What is an Inciting Incident - and do we need one?
Absolutely we do!
The inciting incident is the catalyst to your story, the reason why this story is taking place now.
Michael Hauge refers to inciting incidents as that moment in our character's past when their 'wound' or false belief was created, which is why the behave and react as they do, and which is the reason why they need to be transformed.
While our characters certainly so need a 'wound' and to undergo a transformation, for most writers the inciting incindent is the event at the start of the story that kickstarts the book. It is the catalyst for the plot and for the character's transformation.
Our character may well have existed with this wound for many years before this book started. If their 'wound' was the result of something that happened to them in childhood, for example, they will have managed to live for many years without transforming. So why are they transforming now? Because something has happened in their lives that will force that wound to heal. That 'something' could be a problem they now face, or an opportunity that arises. Either way, this event will mark a change in their lives.
Examples of inciting incidents:
In crime stories, it is usually the discovery of a dead body, setting the investigator on a path to find the killer or the truth
In a romance it is usually a meeting with the love interest which knocks the main character's plans off course
In Star Wars, it is the arrival of the droids on Tatooine, carrying the message from Princess Leia
In The Proposal it is Margaret facing an ultimatum to get a green card or lose her job
In Bourne Identity it is Jason Bourne waking with no memory of who he is
In Pride and Prejudice it is the arrival of two eligible bachelors in the neighbourhood
In Shirley Valentine the catalyst is Shirley's friend inviting her on a trip to Greece
Can we have a story without an inciting incident?
Imagine Pride and Prejudice if Darcy and Bingley did not arrive at Netherfield? What sort of story would be left? If Jason Bourne still has his memory and just kept on assassinating people without his crisis of conscience, aside from a few action scenes, there wouldn't be much of a story. And if the droids never arrived on Tatooine, we'd have spent two hours watching Luke farming water - not the most riveting plot line, I'm sure you'd agree!
The most important thing about an inciting incident is that it changes the current course of the main character's life, even if they don't realise it at the time. At the start of the story, the character has a plan, even if that plan is to keep the status quo. This inciting incident will ensure that plan is disrupted.
Shirley Valentine's unspoken plan is to keep being who she is - a wife and mother who goes along with what is expected of her. Her life is changed because she is forced out of her regular routine, and that makes her start to look at her life and re-prioritise what she wants.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett's plan is to marry a man who loves and respects her. She is willing to turn down financial stability (in the form of her cousin) in order to achieve this goal. Darcy represents everything she doesn't want. He is rude, and shows her and her family no respect, but meeting him forces her to re-examine what she believes about people, to re-look her own prejudices, changing the course of her life and changing what she wants.
How close to the beginning of the story does the inciting incident need to be?
The answer depends on your genre and the type of book you are writing. You can get away with a little world building up front to establish the scene in a fantasy novel, or an epic saga, as in The Lord of the Rings, where we are first introduced to the world of the hobbits and Bilbo's birthday party for a couple of chapters before the ring is introduced and Frodo sets off on his quest.
But you need to remember that your readers are 21st century residents. They are the MTV and Netflix generations, rather than the Lord of the Rings generation. If you don't get to the point within the first couple of chapters, you risk your reader moving on to one of many other distractions available to them, whether it's Facebook or binge-watching Game of Thrones, or another book that hooks them much moee quickly.
The general rule of thumb is to present the reader with a dead body within the first couple of chapters of a crime story, or to have the hero and heroine meet within the first couple of chapters. First chapter is good, first page is even better.
Notice how Star Wars starts with the droids, not with the story of Luke's parentage? And Bourne Identity starts with Jason Bourne being fished out of the sea, and in The Proposal the word building is limited to one short scene in which Andrew gives his coffee to Margaret at the start of the work day, leaving the reveal of the back story for later? That's how you should start your book - with the briefest glimpse at the 'everyday world' the character inhabits before the inciting incident kicks off their story. Leave the character's back story and history for later, once you've already hooked the reader.
What is the inciting incident of your story? What opportunity or problem can you set before your main character which will upset his/her plans and send them off course on their journey of transformation and healing?