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?

"It's a Great White and it's feeding in the waters off Amity!" Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Murray Hamilton in JAWS.

“It’s a Great White and it’s feeding in the waters off Amity!” Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Murray Hamilton in JAWS.

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:

 

BOGEY

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

 

APOLLO CREED

The Italian Stallion? I’m gonna give this chump a shot at the title.

 

JASON BOURNE

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!'”

 

CAPTAIN AHAB

Know this, men. Ye did not ship aboard the Pequod to hunt whales for profit. Ye

shipped to hunt and kill Moby Dick!

 

EVELYN MULWRAY

You see, Mr. Gittes, I’m Evelyn Mulwray.

 

ATTICUS FINCH

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.]

 

 

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16 Comments

  1. Mary Doyle on September 14, 2016 at 7:12 am

    It’s that guessing part that’s so tricky – thanks for another great post!

  2. Joel D Canfield on September 14, 2016 at 7:52 am

    Steve, do you think the Inciting Incident is always the Hook? Is it possible to Hook the reader on page 3, but have the Inciting Incident be the event that launches them unwilling on their quest at the end of Act 1?

    • Michael Beverly on September 14, 2016 at 8:45 am

      Yeah, I’m not sure why he’s saying the inciting incident equals the hook.

      The hook is often a prologue, or a snippet of backstory, an explosion, an sex scene, etc., that is not the inciting incident but merely a device to hook the reader into the story or movie.

      In Jaws, for instance, since that’s the picture above, the hook is amazing, a naked, stoned coed gets eaten while her stoned boyfriend is passed out on the sand.

      This can’t be the inciting incident, that comes later when Chief Brody gets notified that the victim was indeed eaten by a shark and not the victim of a boat propeller (or something less sinister).

      Brody goes through the point of no return when he allows the town counsel to talk him into not shutting the beaches and a little boy is eaten.

      The hook in Jaws happens to a woman who we don’t know, never care about, and who makes no decisions or changes, she’s got nothing to do with the story other than to hook the reader.

      And it’s a great hook, as Benchley tells part of the story from the POV of the fish.

      • LarryP on September 16, 2016 at 11:11 am

        As long as we’re going with the hook metaphor, think abut the structure of a hook: it has the point at the tip that initially pierces the fish (or other target), and then the barb a little further down that keeps the fish from simply pulling away. So with that in mind, let me offer the following:

        The sharp point of the hook is the Inciting Incident OF ACT I (i.e.; the inciting incident of what Shawn calls the “Beginning Hook”), and it comes very early. The “barb” of the hook is the Inciting Incident of the story AS A WHOLE, and comes as the crisis/climax of Act I.

        So, in Chinatown, the Inciting Incident of Act I is the first scene, when Ida Sessions, pretending to be Evelyn Mulwray, hires Jake Gittes to follow Hollis Mulwray. This is what gets the ball rolling, and is the “point” of the hook. The Inciting Incident of the story, is when the real Evelyn Mulrwray shows up (the crisis of Act I/Beginning Hook), 20 minutes into the movie (I’ve got it on DVR right now). This is the “barb” of the hook, that keeps us watching what might otherwise have become just another PI movie. Also, note that we first see her when Jake is telling an off-color joke involving “Chinamen”, surely no coincidence.

        • Romina on September 27, 2016 at 1:59 am

          LarryP, an excellent analogy to explain the confusion – thank you! I must agree that it doesn’t make sense for the hook to be the “main” inciting incident, but it does make sense if the hook = the inciting incident of Act I, which comes much earlier on than the main one.

  3. Beth Barany on September 14, 2016 at 8:32 am

    I find that I can’t worry too much about the hook — does it work? — in the planning and drafting stage. I make my best guess and write. Then in the editing/revising stage, I ask my critique partners and early readers: did the beginning hook you?

  4. Mia Sherwood Landau on September 14, 2016 at 10:09 am

    Oh, how I wish The Story Grid had been taught in 8th grade English, back in the last century. Not only would it have improved my writing, it would have informed my life. Recognizing inciting incidents and giving consideration to their logical outcomes would certainly have trumped some of my memorable, serendipitous choices. At least some of them… This post full of AH-HAs is refreshingly succinct about the big AH-HA inside the readers’ minds. That’s the moment the book happens, or not, don’t you think? That spark is both curiosity and creativity. The reader feels invested, and that is the proverbial hook. She’s hooked, because she’s invested. That’s what it means to me anyway.

  5. Dorothy Seeger on September 14, 2016 at 10:58 am

    I’m confused. Seems to me that you said previously that the Hook is what captures the attention of the reader and it has to come at the beginning so they will read the next sentence. The inciting incident sets the whole theme of the story and it can come later in Act I. What is the quest? Will the protagonist succeed or not?
    Could you or Callie clarify in the next post?

  6. Jeff Korhan on September 14, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    Seems obvious to me that the inciting incident is the hook.

    That’s when the real story begins.

    Everything prior to that is just set-up.

    • Joel D Canfield on September 14, 2016 at 10:01 pm

      The hook must come early. You can’t wait until the end of Act I to make your book unputdownable.

      • Jeff Korhan on September 15, 2016 at 8:48 am

        Given that Act I is early, I’ll agree with that.

        Since Act I is typically much shorter than Act II, late in Act I is still early.

        You specifically mention a book. And I see your point about ‘must come early’ for that.

        But for getting your daughter into Harvard, or whatever, I will want to take my time setting things to introduce the inciting incident at just the right time.

        • Joel D Canfield on September 16, 2016 at 6:28 am

          Setup is vital, of course. And the Inciting Incident can come after Setup is complete.

          But hooking the reader can’t come 25% of the way into the book, unless you’re writing deeply cerebral literary fiction. The Hook has to come early, and “early” means in the first few pages.

          • LarryP on September 17, 2016 at 7:47 am

            Joel, reposting my above comment here:

            As long as we’re going with the hook metaphor, think abut the structure of a hook: it has the point at the tip that initially pierces the fish (or other target), and then the barb a little further down that keeps the fish from simply pulling away. So with that in mind, let me offer the following:

            The sharp point of the hook is the Inciting Incident OF ACT I (i.e.; the inciting incident of what Shawn calls the “Beginning Hook”), and it comes very early. The “barb” of the hook is the Inciting Incident of the story AS A WHOLE, and comes as the crisis/climax of Act I.

            So, in Chinatown, the Inciting Incident of Act I is the first scene, when Ida Sessions, pretending to be Evelyn Mulwray, hires Jake Gittes to follow Hollis Mulwray. This is what gets the ball rolling, and is the “point” of the hook. The Inciting Incident of the story is when the real Evelyn Mulrwray shows up (the crisis of Act I/Beginning Hook), 20 minutes into the movie (I’ve got it on DVR right now). This is the “barb” of the hook, that keeps us watching what might otherwise have become just another PI movie. Also, note that we first see her when Jake is telling an off-color joke involving “Chinamen”, surely no coincidence.



  7. chris on September 20, 2016 at 11:08 am

    The hook is the most influential piece of the tale. As mentioned, it is the moment that ignites the reader or viewers interest. The job of the hook is not just to start the story, but to also show the audience the overall point of the story. The hook should give the ultimate purpose to the protagonists journey, while also conveying the message of the protagonists journey.

  8. David Kaufmann on September 21, 2016 at 10:45 am

    “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.”

    Why would novels not follow the three-part structure that Aristotle says, and Shawn (and others) develop, apply to all narratives? Yes, some novels ramble – the great 19th century tomes, the modernist works (Ulysses, Remembrance of All Thing Past, etc.) but there still has to be a structure. In fact, there’s a cottage industry of literary scholars deciphering or discovering the structure – first the simple plot, which apparently must be three-part, then deep structures – of the modernist & post-modernist (even stream of consciousness) works.

    Interestingly, and this is something I’ve been thinking about and working on my entire professional life, the heart of argument, or logic, is also three-part – the syllogism.

    Thanks.

  9. Brendon Lumgair on September 26, 2016 at 12:32 am

    I gain more enjoyment from watching movies now that I am learning the fundamental aspects of story telling, like the Inciting Incident.

    I went to see the new Ben Hur movie because I love ancient Roman history.

    The first scene are the two brother racing horses in an imaginary Circus. They were ferocious competitors and it was exciting to watch, hooking my attention. I could see the climax of the chariot race embedded in the scene.

    It was fun to see recognize the patterns of a story, while viewing the story.

    I don’t know why the critics ripped the movie to shreds. As I learn to further analyze stories, perhaps it will come clear.

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