The Grammarphobia Blog

Inciting incidents

Q: My English teacher gave me a paper stating that in literature (more specifically, drama), “the inciting incident is the incident that unites the plot.” This sounds weird to me. Did the author mean to write “ignites” instead of  “unites”?

A: This sounds a bit weird to us too, but then it’s been our experience that many academics enjoy writing murky prose.

That said, a case can be made for using either “ignites” or “unites,” though we agree with you that “ignites” seems to make more sense.

The key here, of course, is the term “inciting incident.” 

You won’t find it in standard dictionaries or even among the quarter-million or so entries and subentries in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.

But you’re almost certain to encounter the term in a college class on screenwriting or playwriting, though it’s not always used in the same way.

One common definition is that the “inciting incident” (also known as the “hook” or “catalyst”) is the point in a script where the protagonist realizes something’s up and the story gets going.

In Act I of Hamlet, for example, the ghost of the late King reveals that he was murdered by his brother and asks his son Hamlet to avenge him.

“If thou didst ever thy dear father love,” the ghost says, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”

That scene does indeed ignite Shakespeare’s plot, but one could argue that it also unites the elements of the plot.

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