “demands” the rest of the story to happen. It contributes to it, but it doesn’t set it off like a wildfire. Cinderella kept working for her step-mother and step-sisters for years without there being any story of interest there. It’s only after she’s invited to the ball that things begin to change.
Why It Matters
Since the inciting moment leads to the next scene, and the scene after that, and the whole conflict–will Hamlet listen to the ghost or his conscience?–will Cinderella make it to the ball?–will Frodo be able to destroy the ring?–it’s very important to know what that moment is in your story. Otherwise, you might start the story too soon and spend pages flailing about, showing how Hamlet’s father was a great king, how he died, how Hamlet’s mother was wooed by his uncle…none of which really factors into the story that you want to tell, if your focus is to explore what Hamlet does after being confronted by his father’s ghost.
The focus would completely change, of course, if you’re telling a different story. A story about Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, that is done from her point of view might start once her husband is murdered and her brother-in-law is voted in as king. Does she go into seclusion? A convent? Retire to widowhood on some family property or another, or accept the advances of the new king? The death of her husband would start that story off, and she’d have very little to do with the ghost. Thus, the focus would dictate a different inciting moment, one that fits with the plot of your story.
And the inciting moment doesn’t even have to be on the page. Frodo could’ve been given the ring long before the story starts, and the story could begin when he starts realizing that his having the ring is making strange things happen. It could begin with the black riders showing up, and his having to run for his life, without knowing exactly why. But if it started too late in the action, too long after the inciting moment–when he’s on his way to Rivendell, for example–you’d have a lot of questions to answer, and readers might be bewildered. Who is Strider? What’s the ring? Why is he going across the country? And why does he miss this fellow named Gandalf?
Or if Cinderella began when she was on the way to the ball, we’d have no appreciation for what it’d taken to get there. If it began right after the invitation was received, we wouldn’t have seen the dreadful monotony and struggle of her life, to where we value the significance of this royal ball, this chance.
Even if it’s off the page, it matters to your readers
The reason an inciting moment matters is that it determines what the story is about. It’s like a snowball that is pushed down a hill. It will gather it’s own momentum, and direct the story to its conclusion unless you put obstacles in the way (like a rock) to throw it off track and into another direction. If you don’t want your story about Cinderella to hinge on the prince’s ball, you might not want to include the invitation in the plot in the first place.
If you wanted to tell the story about Gertrude’s struggles, you wouldn’t include the ghost of Hamlet’s father (unless you planned to have it contribute to her difficulties). If your goal is to tell the story of Frodo and the ring, you wouldn’t want to have a dragon come and attack the shire, demanding that he defend it. These events would set up a whole line of questions and expectations on the part of the reader that you’ve no intention of satisfying, because your plot is about an entirely different event. To focus on or include these inciting moments is like pushing the wrong snowball down the wrong side of the hill.
Copyright Andrea Lundgren 2017
Photo by Jamierodriguez37, Creative Commons