Let’s Say: The Inciting Incident

Let’s say you’re at a public event and you run into a couple, who also happen to be your dear friends, and let’s say you look at the man and then say with great solemnity, “You have my condolences,” and the woman says as a joke, “Why? Because he’s with me?” And let’s say the man thinks that’s what you mean, too, and let’s say you don’t respond. You just turn and walk away, leaving the couple to think what they think. Actually, you’ve been offering consolation because you know the man is a Cleveland Indians fan and they’ve just lost the World Series. You’re as surprised as the couple. You have no idea why you’ve chosen to let the miscommunication stand.

Let’s say you’re a fiction writer and all that I’ve described above has happened in your imagination. You’ve just created an inciting incident, one that now demands a plot. All that follows will be the result of this initial episode.

So here’s one way of getting quickly into a story or even a novel.

1. Have a character say something to two other characters who share some sort of history (spouses, brothers or sisters, close friends or not so close friends, etc.). Let the thing said be interpreted in a way that the speaker didn’t intend, but let the speaker be satisfied to allow the misunderstanding.

2. Create a causal chain of events that will flow from this inciting incident. You might imagine, for example, that the couple will surely speak of this in private. What sorts of actions might that lead to for them? What might one of them do or say that would cause the other one to respond with words or actions?

3. Think about the speaker who walks away in silence. What might he or she do as a result of his action?

4. Let these courses of action—these causal chains—build in intensity until something becomes clear about the relationship of the couple and the interior life of the speaker. Let the actions of the couple and the actions of the speaker press against one another until something of value rises to the top.

Miscommunication can be a powerful tool for getting a piece of fiction underway. The first incident puts the plot into motion. It also starts to delve down into the characters. They have to face what they’ve said or done. They have to move ahead by saying or doing something else. Miscommunication makes it impossible for people to be silent or still. A good inciting incident will give your fiction movement and momentum.


  1. Jeanette (Josie) E. Cook on November 14, 2016 at 10:08 am

    A wonderful way to get the words flowing!

    Thanks for sharing, Josie. 🙂

    I hope you are in that blissed state ; a happy state of marriage!

    • Lee Martin on November 14, 2016 at 12:49 pm

      Thanks, Josie!

  2. Richard Gilbert on November 14, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    I love this prompt, Lee. Another great one from you for my collection!

    • Lee Martin on November 15, 2016 at 11:49 am

      Ah, Richard. You’re so kind.

  3. Linda Thorne on August 5, 2017 at 9:47 pm

    Really enjoyed this and thought of many times when I said the wrong thing at the wrong time. But this is a way to get a story going. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on August 6, 2017 at 4:32 pm

      Thanks for reading my blog, Linda, and for taking the time to leave a comment.

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