The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: Inciting Event and Key Event
The first quarter of your story hinges upon two important and irreversible moments: the inciting event and the key event. I’ve saved our discussion of inciting and key events until this late into the series because these events can take place at any number of the structure points we’ve already discussed. Now that we’ve got a sense of the hook, the first act, and the first major plot point, we can see more clearly how and where the inciting and key events affect these moments.
Sometimes the key and inciting events are the same event (the Great Sebastian’s arrival in The Greatest Show on Earth); sometimes they happen one right after the other (the children arriving in Narnia through the painting and their subsequent joining up with Caspian in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader); sometimes the entirety of the first act separates them (the arrival of the prisoners in the camp and the digging of the first tunnel in The Great Escape), and sometimes one or the other occurs before the story proper even begins (the war in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood). Most authors are familiar with the idea of the inciting event as being the moment when the story “officially” begins and the character’s life is forever changed. However, we find a lot of misconceptions floating around about the inciting event, and many of them result from the simple fact that the “key event” is often forgotten altogether.
What are the key and inciting events?
In the words of Syd Field in his legendary book Screenplay, “the inciting incident… sets the story in motion … [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.” If we were to envision our story as a row of dominos, the inciting event would be the first domino. When we tip over this particular domino, we set the whole line in motion. Generally, the inciting event isn’t difficult to find. It’s the moment that changes everything for the main character and puts him on the path he will tread for the rest of the story. No need to get too specific about this. Obviously, every event in life is connected to an event that preceded it. If the character hadn’t been born (and if his parents hadn’t met, and if their parents hadn’t met), he would most certainly not be going on his current adventure. But unless you’re writing the next David Copperfield, his birth or his grandparents’ marriage isn’t likely to be your inciting event. Look nearer to home for the event that directly influences the plot.
Although the inciting event and the key event can sometimes be the same thing, they’re usually distinct. The key event is the moment when the character becomes engaged by the inciting event. For example, in most detective stories, the inciting event (the crime) takes place apart from the main character, who doesn’t become involved with it until the key event,
when he takes on the case. The key event is the glue that sticks the character to the impetus of the inciting event.
Where do the key and inciting events belong?
Generally, we find two schools of thought on the proper location for the inciting event. Either it’s supposed to be found in the hook in the first chapter, no exceptions, or it’s supposed to be the first plot point at the 25% mark, no exceptions. I’ve subscribed to both these philosophies at one point or another in my career, and now believe them both to be far too dogmatic. The hook and the first plot point belong at their given spots, no matter where the inciting event ends up. Often the inciting event is the hook; often it’s the first plot point; and often it’s somewhere in between. What’s important isn’t so much nailing down your inciting event to a specific place in the story, as it is presenting the inciting event at the optimal moment. Sometimes that means throwing the inciting event at the reader right away, and sometimes that means holding off to give them the biggest bang for their buck at the quarter mark.
The key event almost always takes place after the inciting event, since its job is to build upon the inciting event and make it impossible for the main character to turn away from it. The earlier in the story you place your inciting event, the more time you’ll have to work in your key event. But if the inciting event doesn’t occur until the latest point (the first major plot point at the quarter mark), then the key event needs to occur promptly afterwards.
The best way to get a sense for the differences between the inciting event and key event, as well as the proper placement of both in relation to each other, is to study them in action in the works of the pros. Let’s examine our chosen books and films.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): The arrival of the Bingleys and Darcy in Meryton is the inciting event that starts the chain of events moving irreversibly. But the main character, Lizzy, doesn’t become involved with the inciting event until she meets and is rejected by Darcy at the Meryton assembly dance. This is the key event.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): This classic movie uses the entirety of its first act to leisurely introduce and build its characters. Its inciting event doesn’t occur until the first major plot point when George’s father dies of a stroke. This is the moment that forever changes George’s life and sets the subsequent plot points in motion. But until George made the decision to take his father’s place as Executive Secretary of the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan, he could have walked away at any point. His decision to stay in Bedford Falls constitutes the key event because it officially engages him in the plot.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): The inciting event that starts the plot rolling in this science fiction classic is the invasion of the Formic aliens eighty years earlier. Without this invasion, Ender (as a third child) would never even have been allowed to have been born. This event takes place long before the beginning of the book and is discussed only in retrospect. The key eventthat draws Ender irrevocably into the battle is his brutally efficient response to the bully Stilson, which prompts Col. Graff and the International Fleet Selective Service to requisition Ender as a Battle School student.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): Again, here we find the inciting event taking place before the film opens. After the opening credits, the viewers are informed that the British Admiralty has instructed Captain Jack Aubrey to intercept the “French privateer Acheron en route to Pacific intent on carrying the war into those waters… Sink, burn, or take her as a prize.” But not until the key event when the Acheron attacks the HMS Surprise during the opening sequence do the characters become inextricably entangled in the events of the plot.
In studying the placement, use, and relation of the inciting and key events in our examples, what can we learn about integrating these important story moments into our own books?
1. The inciting and key events need to take place within the first quarter of the book, probably either in the beginning chapter or at the first major plot point, but we’re free to choose the moment best suited to our stories.
2. The inciting event sets the line of plot dominoes in motion.
3. The key event pulls the main character into that plot.
4. The key event almost always follows the inciting event.
5. Sometimes the inciting event can take place prior to the beginning chapter, but, for maximum effect, the key event should take place within the story proper, so the reader can experience it.
The integral relationship between the inciting event and the key event will power your entire story. Don’t settle for anything less than the most powerful and memorable combination you can come up with. Place them strategically within the first quarter of the story and use them to engage your reader just as irretrievably as you do your main character.