One of the things I’m researching to figure out my beginning is the inciting incident. I’ve always thought of it as something splashy that happens. That’s easy to do, since some of the descriptions of it suggest disaster should occur, and some mix it up with the first plot point. Timothy Fish notes:
Some people have the idea that the inciting incident must be one of the most exciting scenes in a story. Sometimes it is, but incitement occurs more on an emotional level. The inciting incident is something that causes the character to see a need for change. An inciting incident may be very low key, such as a phone call or an e-mail telling the character about something that has happened.
In trying to dig up research, I’ve found examples where it looks like people went straight to the bigger and more obvious conclusion–the car accident, the bank robbery, etc. So I’ve been reading Hooked, a book that focuses just on beginnings. Here’s one thing that caught my eye:
The inciting incident creates the character’s intial surface problem and introduces the first inkling of the story-worthy problem.
The surface problem is the overall issue, and the story-worthy problem is what results from that overall issue. I tuned into to Total Recall, a science fiction movie, after reading Hooked and watched for the inciting incident in the beginning. Bet you think it occurs when Quade is in the machine and the doctors discover he’s already had a memory implant. Nope. It occurs in the first five minutes of the movie, when Quade is riding the subway. He sees a commercial advertising “Recall” vacations and suddenly decides he wants a vacation on Mars. The movie spends the next bit before the visit to Recall developing that for whatever reason Quade is drawn to this vacation on Mars, despite other characters who try to change his mind. Without that trigger, the rest of the story would not happen.
And it’s not big or splashy. It’s very simple. And it isn’t obvious this is in the inciting incident until it leads to the crisis for the Quade.
Timothy Fish (a different post than the one quoted above) takes the description of the inciting incident further:
Just to be clear, the inciting incident never takes place on page one of a novel. This is because page one and several of the pages that follow are taken up with defining the current situation of the protagonist for our readers.
My main character in Miasma has been an environment where they’re trained to trust the leadership. If you’ve ever been in the military, this is what the military teaches to the privates. My main character is not in the military, but there are parallels. But one of the leaders is part of a secret society, which needs something from the main character–something only the main character can provide and no one else. So, in the leader’s recruiting efforts, he triggers the inciting incident over a series of scenes. He does the wrong sale and makes the character shift his thinking about trusting the leadership. The decision the character makes as a result of that puts him against the secret society and a threat to exposing their plans.