By Shelley Widhalm
A novel can be structured in three or more acts or 15 beats (see Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!® – The Language of Storytelling). Or in some other forms, whether you story map or wing it. What I find confusing is the difference between inciting incidents and triggering incidents.
It often depends on your writing format: screenplay, literary fiction, short story, or novella.
Despite being commonly interchanged depending on the source, there is a difference. A good starting point is the basic structure of a novel. Structure is essential for genre fiction, but not for literary fiction, which focuses less on a predictable narrative and doesn’t necessarily follow specific rules.
The Three Act Structure
Think Beowulf. The Lord of The Rings. Or The Matrix. The protagonists are in their ordinary world, doing ordinary things, and feeling comfortable. (Personally, I like my daily coffee and no conflicts.) A story, however, would be boring without an inciting incident to catapult the protagonists into the pursuant adventure and search for happiness, treasure, and fulfillment.
An inciting incident happens early, is urgent, and life-changing. It serves as the call to adventure, forcing the protagonist to leave their everyday routine to face obstacles, challenges, and learn new skills.
In story mapping, the climax is the protagonist’s dark night of the soul with the ultimate trial. The character is at the most risk of not accomplishing their missing. They have to face their inner world and what they’ve been fighting within before they can succeed (this isn’t fun in real life either). Put a pin in this for later.
The protagonist transforms, not necessarily getting what they want, but rewarded nonetheless. They are changed and return to their world, or a new horizon with more skills to handle whatever may come. They’ve learned an important lesson, gained or lost something, and suffered (yes, our characters have to suffer and suffer immensely).
Breaking Down The Inciting Incident
Industry experts say within the first eight to 12 pages, but it shouldn’t be too soon, even though the advice is to hook the reader right away. The first few pages need to show the ordinary world and help create empathy for the protagonist, allowing readers to identify with them somehow.
Too soon and readers might not understand the stakes.
It’s what gets the story moving and propels the action of the story. It creates the external goal for the protagonist and often prevents any notion of things remaining the same. The protagonist may not understand the extent of the problem but will undertake the journey to resolve it.
The Triggering Incident
I bring you back to Act Two. Or perhaps page fifty in Adult Fiction. Or LOTR Book two: The Two Towers (novel not film). This is the moment our protagonist doesn’t think they can go on. “It’s something big to pivot the action,” Trai Cartwright, a screenwriting instructor said. “It’s the point where the protagonist has lost everything and can’t see a way forward.”
Before this point, they may experience a false resolution or a breather (for me, that’s a large glass of merlot). It’s a moment that the protagonist believes they can return to everyday life. And as they sit and relax or actually get a moment to rest, the sky falls. Their determination falters and doubt sets.
This incident serves as the pivot toward the rising action where the obstacles may grow more difficult, the cost becomes much higher. (And if we’re talking Hero’s Journey, where some protagonists fail and become antagonists. Think Vader.) Things get even worse, escalating toward the resolution with struggles and pursuit. The tension grows in the interplay.
Incite versus Trigger
I like to think of the inciting incident as inciting the action. It initiates or literally spurs our characters into action. It’s a flame that sets fire to their world or, on a more positive note: a burst of water that sprouts up to encourage playing in the water.
And while Merriam-Webster defines trigger as “something that acts like a mechanical trigger in initiating a process or reaction.” I prefer “to cause the explosion of.” The triggering incident explodes all of the outer circumstances while also eliciting a powerful emotional reaction within the protagonist. The triggering incident puts everything at risk. The protagonists are not only reacting but moving toward actuation. In technical terms, motion essential for function.