Insightful Examples of Inciting Incidents

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about inciting incidents and the different ways they can be used in fiction. An inciting incident generally launches the primary conflict or action in a story. Joseph Campbell referred to the inciting incident as a call to action. Sometimes our characters seek out this action, sometimes it’s forced on them. We tend to think of it as occurring at the beginning of a story, but that’s often not the case. Not all stories have a single, clearly defined inciting incident, but many do. Most of my examples are movies, but I will cite one novel, also.

The novel, specifically, is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, published in 1862. Les Miserables is a long-term reading project for me this year; it’s a challenging read but a powerful work of fiction with considerable relevance to the present day. Les Miserables is a complex novel and smarter people than me might define the inciting incident differently. For me, the primary inciting incident is not when Jean Valjean steals the loaf of bread, an event that occurs years before the novel’s main action. It is when the bishop forgives Jean Valjean for stealing from him. When the bishop gives Valjean the silver he attempted to steal, and tells him that his life now belongs to God, that launches Valjean’s life on an entirely new trajectory. His efforts to live up to that bargain ultimately bring him into contact with Fantine and, later, Cosette. This plot point does not occur until nearly one-tenth of the novel has passed.

Photo of partial page from print edition of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.” And so our story truly begins.

Now, a few examples of movies that started me thinking about the use of inciting incidents in the first place (in case you decide to watch any of these films, I’ll avoid spoilers).

The French film La Moustache (2005) is about a married couple in Paris. The husband has worn a mustache for years; one day he impulsively shaves it off. Not only do his wife and friends not notice this change, they insist he never had a mustache in the first place. A surreal journey ensues, and in the end we are given no conclusive answers. The inciting incident – man shaves off mustache – occurs within the first five minutes of the film, and the central conflict unfolds from there.

The Spanish-language film Everybody Knows (2018), by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, takes an entirely different approach. The first part of the film introduces our characters and setting, an extended family gathering in a small town in Spain for a wedding. We get a superficial sense of family dynamics and a pace of life that appears fairly idyllic. During the post-wedding reception, and probably twenty minutes in, an incident occurs that introduces multiple layers of conflict among the family members and between the family and the surrounding community.

Passage to Marseille (1944) is a Humphrey Bogart film I had never even heard of until I came across it at our public library recently. The film is told in a fairly complex, triple-flashback structure. Each time-frame within the film has its own inciting incident, but the primary inciting incident is placed in the middle of the film, during the third, most distant, flashback. Each time-frame adds depth to the story and characters as we learn their history and motives.

Finally, Early Spring (1956) is one of the later films of prolific Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu. Like Passage to Marseille, the true inciting incident is revealed around the midpoint of the movie. In this case, however, the incident is not revealed in a flashback, but in a simple conversation, exactly as it would likely be discussed in a real-life conversation. It’s a subtle moment that reveals unresolved grief from our characters’ past, grief that has set them on their current path.

Front cover of print edition of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed.” How to reveal your characters’ sins, and any subsequent darkness, is key to telling your story.

My goal with this post is to encourage you to think about conflict and motives, and different ways those can be expressed in fiction. We tend to view stories in conventional ways, with a linear flow from beginning to middle to end. But that path doesn’t need to be chronological. Whether you’re writing a short story, a novel, or a screenplay, how and when you reveal information has considerable influence on the audience’s experience. If your work has a definable inciting incident, it may be your most important plot point. How you introduce it to your readers creates tension, enhances character development, and contributes to the overall narrative flow. Figuring out how to do that is part of the creative process. Think about the kind of story you want to tell and compare it to other examples. That way when you incite your characters, you’ll also excite your audience.

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