The Inciting Incident: Problem vs Opportunity

I confess I’m having trouble with my Act I. This is unusual for me. Typically I find setting up the story the easy part compared to Act II & III. So what’s wrong? After picking my first half dozen scenes apart and rewriting them multiple times, the problem finally became clear:

The Inciting Incident lacks a certain “oomph!”

Inciting Incident

Right, Heather, because “oomph” is such a clearly defined thing! Touché. But at least I have zeroed in on the issue. Now to examine the parts and what I could be missing…

Checklist: A Good Inciting Incident

1) Without it, the story would never happen. Y/N

2) It happens to the protagonist and forces them to react. Y/N

3) It is life-changing for the protagonist. Y/N

4) It is a problem or an opportunity. Y/N

Though I completed this checklist with the requisite YES to all, my Inciting Incident was still lacking. Then it occurred to me that the key to my issue lay in point 4. But before I get to that, let’s go through all the points…

First, the Inciting Incident is an event that happens, and if it didn’t happen, the protagonist would never get involved in the story. It can be as simple as Park letting Eleanor sit with him on the bus her first day of school (ELEANOR & PARK). If that hadn’t happened, they would never have spoken to each other, let alone fallen in love.

Second, though Park made the decision to let Eleanor sit with him, he felt forced to do it since no one else would. Likewise, co-protagonist Eleanor had no say in this event; she sat with Park because he was the only person who moved over. The event happened and it forced them to react.

Third, that simple act of sitting together changed everything for them. Park changed because he met Eleanor, and Eleanor changed because she met Park. Without giving anything away, let’s just say that these two teens had a transformative effect on each other.

Fourth, this Inciting Incident presented itself as a problem – Eleanor had no where to sit, and Park didn’t want to sit with the weird new girl. At that moment, the bus seating arrangement is a problem they are forced to deal with.

Most stories have a Problem Inciting Incident. In THE HUNGER GAMES Katniss’s sister’s name is called during The Reaping. In UNWIND Connor, Risa and Lev are all sent to be unwound. In ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD ghost hunter Cas gets the assignment to eliminate dangerous dead girl Anna. In GIRL, STOLEN blind Cheyenne is kidnapped. In NONE OF THE ABOVE Kristin discovers she is intersex. These are all problems that happen to the protagonists and kick-start a story that changes their lives.

But what about an Opportunity Inciting Incident? Opportunities are generally good things, whereas problems are bad things the hero must overcome. Problems naturally inject a crucial component into the story: CONFLICT. So where’s the conflict when a solution presents itself to the hero so soon in the story? How does a writer make an Opportunity just as intriguing and tension-filled as a Problem?

Well, it all comes down to the set up.

With a Problem Inciting Incident, the hero starts in an okay place. Not perfect, maybe even unhappy, but he doesn’t have to do anything about it. He’s doing okay. For example, Katniss’s life is hardly ideal in THE HUNGER GAMES, but she’s getting by and would never have become the face of the revolution if her sister’s name wasn’t called, forcing Katniss to take her place in the Games. With a Problem, the hero can even start in a great place. Take my new favourite TV show (iZOMBIE) for example. Liv’s life is pretty much perfect until the inciting incident when she’s infected and becomes a zombie.

But with an Opportunity Inciting Incident, two things are required. First, the hero must start in a really low place with an insurmountable problem that desperately needs a solution. Basically, the conflict must be present before the inciting incident. You can’t start this kind of story with the hero in an okay place; they need to be at rock bottom.

For example, in HOW TO SAVE A LIFE Mandy is a pregnant teenager with no boyfriend and no family support who knows she can’t give her baby a good life, so she looks into putting it up for adoption. The Inciting Incident is when Mrs. MacSweeney decides to adopt Mandy’s baby and let Mandy live with their family until she gives birth. That’s an opportunity, a solution to Mandy’s problem. In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, Hazel has cancer and has shut herself off from the rest of the world and is depressed, then she meets Augustus and sparks fly. Augustus is an opportunity for a connection and a solution to Hazel’s loneliness.

Second, the opportunity has to come with a catch. It can’t be a perfect solution otherwise there’d be no story! In HOW TO SAVE A LIFE, the catch is that the MacSweeney family isn’t perfect and maybe Mandy shouldn’t give up her baby. In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS the catch is that Hazel doesn’t want anyone to love her because her imminent death will hurt them. The hero doesn’t always have to see the catch, but it must be there to provide tension. For example, in the movie BIG, the kid thinks being grown up is awesome, yet the audience can see the problem with this situation and are waiting on pins and needles for it all to blow up in his face. In RED RISING, the hero is fully aware of the catch (his mission is so dangerous there’s a good chance he’ll die), but he’s been brought so low by tragedies in the opening scenes that despite the risk he takes the opportunity to bring down his enemies.

From all this I’ve concluded that my Inciting Incident is definitely an Opportunity, and the reason it lacks “oomph” is because I haven’t brought my heroine low enough to make the Inciting Incident really matter. I need to destroy her dreams. I need to annihilate her hope so that this opportunity feels like the life-changing event that it is. It must seem like her salvation! Not just a better way to pursue her goal, but the only way to pursue her goal. And, of course, there’s gotta be a catch, but luckily I already have that part in place.

What about you guys? Have you struggled with Inciting Incidents? Do you usually write Problem or Opportunity Inciting Incidents?

PS – And to all my fellow Canadians, HAPPY THANKSGIVING!


Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

10 thoughts on “The Inciting Incident: Problem vs Opportunity”

  1. The distinction between problem and opportunity is a really interesting one! I suppose, yes, his life really would have to suck first, otherwise the opening wouldn’t have enough of a ‘hook’ to it to fully engage a reader (one of the initial issues with Sex and the City, maybe… all the women are in good, affluent places, and don’t have much at stake whether they get or don’t get the guy).

    1. My memories of Sex And The City are foggy, so I can’t comment on an episode’s typical inciting incident, but that could definitely be the reason the show didn’t hook you. Thanks for the insight, Alex!

  2. Funny, I wrote a blog post about inciting incidents last month and likened it to a problem as well, or the origins of a story-long problem that the protagonist needs to resolve. 🙂

    Great post, Heather. I agree with you on the four parts that an inciting incident needs in order to work. It has to kick off the story. It has to happen to the protagonist and force them to react. It has to be personal for them. And, it has to present them with a problem to solve or an opportunity (with caveats) they can take advantage of. It makes me think about my own WIP’s inciting incident – and checks off all four boxes. 🙂 (I’d say my inciting incident is a problem.)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sara! I think I too have written Problem Inciting Incidents up until now, which is maybe why I struggled with the opening of my current WIP. Yay for learning! 🙂

  3. Once again, an incredibly timely post. In the current draft of my WIP, before the inciting incident (an Opportunity with a capital O), the protagonist loses what he thinks is his one shot at success because someone else turned off a microphone and he didn’t know to turn it back on. Perfectly believable, but so what? Over the weekend I realized that I need to make my protagonist’s early failure be his own damn fault, rising out of his own fears–rather than his ignorance of something he wouldn’t know anyway. Even if the action plays out pretty much the same way, it’ll be way more compelling if he messes it up himself, with or without the “help” of an unpredictable stranger.

    And I’m guessing you’re “unstuck” now that you’ve figured it out, right?

    1. Making early failures be the protagonist’s own fault is a fantastic way to give more “oomph” to the Inciting Incident. And yes, I am unstuck now! Thanks for the comment, Marianne!

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