Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.45: NaNoWriMo Week 2 – Inciting Incident

Welcome to the first official week of National Novel Writing Month (or, almost the end of this week)! In this episode, we dive into how to write an inciting incident. 

What is an inciting incident? It is often the thing that goes wrong in your story. Within the first page, writers should have something go wrong. But what should this thing be? Our writers have some advice for questions you can ask yourself in order to understand your novel’s inciting incident. 

Also, Dan shares a recipe for an inciting incident that he learned from screenwriting, and Mary Robinette talks about the three “trauma attachment points.” 


What does failure look like for your character? Use this to direct your inciting incident. 

Thing of the Week: 

A pep talk from Erin! 

Liner Notes: 

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points:  Inciting Incidents! What goes wrong, that starts the action? May be a small thing. Often outside the character’s control, that makes them react. Something they care about. Something that kicks them into action. Unusual for the character. What they want, and what they need. The inciting incident helps the character give up on what they want and start after what they need. MICE! Milieu story, inciting incident is some kind of environmental threat. Inquiry, something that makes the character curious. Character, something makes the character want to change. Event, when the status quo, the normal, starts to break. Look for something that won’t make your character give up. Something that threatens the character’s understanding. Milieu, threatens our understanding of how the world works. Inquiry, threatens what I know. Character, threatens my understanding of who I am. Event, threatens understanding of why the world is the way it is. Just because you get what you want, doesn’t mean you will succeed. The difference between what the character wants and needs means the character has two competing goals, and a good inciting incident may make them separate. Inciting incidents are often connected to genre. Establish the stakes early, and use those to keep the character engaged. Consider superobjective, the big overarching goal, and objective, the concrete goals. Trauma attachment points, incidents in your past that influence your future choices, may help define superobjectives. Safety, connection, and empowerment are the 3 basic areas. Both positive and negative. The superobjective can help you decide on immediate objectives. Add in that we define ourself in terms of ability, role, relationship, and status. You may want to use a physical symbol to represent a nebulous superobjective. 

[Season 18, Episode 45]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] NaNoWriMo Week 2 – Inciting Incident.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And something’s about to break.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard, and it’s probably me that’s breaking it.


[Howard] I’m so sorry.

[DongWon] This week, as Howard indicated, we are talking about inciting incidents. We’re talking about the moment where things start going wrong for your characters. Now that you’re past the introductory sections, now that you’re past meeting people, this is when your story really starts kicking into high gear and we get pulled into the main action of the book.

[Mary Robinette] Some of the things that I find that are fun to play with with inciting incidents is that it doesn’t have to be a big thing that goes wrong. There’s a thing we say in theater that acting is reacting. So, the inciting incident is often something that is outside your character’s control. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. But it’s something that they react to. So you’re looking for something that will give them a reason to react. So it’s going to be something that they care about in some way. Whether that’s random noises when you’re trying to record a podcast because you’re aboard a cruise ship as they are conducting an emergency drill…


[Mary Robinette] This is a very random example that I’m using. Or if it’s something like house… The water breaks in their house. But something that causes them to have to kick into motion.

[Howard] A useful way to think about it is that the inciting incident should be something that’s not just unusual to you as the reader, but is also perhaps unusual to your character. If you were writing, for instance, a noir detective, and the client comes in with a case, that’s not the inciting incident. Clients come in with cases all the time. The inciting incident is so I went to the meet, or I went to look for the thing, and instead of finding an envelope, I found a body. Okay? Now we have something unusual. Now we’ve actually planted the hook. It’s not enough to just make it unusual for me… Very unusual if someone comes to me and says, “Hi. I need you as a detective.” “I’m so sorry. You’ve made a terrible mistake.”


[Howard] You need to make it unusual for your character.

[Dan] So, I use a lot of screenwriting techniques, even when I write novels. There’s a classic screenwriter model that says the kind of defining points of a character’s arc is the thing that they want, and the thing that they need. What you’re really doing over the course of the story is arranging the situation such that they will grow or change in a way that they give up the thing that they want and pursue the thing that they need instead. The inciting incident is what kind of starts that. Before the inciting incident, they’re pursuing what they want. Then, something happens that starts the story. The example I love to use of this, because it is so blunt and on the sleeve, is the movie The Rundown with Dwayne Johnson. He wants to be a chef.


[Dan] That’s such a silly, ridiculous thing. But he wants it so badly that he is willing to work for this horrible mobster as a bounty hunter, basically. When he actually needs is to stand up for himself and get out from under this guys thumb and whatever. So the inciting incident is when this guy gives him one last job. Go do this super dangerous thing and I will pay you enough money that you can quit, you can leave my organization, and you can start your restaurant. So the reason that that is an inciting incident is because it starts the story. Everything that happens before that is who Dwayne Johnson’s character is normally. Then, the inciting incident kicks him off on a new adventure, gets him to go in a new direction that will change him and turn him into somebody else.

[Mary Robinette] So, surprising no one, I’m going to talk about the MICE Quotient is a way of figuring out where you can… What kinds of inciting incident you have. So, the MICE Quotient stands… Is an organizational theory. Milieu, inquiry, character, event. So in a milieu story, it’s driven by environment, which means that your inciting it incident is going to be some kind of environmental threat. Something that… Plumbing breaks, your house is filled with bees, there’s a mysterious box that is…

[Howard] Those could all be the same thing.


[Mary Robinette] Inquiry is driven by questions, so that’s going to be something that raises your character’s curiosity in a way that they have to know what happened… They have to ask the next question. Character is driven by basically giving your character angst… The character wants to change in some way or is forced to change. So that inciting incident is going to be a moment of… Where they question themselves. Where they first begin to ask who am I even? Then, event is driven by destruction of the status quo, so that’s going to be the first thing that breaks normal. Often these things are overlapping, but one of those is going to be a thing that causes your character to step in. For me, one of the things I’m looking for is something that will not also cause my character to nope out. Like, why does my character continue to do the thing? Like, if they come in and then are like a normal chef, and they walk in and find a dead body, why don’t they just call the police? Instead of investigating it themselves? So there are these layers, like, what action causes that next reaction?

[Erin] I would think of inciting incident also is something that like threatens your understanding. Threatens the character’s understanding. I was thinking about the MICE Quotient as you said it, and I was like in some ways, it’s… Like, if it’s milieu, it like threatens how the world works, your understanding of how the world works is changed. Like, houses should not be filled with bees. Now it is. Whoa. Then, inquiry is threatened, like threatened my understanding of what I know. Like, I believe I know a certain set of things. Now, there’s something I don’t know, and, like, that is a threat to, like, my wanting to understand things. So I will go forward. A character story, it threatens who I am. The threat… Whatever the inciting incident is threatens my understanding of who I am. So I have to sort of change in order to deal with that. Then, in a sort of event story, it threatens why the world is the way it is. So there’s some sort of this there. But in any case, I’m a big fan of something that threatens the understanding, which can be something positive. Something that I love about the difference between want and need is that sometimes you get what you want, but it doesn’t get you where you thought you were going to go. Because it doesn’t always have to be that like… Your house could be filled with money, and that is also… That seems good, but then it leads you into bad ways or it doesn’t give you what you thought you wanted. So it can be both positive or negative from the character’s perspective. It’s just something that changes the way they understand the world, and therefore threatens their understanding of themselves.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I just want to say that I love that framing. It also, to Dan’s point, that often what you have is that you have the difference between what they want and what they need, is that a character comes in with 2 competing goals. So a really lovely inciting incident is something that causes to… The character’s want to bifurcate.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think one thing that this is all connected to is in the inciting incident, it’ll often give you a sense of the shape of the story to come. Right? So, inciting incidents are often very connected to genre. So in a law and order story, for example, the inciting incident, 9 times out of 10, is somebody finding a dead body. Now we’re off to the races, because we’re in that kind of genre. So that easily fits into sort of the MICE Quotient framework, and then gives you a sense of this is how the story’s going to go. We’re going to be in a mystery, we’re going to find out certain things. Right? If, instead, it’s the invention of a new technology that changes the galaxy, then we’re in a different kind of story. We get a sense of different kinds of stakes and different kinds of plot expectations.

[Dan] What… Another thing that ties all of these models or frameworks together is that the stakes that your character is dealing with are important to establish early. Because that is often what is going to lock them in, stop them from noping out of the weird situation. Why does Dwayne Johnson do this ridiculous dangerous job? Because it’s going to get him enough money that he can quit and start a restaurant. Right? Why does Luke Skywalker leave his little thing and abandon his plan to join the Star Wars Academy? Because he gets a message from a princess, and then his family dies. There’s stakes involved in this, and they care about stuff.

[DongWon] I want to dig more into the mechanics of how you accomplish all of these goals, and were going to explain a little bit the difference between objective and super objective. But we’re going to get into that after our break.

[Mary Robinette] NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and it’s time to start planning. If you’re aiming for 1600 words a day, it’s easy to de-prioritize eating. But you need to keep the brain fuel. During Nano, I turn to meal kits. Hello Fresh makes whipping up a home-cooked meal a nice break from writing with quick and easy options, including their 15 minute meals. With everything pre-proportion and delivered right to your door every week, it takes way less time than it takes to get a delivery. I find that stepping away from the keyboard to cook gives my brain time to rest. I love that with Hello Fresh, I can plan my meals for the month before NaNoWriMo begins. Then I can save all my decision-making for the stories. With so many in season ingredients, you’ll taste all the freshness of fall in every bite of Hello Fresh’s chef crafted recipes. Produce travels from the farm to your door for peak freshness you can taste. Go to and use the code 50WX for 50% off plus free shipping. Yeah, that’s right. 50WX, 50 for 50% off and WX for Writing eXcuses. We are terrible with puns. Just visit and try America’s number one meal kit.

[Erin] Hey, y’all. You’re at week 2 of NaNoWriMo, which, I’m going to be honest, for me, has always been the most difficult week. The week when I most likely to give up and run away. But you’re not going to do that. It’s because it’s… Why is it like that? It’s because you’re at the point where the initial energy that sort of carries you through the opening starts to become a little bit more routine and you have to figure out a way to keep going. I’ll be honest. Every Nano I’ve picked a slightly different strategy, because there are as many ways to write your way through NaNoWriMo as there are stories that you might be writing. So, maybe you write every morning, like clockwork. Maybe you write in one huge chunk on the weekends without sleeping. Maybe you follow an outline that you made up before you got there. Maybe you fly by the seat of your pants. Maybe you’re just trying to figure your way through, which is mean most of the time. But whatever your maybes are, there’s one thing that’s absolutely positively certain. You can do this. You are doing this. You are writing, creating, dreaming, discovering… You are telling a story like only you can. So, whatever it takes, however you do it, whenever, wherever, keep going. You got it.

[DongWon] Welcome back. So, as I was saying before the break, let’s talk a little bit more about how reader… Writers actually do this. How do you implement some of these big ideas that we’re talking about?

[Mary Robinette] so, I have this thing that I love from theater, which is called objective, super objective. So a super objective is like the big overarching thing that a character wants… It’s some… It’s not a concrete thing, it’s an amorphous, like a sense of safety or connection or empowerment. I used to use the 7 deadly sins as a way to find this. I have more recently begun looking at trauma attachment points. Those are… There’s some incident in your past that causes you to make choices in the future. It’s not necessarily something that your character is going to remember. Unless they’ve spent as much time with their therapist as I have. But there are 3 basic areas. Safety, connection, and empowerment. So what I find is that things that are safety driven are often environmental factors. But they are someone who’s going to buy extra locks. But you can have a positive or negative reaction to that. So you can… Or a carrot or a stick. So you can either pursue safety or you can run away from it. So someone who has a safety trauma point may wind up becoming an adrenaline junkie, because that way no one can ever take safety away from them. They are in charge of taking safety away from themselves. You can… Connection. Sometimes it’s like I need a big friends group or I’m going to be a loner. So you can decide whether your character is chasing it or avoid… Like, chasing or running from. Those are things that are your kind of big overarching goals. That’s your super objective. Your objective is the concrete thing that your character is going to try to do to fill that hole in themselves. So someone who is safety, they may say, “You know what? I’m going to learn martial arts, so that no one can ever… That I can always protect myself. I’m going to become the best martial artist in the universe.” That’s their concrete goal. That’s their objective.

[Dan] Yeah. That’s specificity and that concrete goal is so important. I used the Luke Skywalker example before the break. What he wants, his super objective, is to be a hero. But that is so nebulous, that’s so undefined, it doesn’t really have stakes to it. His concrete objective, specifically, is that he wants to be a pilot. He talks about that over and over. I want to leave this place, I want to go join the Academy, I want to be a pilot. At the end of the movie, he becomes a hero, specifically by being a pilot. That’s how it works. That gives him and the audience, the reader, something strong to latch onto and care about.

[Erin] I think one thing that I like about this super objective thing, as well, is that it can help you figure out what the immediate objective is. Because one of the things that I’ve found in Nano is sometimes you just put things in because you’re running out of ideas for the day. So you’re like, a house full of bees is happening. Why, I don’t know.


[Erin] Because it sounded cool and they said it on the podcast.

[Mary Robinette] Please feel free, by the way.


[Erin] So… But if you think, okay. I have a character who’s, like, safety focused. Like, either they want to run in and kill all the bees themselves despite the fact that they have a horrible be allergy and it’s not a good idea, or they’re going to be, like, I am going to build a new safe house and immediately go pursue my goal of like killing every be in the world so they can never harm me. I don’t know. Like, that’s a way to think about what should… What would they do next if faced with this situation.

[DongWon] Yeah. That makes me think about… I was having an interesting conversation about plotting the other day. I think this idea actually comes from you, Erin. But this idea of plotting as if you’re driving a car at night. Right? So what you’re seeing is whatever is illuminated by the headlights in front of you, which is only N number of yards. Right? So, especially when you’re doing something like Nano, right, you’re not looking that far down the road. I think keeping in mind this objective or super objective thing can help keep what you see in front of you as your next goal, as your next writing target for the day, for tomorrow, whatever it is, and keep that in line with your overall narrative, with your overall goals for the character. Right? So this is like a real framework that can help keep you grounded and on track.

[Howard] I was watching Paranormal with my youngest son, who was, at the time, 10 years old. We reached the point in the movie when the hero and his friends have put together this plan to do this thing. I turned to Aiden and said, “So, do you think this is going to work? Because it looks like a really good plan.” He’s like, “No. If it works, we don’t have a movie.”


[Howard] I gotta say, I loved that so much from my 10-year-old. What I’m coming around to hear is that your character’s concrete objectives are often going to be misdirected or doomed to failure because what they’re going to try either is absolutely the wrong thing to do or is going to run up against something that drags them into the try-fail cycle of the rest of your book.

[Mary Robinette] Exactly. So your character’s objectives are going to change throughout the book, but there super objective is going to stay the same. So I want to give you another tool that I am very excited about for finding your path through. I’ve recently been playing with this idea, and we’re going to put a chart in the liner notes when you go to the website, about intersection of self. So, if you have those attachment points, those trauma points, those are kind of representing your super objective. But you also have aspects of yourself. So, how we self define is basically about ability, role, relationship, and status. So ability is the things you’re capable of. Role are kind of your responsibilities, your tasks. Relationships are all about your loyalties. Status is about where you are in a power dynamic. So if… Like, one of those is going to be sort of the thing that’s more important to you in a given moment. So… I’m going to use Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog as an example. There are 2 things that are important to Dr. Horrible. Status and relationships. He’s pursuing his goal, his main goal is to get into the evil league of evil. His trauma point is connection. So getting into the evil league of evil, there’s an intersection there between connection and status, which is society. Trying to get into the right society. That’s what he wants. But also, along those lines, on relationship, he really wants to be in a relationship with Penny. Those 2 things are at odds with each other. As you go through the thing, when you get to the end, he has to make a choice between which one is more important, and he makes the wrong… For us, the wrong choice. But he achieves that goal. But what’s fun about it is that you can move which piece of his self he’s using at any given moment as his way of attacking that goal. Whichever aspect of self that he’s defining, you can use that for your character arc. It’s like, oh, yes, I’m going to try to use my ability to get in by impressing them. Then, okay, maybe that’s not the thing that I use. I’m going to… So all of that is something that you can play with, ability, rule, relationship, and status. This is… I have a chart, I will show it to you. I’m very excited by this new idea. Showing the chart verbally is a little bit more challenging.

[Dan] So, this might be getting a little far afield from beginnings. But it’s not. It just sounds like it. So, another way to think about information to include in the beginning and how to set these stakes is think about what that endpoint is going to be. If it’s something kind of nebulous, like a decision rather than an action, you can put a physical symbol into it. Going back to Luke Skywalker again. His… What he needs is to accept the Force, to believe in it and to trust in it. That is represented by him turning off his targeting computer. Sorry to spoil this 46-year-old movie.


[Dan] That is established at the beginning when Obi-Wan makes him fight with a helmet that has the visor down. He can’t see, he has to trust in the Force, he thinks it’s ridiculous. Then, at the end, he does the same thing voluntarily. Another wonderful example is Fury Road. What Max needs in that movie is to kind of humanize himself, to form a community, to form bonds with other people. That is represented at the end when he donates blood to Furiosa. So they establish that right in the beginning, before we even have the inciting incident. He gets captured, and he gets turned into a blood bag. So it is the same thing, he is giving blood away. But at the beginning, it is dehumanizing and horrible, and at the end, it is voluntary and loving. So this physical symbol can represent the change and you can seed that into the beginning of your story.

[DongWon] On that note, I hope our discussion of inciting incidents is helpful to you as you head into your 2nd week of NaNoWriMo. We’re wishing you all the best luck and may the word counts be with you. Mary Robinette, I think you have homework for us.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. So, for your homework, I want you to think about your character, that inciting incident, and what it looks like for your character when they fail. If they can’t achieve something. Like, what that next step is, when their objective has to change. What does failure look like for your character?

[Howard] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[DongWon] Do you have a book or a short story that you need help with? We are now offering an interactive tier on Patreon called Office Hours. Once a month, you can join a group of your peers and us, the hosts of Writing Excuses, to ask any question that is on your mind.