Inciting Incident = Hook
Why do we even have inciting incidents? Who says there has to be one? Can’t we just plunge in with Word One? Why are we worrying so much about “starting” the story? Doesn’t the story start all by itself?
Answer: the inciting incident is indispensable because the inciting incident is the Hook.
When Shawn talks about Hook, Build, Payoff (Act One, Act Two, Act Three), he’s talking about the unshakeable structure of a screenplay, a novel (some of ’em anyway), a play, a joke, a seduction, a plot to overthrow a despot, not to mention your secret 18-year-plan to get your newborn daughter into Harvard.
Beginning, Middle, End.
Beginning = Act One.
Heart of Act One = Inciting incident.
Inciting incident = Hook.
Consider these all-time great grabbers:
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
The Italian Stallion? I’m gonna give this chump a shot at the title.
Who am I?
What you and I as writers must ask ourselves of our own Inciting incident (once we’ve identified it) is this killer question:
Will this moment hook the reader?
True, we’re guessing. There’s no way we can know what our reader or viewer will think or how she/he will react. But, using our deepest empathy, imagining ourselves as profoundly as we can into her/his place, we must ask:
“Is this inciting incident engaging? Does it capture and hold the reader’s attention? Does it make her sit up straight and think, ‘Oooh, this story is really coming alive. I can’t wait to see what happens next!'”
Know this, men. Ye did not ship aboard the Pequod to hunt whales for profit. Ye
shipped to hunt and kill Moby Dick!
You see, Mr. Gittes, I’m Evelyn Mulwray.
Scout, I’ll be defending Tom Robinson.
As Bruce Springsteen once said, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”
The inciting incident—the Hook—is that spark.
[Special thanks to Joel Canfield, whose Comment two weeks ago inspired this post.]