The Importance of an Inciting Incident

I became a professional writer at the age of ten when the generous owner of a children’s dress shop paid me four dollars for a four-line poem advertising her establishment. The moment is what’s called an “inciting incident.” It gave me confidence to write more poems, then essays, then a column in my local newspaper when I was sixteen and books as an adult.

Inciting incidents are important in novels. They help a reader understand a character’s motivation. The best example I can name comes from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ book, Ain’t She Sweet. The down-and-out heroine returns to her old hometown to track down a painting she inherited from her aunt. Nobody likes her. She hurt people in the town. But we learn at a turning point she wasn’t always like that. As a child, she was ignored by her beloved father who instead gave all his love to his illegitimate daughter. When she found out, she changed and became a nasty piece. It was the inciting incident that formed her personality.

Phillips gave all of us who write (and read) a good question to answer. Why does a character relentlessly pursue a course of action when another one seems a lot easier? In my upcoming book, A Pinot for Your Thoughts, my heroine beats herself up trying to protect her deceased aunt’s reputation. A reader might think, “Stop. She’s gone. Why do you care?” Beth cares because at a significant moment her mother drilled into her that her aunt had a difficult childhood and would always need her family’s protection….an inciting incident.

A lesson for all of us is that we need to search beneath outer layers when trying to understand behavior. And we should be careful what we say and how we say it. This is particularly true around children. When I was six I overheard a great aunt criticize me to my mother, saying “too bad Pamela is fat.” It hurt and seeped into my subconscious. Growing up, I always considered myself fat. And yet when I look at old pictures, I see this skinny girl looking back at me.

We can all find “inciting incidents” in our own lives—compliments or criticisms that helped shape us. Some are direct, others are things we learned (or thought we learned) through rumor or by eavesdropping. Okay, okay, we shouldn’t be listening to other people’s conversations. But this blog isn’t about my bad habits. It’s about motivation.

Search your brain for inciting incidents in your own life…good and bad. I’ll bet you’ll find them.

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