Friday Speak Out!: Inciting Incidents

Friday, September 28, 2018
by Susanne Brent

Everything changed when three coyotes came to the city park where I walk my dog, Darla, each morning. People who before allowed their dogs to roam freely, used leashes. One woman began carrying a stick for fear the coyotes might attack her collie. People who never spoke to me before would warn me about the coyotes lurking beneath the trees or in the bushes. Groups of pet owners gathered in small groups in the park to discuss what action could be taken to make the park safe again.

Much conflict was provoked by the arrival of the three coyotes. The coyotes were a prime example of the writing technique called inciting incident from which all other action springs. Inciting incidents may be large or small. Whichever, it brings change. Due to the coyotes, no more safe park strolls, but instead fear one of the unwelcome predators might try to gobble up a pet.

To write about a quiet park with graceful trees and birds singing would be lovely but.... boring. The coyotes made it interesting.

Not all inciting incidents are obvious. For example, I received a letter a few years ago from an attorney involving the pension of a man I once lived with in the 1970s. The man wanted to retire, but he had put me as a beneficiary on his pension. He couldn’t collect his pension without my signature releasing the funds. We hadn’t spoken in decades but, due to that signature we had both long ago forgotten, we were reconnected. And from there a story, a dramatic story better told another day, began. All from a tiny dotted line.

Often when I read, I like to define the inciting incidents in books. Sometimes it’s complicated, but often it’s easy to see. In the recent bestseller Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng the inciting incident occurs when single mother and artist, Mia Warren, and her teenager daughter move to Shaker Heights and shake things up. In Sherlock Holmes mysteries, the action is fueled each time a new client visits the detective hoping for help.

Look at favorite books and try to pin point the incident which ignited the action. There is usually one event, an unexpected visitor, a terrible storm, a death, a birth, which strikes the match to launch the story. We can even look at our own lives for examples.

The coyotes evoked change which created emotion at the once calm park. Some people were afraid and threw rocks at the animals. Some called animal control. People, like myself, felt conflicted. The coyotes were hungry, but I didn’t want them to eat my dog, Darla.

I am happy to report no coyotes have hurt any dogs. That I know of. But in my imagination, and possibly one day in a story, I am thinking of all sorts of dramatic possibilities incited from the coyote’s unwelcome arrival.

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Born in Chicago, I grew up reading the Chicago Sun Times that my dad brought home every night after work. The newspaper inspired me to become a journalist. I earned a journalism degree from Metropolitan State University in Denver and moved to Arizona to work on a weekly newspaper. I wrote on a freelance basis for a variety of publications including The Arizona Republic. I am hoping to complete my novel this year, and I write a blog. Find me at
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Susanne--First, I'm glad Darla has not gotten gobbled up by a coyote.

Secondly, I wish you good luck with your novel. I am also trying to complete a WIP (a NaNoWriMo from 2016) and by the end of October, I'd like to finish this draft (because beginning in November, I have a different WIP to finish ;).

Thanks for this post. Thanks for reminding us of the events that set the line of dominoes toppling... and how our imagination can change things up when no coyote attacks happen.

Susanne Brent said...

Thanks Sioux! Yes it's actually sort of fun to pick up a favorite book and decide what you believe the inciting incident to be. It might be small but it can grow into something very big! An entire novel. Best wishes on your novel and thank you for the support!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Susanne, I loved the intro story about the coyotes. I often see them in threes! That means they were youngsters, brothers and sisters, still hunting in a pack together. I actually grew up in Coyote Hills, and when I broke my ankle trail running this year there were three coyotes on the trail with me, and I actually felt comforted that I wasn't alone. I know, I'm weird! I do lock my cat inside before it gets dark though. So I'm conflicted as well. :)

That story about the pension and the man you lived with in the 70s is amazing! If you haven't written about that, I think it would make for a fascinating personal essay or a spark for a fictional story.

It's also a really smart idea to pinpoint the inciting incident in books, and I would love to see a chart made of all popular books! That would be so helpful.

Good luck on your novel! Are you NaNoing this year? I'm considering it for my memoir.

Thank you for this beautifully written and insightful post! :)

Renee Roberson said...

Great explanation (and real-life examples) of inciting incidents! Now I want to go back to some of my favorite books and see if I can pick out those incidents. It's also something to keep in mind as I work on my own creative non-fiction. I can think of one inciting incident in an essay I recently completed--the day I was attacked by two neighborhood dogs while walking to the bus stop. It is a memory so powerful I can't forget it, and in the essay I tied it around how I had been feeling a sense of independence with a personalized keychain in my pocket so I could stay by myself after school. Thank you for sharing, Susanne, and I'm glad the coyotes have kept the peace so far!

Margo Dill said...

Great advice and good examples of inciting incidents. I think about this a lot when starting a new story or novel (or revising an old, poorly written one!)

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