This article from Writing Cooperative defines the inciting incident as “the moment the protagonist’s world changes in a dramatic way,” and it does a good job of placing the inciting incident in the context of the classic story arc.
My current revision task: moving the inciting incident in my novel from page 64, where it used to be, to somewhere within the first 50 pages.
Basically, my goal right now is to get the beginning of my manuscript in the best possible shape, and to keep the action moving forward as much as possible, so that a prospective agent will want to keep reading (and request more pages!).
How I did this:
1) Cut an entire character, the chaperone who escorts my protagonist and her sister aboard a train voyage from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C. (with a stop in New York) in January 1865. She’s completely fictional (as opposed to many of my other characters) and I really liked her, but after the first chapter or so I couldn’t really think of a way to keep her in the action, and she drops out of sight completely. So it feels odd to have her play such a central role in the first part. Cutting her created other problems, though: would the sisters have been allowed to travel alone? Maybe the mother should go with them? But if the mother’s with them, can they have such a candid conversation in the carriage on the way to the hotel, which lays out crucial back story/characterization that I need to be right up front? Hmm…that still needs work.
2) Cut a bunch of back story about the political machinations in Washington circa 1865 and the reasons why my protagonist’s father is out of a job.
3) Cut about 2/3 of a chapter where my heroine and her sister talk about how they never expected to be unmarried at 26 and 30, respectively, and my heroine reminisces about her sister’s teenage sweetheart and their outing to the Crystal Palace exhibition in New York City in 1853 (from a much longer section of backstory I loved writing, but ended up cutting a few years ago—yes, I have been working on this novel for the better part of a decade at this point!). This may show up later in the novel but does not help move the story forward, which is goal #1 for this first section.
Just making these cuts moved the entrance of my notorious love interest/super-villain from page 64 to roughly page 40, which I would say is a big improvement.