Ep. 114: Inciting Incidents

In this episode, fiction editors Leslie Watts and Anne Hawley critique the beginning of Sheila Lischwe’s as yet untitled psychological thriller. They discuss inciting incidents: the submission as a possible inciting incident for the global psychological thriller and also within the scene. These pivotal story events pull the rug out from under your protagonist or POV character. This week’s editorial mission will help you identify the elements of inciting incidents to make your scenes and stories stronger. 

Intentional Sentence Construction by Leslie Watts with Writership.com.


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This week's submission contains a bloody crime scene.


About Our Guest Host

Clark is taking a well-deserved break from the podcast, but our friend and fellow editor, Anne, has graciously agreed to jump in and help out. You may remember Anne from episodes 106 and 108.

After a career in public service during which she wrote fiction to stay sane, Anne Hawley has turned her talents to writing professionally.

As a founding member of the Super Hardcore Editing Group and a graduate of Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid Workshop, she writes and edits from her small house in Portland, Oregon. When she leaves the house it’s usually on her Dutch bike, Eleanor.

Her forthcoming novel, Restraint, is a sweeping historical love story about a gifted and sexually repressed artist in Regency London. Under the dangerous gaze of high society, he must deny his attraction to the young nobleman who has hired him to paint his portrait, or else risk his livelihood and his reputation by giving in to his secret desires. It's Pride and Prejudice meets Brokeback Mountain in a bittersweet story of two men who fall in love in a time and place where homosexuality is still a capital offense. Find out more here.


Wise Words on Inciting Incidents

Like the peanut butter that lures a mouse into a mousetrap, the global Inciting Incident must be irresistible to the writer’s intended audience. And yes, even the big literary writers have an intended audience.

But alas, a fantastic global Inciting Incident does not make for a slam-dunk commercial success. You must load every beat, scene, sequence, and act with tantalizing Inciting Incidents to keep the reader turning pages or to keep the viewer in their seat. Creating these kinds of Inciting Incidents are all about zigging when the reader expects a zag. They require singular imagination. Ideally, the writer fulfills the conventions of a particular Genre’s obligatory Inciting Incidents in a completely unique way. A way that the reader never sees coming.
— Shawn Coyne


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More about inciting incidents

To read more about inciting incidents, check out this excerpt from The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.

You can listen to the Story Grid Podcast episode that Leslie mentioned in which Shawn talks about how his commandments of story relate to the hero’s journey and the Kubler-Ross grief process.


Editorial Mission—Write an Inciting Incident

Identify the inciting incident of one of your favorite stories and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the event radically upset the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life?

  • Does the protagonist react to the event?

  • Does the event trigger a desire in the protagonist? Does it create a want and need?

  • Does the protagonist decide to pursue the object of desire?

If you’re working with a draft of your own story, check that your inciting incident has these elements. Could they be stronger? Revise accordingly.

If you’re not currently revising a story, draft an inciting incident for a minor character from your current work in progress, one from a story you enjoy, or something completely new. 

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Editing Advice to Our Author

Dear Sheila,

It was such a treat to read your submission! You’ve written a gripping scene that pulls us in directly. As readers, we have plenty of open questions and would gladly turn the page to find out what happens when the story picks up again two generations later. The details seem particularly suited to the perception and attention of a young child.

We looked at the scene as if it were the global inciting incident, though we can’t say for sure without more about Devon and her story. We also looked at the scene as a whole and what we thought might be the inciting incident for it. 

A crime of this nature kicking off a psychological thriller is a great fit. It’s causal (Blue Jeans intentionally attacks and kills Miss Nancy) and of course negative. It throws Kelly’s life out of balance, as the first sentence reveals up front. 

The four elements of an inciting incident can be explained succinctly in this quote from Robert McKee: 

Therefore the Inciting Incident first throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, then arouses in him the desire to restore that balance. Out of this need—often quickly and occasionally with deliberation—the protagonist next conceives of an Object of Desire: something physical, situational, or attitudinal that he feels he lacks or needs to put the ship of life on an even keel. Lastly, the Inciting Incident propels the protagonist into an active pursuit of this object or goal.

Kelly witnesses the brutal murder of her babysitter, and that changes her life from safe to unsafe (and for Miss Nancy from life to death). This certainly arouses within her the desire to make herself safe, and it propels her to move back toward the bedroom, overriding her curiosity about who Blue Jeans is or any desire to help Miss Nancy.

From Kelly’s point of view, I think it’s when the stranger enters the trailer for the second time making a noise that keeps Kelly from falling asleep. The noises arouse her curiosity—in part because it could be her mother, and Kelly is hoping for hot chocolate and donuts the next morning, and her mother’s presence would change that. Kelly gets up to investigate the noises. An argument could be made that the phone call is what throws the bedtime routine out of balance (because Miss Nancy forgets to have Kelly brush her teeth).

I think that some of the timing, setting, and movements could be clarified while looking at it through the filter of which event, in your mind, is the inciting incident, but overall this is a scene that works really well.

Anne shared these notes for you: Two approaches: establish the ordinary life before ripping it away, or open in the midst of it being ripped away. 

This inciting incident is also the opener of the novel. It straight out tells us that the character’s ordinary life is ending in the first sentence, then it gives us a 240-word glimpse into Kelly’s ordinary life and its setting. Ballerina sheets, snacks, a game of Twister, a polaroid picture, a babysitter, toys, a caring sister.

But notice also that we get social clues that will probably play a role in the investigation later: they live in a trailer, their mother presumably has to work nights, their  babysitter is more interested in a boyfriend than in her charges.

Then a Stranger Knocks at the Door—a classic Inciting Incident. In this case the Stranger seems to be the villain. We tick three boxes off the list of obligatory conventions of the thriller in this scene alone: a crime, a victim, and a villain.

Specificity creates universality, and I like the specific details of Kelly’s life—the soft toy with a name, the ballerina sheets. They evoke a whole way of life in a few words. Some of them repeat certain ideas and actions, though. 

This is very standard and normal in early drafts, as the writer is figuring out what’s important. In revisions, you begin to trust yourself, and trust your reader to pick up on single details. 

In a later draft, two sneaky journeys from bedroom to kitchen, two mentions of Ed Wrinkles the toy, two references to the cold December air--all might be candidates for converging into single instances.

An inciting incident, especially for a psychological thriller, has to launch the story steeply and fast. But even in a more sedate genre, beware of elaborating specifics. A few go a long way.

Thanks again for your submission! 

All the best,


Line Edits for Our Psychological Thriller Story

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