I WANT to talk about the difference between the inciting incident and the call to adventure in a novel.
Recently there’s been a lot of discussion on ye olde Twitter about whether or not you should start your story in the midst of action and how long you should hold off before introducing the inciting incident. Reading some of these posts, I get the feeling some people are confusing the inciting incident with the call to adventure, so I thought I’d be a b-word and break down the difference between the two. Story structure is pretty important, after all.
The inciting incident is an interesting event that occurs really, really, REALLY EARLY ON IN YOUR STORY. It’s not the big moment that changes everything for the protagonist, thrusting them voluntarily or otherwise into the story’s plot. Rather, it’s a scene designed to pique the reader’s interest, something that often turns out to be relevant to the plot later on. It’s not the Big Thing That Changes Everything. It’s a little thing. A rumbling of thunder in the distance, you might say, right before the storm rolls in.
Call to Adventure
The call to adventure, however, is that big, life-changing event. It’s the moment when the protagonist’s old reality disappears, and they face a new day fraught with peril. It’s when the journey officially begins.
So what’s the difference?
Let’s look at a couple examples. I’m going to make them up off the top of my head:
Inciting Incident: A young woman notes a sudden and alarming shift in her husband’s tone of voice while she’s getting the kids ready for school.
Call to Adventure: At the end of chapter three, she comes home to find that he’s packed his bags and left without warning, leaving her to raise the kids and face life alone. With no other choice, she begins to pursue a career that was just a dream to her in her former life as a housewife.
Inciting Incident: A man finds himself transfixed by a bit of spilled milk on the counter top and is momentarily paralyzed with anxiety. He brushes it off and cleans up the mess.
Call to Adventure: A chapter or two later, he has a flashback from childhood, a blocked memory of when he and his parents were involved in a collision with a milk truck and his parents were killed. He recalls the milk spilled all over the highway as a firefighter carried him away from the wreckage. This memory comes with the revelation that he’s adopted, and he sets out to find his biological family.
Inciting Incident: The story opens in the midst of action with a sellsword fighting a band of thieves. He kills the thieves quickly, though maybe one escapes into the woods. Then our protagonist finds a message in one thief’s pocket. It’s an undelivered letter from the king, the seal unbroken. Our protagonist realizes these were the assholes who recently robbed and killed the king’s messenger, and now that he’s delivered justice and retrieved the letter unread, he knows he’s likely earned himself a reward.
Call to Adventure: The king is impressed not only by this sellsword’s abilities but by the loyalty he showed in not cracking the seal and reading sensitive kingly information. He offers our protagonist a job going on such and such quest for pay he can retire on. This quest becomes the primary story arc. Maybe along the way he runs into that one thief who escaped.
Does the inciting incident require action?
In these tweets I’ve been reading, I’ve seen literary agents and published authors talking about the recent trend of writers starting their books with action–and their distaste for it. One tweeter suggested you shouldn’t present an inciting incident in the first chapter at all, and another–a literary agent–suggested the inciting incident shouldn’t happen until 20,000 words in.
The first tweeter is simply wrong. Your inciting incident–your interesting thing that grabs the reader–should categorically happen in the first chapter. If it doesn’t, then that’s not the proper first chapter of your book.
The second tweeter is simply mistaking the call to adventure for the inciting incident. Yes, the call to adventure shouldn’t happen until a couple chapters in, but if we’re 20,000 words deep by the time we get there, I hope it’s an epic fantasy or sci-fi space opera that spans 200K.
In the sellsword-fighting-thieves situation I described in the third example, finding the letter is the inciting incident–not the sword fighting. The fact that we open with sword fighting suggests this is an everyday part of our protagonist’s life. There’s nothing particularly interesting about it apart from the fact that it’s fun to read. That said, it’s a-okay to open your story with a fight scene so long as the fight itself isn’t meant to serve as the inciting incident. There needs to be a why. The fight scene needs to bring forth something compelling.
So where should the inciting incident and call to adventure appear?
To sum up, your inciting incident should occur in the first chapter–in fact, the inciting incident is why the first chapter is the first chapter–but don’t confuse “inciting incident” with action for the sake of action. An inciting incident might be a character staring at spilled milk. It might be an unsettling tone of voice. Or it might be a king’s letter in a thief’s pocket.
Your call to adventure should probably occur around 10-20% of the way into the book. This is where the character sets out on the adventure or realizes they’re being stalked by a killer or is thrust into a new and inescapable situation, and there’s no going back.
There. Fixed it for ya.