How To Plot Your Book’s Inciting Incident and Lock In

The two main plot points in Act I are the heart of your story.

By Shaunta Grimes

There are two plot points in the first Act of a book that are absolutely essential. They have lots of names, but I learned my favorite terms from a site called The Script Lab. I call them the Inciting Incident and the Lock In.

When ever I work with someone who is really struggling to get their novel started or is floundering around in the first act, it’s almost always because these plot points aren’t jiving.

They’re that important. Your whole book hinges on them.

Let’s start with some vocabulary.

The Inciting Incident

This plot point is also sometimes called the Call to Action. It’s the first really unusual thing that happens in your story for your main character. Usually it has something to do with the overall theme of your book.

I think of the Inciting Incident as a question: Do you want to come into the world of this story? Sometimes, even often, it’s an actual question from another character. An invitation of some kind is common.

The Inciting Incident usually offers the main character a choice.

The Lock In

Christopher Vogler calls this plot point ‘crossing the threshold’ in his book The Writer’s Journey. It’s the scene where your main character takes a definitive step into the special world of the story.

If the Inciting Incident is a question, then the Lock In is the answer. The answer is always ‘yes.’ Somehow, someway. Even if the character is dragged kicking and screaming into the story, or a tornado picks them up and plops them in the special world of your novel, the answer is yes.

Why These Two Plot Points Matter So Much

Have you ever taken a really long road trip? At the beginning, you have to really pay attention to your GPS. There are a lot of turns that are really important. If you miss one, you might wind up in Albuquerque instead of Newark.

But once you’re past that beginning, Siri says something like stay on Route 66 for 285 miles. Then you get to just crank up your tunes, set your cruise control, and drive.

These two plot points are the early part of the map of your story. If you don’t nail them down, you risk everything you write after them taking you in the wrong direction.

The truth is, you probably have the plot points in there somewhere. But if you don’t know what they are, the pacing of your book might be thrown off.You also risk putting too much emphasis on a part of the story that’s less important.

And if you find yourself 50,000 words in and you still haven’t found your actual story? Chances are very good that you’ve missed these plot points all together.

It’s Really Easy to Miss the Inciting Incident, Especially

It’s very, very common to mistake the Lock In for the Inciting Incident.

Most novels start with a scene or two in the main character’s ordinary world. This is where we see Harry Potter living under the stairs at his Muggle aunt and uncle’s house. Or Luke Skywalker showing his ennui with his aunt and uncle at the breakfast table before going to work on his new-to-him robots. Or Dorothy Gale dealing with the mean old neighbor who’s got it in for Toto.

The Inciting Incident is not part of the ordinary world. That is, it’s not part of your character’s ordinary world.

So Harry Potter’s Inciting Incident isn’t the first Hogwart’s invitation that arrives in the mail. People get letters all the time, and even if it’s not usual for Harry, it’s still part of his ordinary world.

It’s not when the owls show up or the letters come flying down the chimney or when the Dursley’s take off to a weird little island to escape the onslaught. Because we’ve established that magic is part of this ordinary world and that Harry’s aunt and uncle are strongly against the idea of it touching their family.

The Inciting Incident happens when Haggrid actually invites Harry to Hogwarts. Now Harry has a choice to make. And, like I said, a question has been asked.

It would be easy to say that the Inciting Incident is when the first letter arrives and the Lock In is when Haggrid shows up. But that’s not quite right.

The Lock In doesn’t happen until much later, when Harry has the sorting hat on his head and he thinks hard to himself that he wants to be part of Gryffindor, not Slytherin. He’s making a choice and answering the question about whether he wants to be part of Hogwarts (and what kind of part he wants to play there.)

Now the story’s first act transitions to Act II and the structure of the rest of the book is set. The story arc over seven books is basically a struggle between good and evil. This story in particular is about Harry becoming a Gryffindor. The sorting hat makes it clear that he could go either way — good (Gryffindor) or bad (Slytherin.)

Other things happen, of course. But Harry ends the book solidly a Gryffindor.

Start By Finding Your Inciting Incident

I workshop these plot points with other writers all the time and I’m pretty good at picking up on the real Inciting Incident, or helping to figure out what it should be, but it’s way, way harder with my own stories.

Here are some things that might help:

  • Think about the ordinary world first. Make sure you really understand what’s going on for your main character before the story starts.

  • Think about how you want your book to end. It can help sometimes to work backward and look for an antecedent.

  • Look for a question. Your Inciting Incident should offer your main character a choice — will you come into the world of the story or will you keep doing your ordinary world thing?

  • Think about what you think your Lock In is. There’s a good chance it’s actually your Inciting Incident.

  • Look for the first truly unusual thing that happens to your main character. It’s almost never something like someone close to them dying (that happens every day, sad as it is) or some other kind of tragedy that’s just part of life (losing a job, having an argument, etc.)

One of my favorite examples of an Inciting Incident is in the 2015 movie Secret in Their Eyes. It stars Julia Roberts as an investigator for the district attorney. She’s called to a crime scene. There’s a dead body in a dumpster. All of that is her ordinary world.

There’s a powerful scene, though, where her friend, an FBI agent at the crime scheen with her tries to hold her back from looking into the dumpster. Okay, now we’re getting to something that’s not ordinary. When she finally looks, she finds her own dead daughter.

That’s the inciting incident. No one is asking a specific question, but the whole movie hinges on Roberts’ characters response to being thrust into the world of story. She has choices. Will she lean into her profession and investigate who killed her daughter or will she just be a grieving mom and let other professionals take over?

Now Find Your Lock In

It always helps me to remember that the Inciting Incident is a question (actual or implied.) So to find the Lock In, you need to look for the answer.

The Lock In is the scene that transitions your story to Act II. In a movie, it’s called a set piece. It’s almost always going to be something pretty splashy and profound. It’s also usually somewhere around a quarter of the way through your book, so it might happen later than you think.

  • Look for the first thing your character does that takes them an irrevocable step into the story.

  • The main character will probably have choices at this point. Look for a decision they make. (Them, not the people around them.)

  • It’s often a scene that first establishes your main character as heroic in some way.

  • It’s usually something that would make it more difficult for the main character to go back to their original ordinary world.

In the Wizard of Oz, once Dorothy’s house lands, she has a choice. She can hide. She can fall apart. Or she can open the door and walk into Oz. She opens the door and that scene is her Lock In.

In the movie, it’s the original flashy set piece, right? Oz is in full color (something even more spectacular at the time the movie was made) and opening the door is breathtaking. It’s also a heroic choice — Dorothy is meeting her problem head on. She’s brave.

Consider Your Story’s Theme

If you’re struggling with figuring out what your Inciting Incident and Lock In are, it can help to nail down the theme of your book.

The theme is a sentence. It’s an idea. It’s kind of cliche.

The theme of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is Good wins out over Evil.

The theme of Star Wars is Hope and freedom are worth fighting for.

The theme of The Wizard of Oz is There’s no place like home.

The theme of Secret in their Eyes is Revenge hurts more than it helps.

Think about the theme of your book. Your Inciting Incident and Lock In will have something to do with that. They’ll push that narrative forward.

Check out The Script Lab. They break down key plot points for hundreds of movies and it’s a great resource.

5 Plot Point Breakdowns - The Script Lab

Screenplay Genre: Drama/Farce Movie Time: 104 minutes 1. INCITING INCIDENT Architect Peter Mitchell (Tom Selleck)…

Here’s my secret weapon for sticking with whatever your thing is.

Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Instagram. She is the original Ninja Writer.