Story Structure II: Stirring Up Trouble or The Inciting Incident

This is the second installment of my series on Story Structure. If you missed part I, you can check it out here:

As soon as you’ve gotten a your slice of life just the way you want it, you need to think about element two:  The Inciting Incident.

Before we dive into the technical stuff, let’s talk about conflict and how it relates to stories. Conflict DRIVES the story. Regardless of genre, you need conflict. Stop for a second and think about conversations you have with friends and family. The vast majority of them have CONFLICT. You just don’t always think about it that way.

Here are some examples from conversations I’ve had recently:

“My boyfriend is so lazy. He won’t even mow the grass!” Conflict: Sister needs lawn mowed. Dude says no. Conflict.

“Little Johnny won’t eat his carrots and I’m tired of forcing him to eat them.” Conflict.

“My car won’t start and I’m late for work.” Conflict.

See what I mean? Conflict is everywhere. In relationships, parenting, even mechanical devices.

So back to The Inciting Incident: It needs to introduce a conflict. It’s the conflict that gets the ball rolling, puts the story in action That doesn’t mean it has to involve hand grenades or avalanches. It can be simple. Inciting incidents are EVEN BETTER when they put two characters at odds with each other because then, you’ve also created TENSION. You don’t want to make everything easy for your characters. Whether it’s the cattle drive in Lonesome Dove or Jamie and Claire getting together for good in Outlander, if everything is easy, you don’t have a story.

Take the first example above, “My boyfriend is so lazy he won’t even mow the grass.” That, as simple and everyday as it sounds, can be an inciting incident. Let me show you how.


Molly O’Shannon leaned on the greasy counter of the Waffle House and took a deep breath. “Earl won’t even mow the grass. It’s nearly waist high. My mother is going to have a heart attack when she sees the way the place looks.”

Tamara stopped wiping the bar and looked at Molly. “Didn’t you promise her you’d keep the place up?”

Molly nodded. She had promised. When her mother had moved in with her Grandmother Sarah, she’d given Molly the opportunity to live in the house on two conditions: pay the utilities and keep the place looking nice. The cottage was perfect. Just the right size, just the right location. Molly loved the house and by not paying rent, she was able to save some money each month.

It had been heaven until she’d caved and let Earl move in. Worst mistake of her life. The power bill doubled so she had to stop paying her neighbor to help her with the grass. She’d bought a used lawnmower and showed it to Earl. So far she hadn’t heard the first sputter of the engine.

She’d been trying to summon the nerve to throw Earl out on his ass for weeks. So far, she’d come up empty.

“I’ve got to get it mowed before she comes to visit this weekend.”

“I’ll bet Henry would do it for you,” Tamara said. A smile curved the corners of her mouth. “He’d do anything for you. You know that.”

Molly shivered involuntarily. Henry. Six feet two inches of raw man. Maybe he was the solution to both problems. The only problem was that she knew he’d demand payment. And not of the financial variety. She shivered again. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

She shook her head and cleared the image of Henry from her mind. His fees were too high. High enough to break a girl’s heart. Molly wasn’t doing that again.


Inciting incident: The grass has to be cut. Simple as that. But see how it got the ball rolling? See how it introduced other conflicts that have to be resolved? No hand grenades. No avalanches. Just knee-high grass, a lazy boyfriend and a heartbreaking heartthrob.

Think about some of you favorite movies and books. Identify the inciting incidents and make note of how they spur the story into action.

Questions? Comments? Let me know below.


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