Last week I talked briefly on exposition, the "hook" of your book. This week I figured I'd keep going and talk about the inciting incident because, well, it kind of just makes sense to me.
The inciting incident of your novel is basically what I'd call the cannon. It's huge in some way or another, and it shoots your story off into the sunset at a breakneck speed (figuratively). This is the point of no return, where the plot takes off and your character's life is changed in some way forever.
Think of it another way: the inciting incident is your first domino. If it's never tipped over, then there's an entire series of events that would never happen and at least half of your book would become obsolete.
What I personally love about these things is that they can be so different from novel to novel. It can involve the death of a character, meeting a new character, something good happening or something bad. It can be anything so long as it has an impact on your character's life. Want a third analogy? Picture a giat boulder on top of a hill. The inciting incident is more than likely going to be that tiny little nudge that sends the thing carreening into the village below, and it doesn't care who suffers for it.
Keep in mind, though, that it doesn't have to necessarily be huge or even impact everything in your plot. I'll give you an example of each:
It Doesn't Have to Be "Huge"
In my Secret Project, my main character gets high, and that's basically the cause of everything that happens next. Because of her inebriated state, she almost gets hit by a car, and she's pushed out of the way by a rather rude guy who proceeds to insult her.
My MC later meets a set of people, thinks nothing of them, and doesn't notice them again until she realizes they're friends with the guy who saved her life. Then she cozies up to them for a reason completely unrelated to the first incident. And so the dominoes fall, all because she met the rude guy when he saved her life.
Nothing catastrophic happened, and yet the plot is kicked off.
Special Note: there is an event that happens ten years before the book takes place, which is considered extremely huge. While it is an inciting incident in some ways, the happenings within the book are kicked off by the event I already described. The point? You can have more than one incident that sets things off in your book, they'll just apply to different story lines that will eventually tangle together.
Which leads me to my next point:
It Doesn't Have to Impact Everything
My other current project, THE HOLLOW MEN, follows two girls: Moe and Ronnie. They both have completely different inciting incidents, as well.
In Moe's case, this incident impacts her entire plot line; her half of the story simply would not exist had her incident not taken place.
In Ronnie's case, though, the inciting incident only pushes through about half of her storyline, inviting questions about a mole within her rebel group and making her retreat even more into her quiet and violent nature than usual. She's really just extra hard on herself. It's not until her path and Moe's intersect that the rest of her story really starts to take off.
My point here: Ronnie's inciting incident didn't kick off her entire storyline because there are still a number of events that rely on outside influences.
I really hope that makes sense. Sometimes I'm bad at explaining things, and if you're confused then shoot me a message and I'll do whatever I can to make myself clearer.
My point is: your inciting incident has to be a point that impacts your character in some way or another so profusely that they might never recover from it. If they do, they'll never forget it. It can also be a tremendous push, giving your character the incentive they need to keep moving forward throughout the novel.
If it helps, here's the events in a few novels I've read, recently, that I personally view as the inciting incident:
Servants of the Storm (Delilah S. Dawson)-Dovey sees her best friend at their favorite cafe, a year after the best friend died.
Dorothy Must Die (Danielle Paige)-Amy Gumm is transported to Oz through a twister.
Gates of Thread and Stone (Lori M. Lee)-Kai's brother, Reev, goes missing.
Notice something: if you look up the summaries to these books on Goodreads/Amazon/Barnes and Noble, each of these incidents is one of the first things you'll read. This can help you figure out your own: write a small pitch/summary of your novel. The inciting incident-the thing that ignites the fire-will probably be one of the first things you write (or hint at) in order to catch the appeal of a reader.
The point of no return. What it means to kick off a plot and why the inciting incident is so important (Click to Tweet)
The cannon, the first domino, and the boulder that rolls down a hill. @Rae_Slater talks inciting incidents (Click to Tweet)