This post is inspired by one of Scribe Meets World own readers–hi Amadeo! Amadeo was interested in my posts on Sherlock Holmes, particularly its structure. “What was the inciting incident?” was one question he had. Voila, an idea for a post on inciting incidents was born. (And we’ll get to the mysterious case of Sherlock Holmes’s inciting incident in a minute.) Inciting incidents are super important. So important they’re one of the 8 essential plot points you should have in your script outline. So…
The Inciting Incident–What is it exactly?
When people use the etymology of words in an article, I normally get annoyed because it usually comes across as either lazy or pretentious. But the etymology of “inciting” might help you understand its role in a screenplay, so it’s worth a gander.
Inciting comes from the Latin word incitare which means “to put into rapid motion, urge, encourage, and stimulate.” And that’s exactly what your inciting incident is: it’s an event that catalyzes your hero to “go into motion” and take action.
Here are other ways to conceptualize the inciting incident:
- it jolts your hero out of his everyday routine
- it is the event which sparks the fuse of your plot
- it’s something that MUST happen in order for your hook–your movie’s special premise–to kick in
UPDATE: The popularity of this article inspired me to explore inciting incidents more in depth. The result is a comprehensive, fluff-free guide dedicated exclusively to the inciting incident. You can find more details about it here!
Inciting Incident: When does it happen?
That’s a good question, a very good question. Because unlike the midpoint of your movie, which always occurs in the middle, the inciting incident can actually occur BEFORE your movie starts. But that’s a very rare occurrence. Usually, your inciting incident occurs within the first ten pages of your screenplay, after you’ve introduced us to your hero, shown us what his everyday life is like, and the six things in his life that need fixing.
Then the inciting incident occurs and it starts to change the dynamics of your hero’s life. He (or she) will react to the inciting incident, maybe even resist it, for the rest of your first act until your Act One break occurs. At the first act break, your hook kicks in and your hero commits to taking the journey (either physical, emotional, psychological or a combination of these) sparked by the inciting incident.
With some genres, the inciting incident is almost always the same. For example, in a romantic comedy, the inciting incident is the “cute meet” where the two romantic leads meet each other for the first time. In a mystery, the inciting incident is when the first dead body is found…which takes us to the inciting incident of Sherlock Holmes.
In Sherlock Holmes, the inciting incident actually occurs before the movie started. If you recall, the movie starts with Holmes in pursuit of Lord Blackwood, trying to prevent him from sacrificing a young virgin. I’d argue that the incident that sparks off the plot is when the girl’s parents seek out Holmes and ask him to find her. That is the first event that gets Holmes involved in Blackwood’s particular evil schemes.
So why didn’t the movie start there? Most likely because it’s not very cinematic. It also isn’t an event full of action and adventure, the way Holmes chasing Blackwood down just in the nick of time is. It was a wise screenwriting choice because as an action-adventure movie, Sherlock Holmes should begin with a little taste of…yes, action & adventure. Just the way a comedy should generate some laughs from the get-go.
This leads me to another point about inciting incidents–they can fall into the whole “chicken & egg” conundrum. What do I mean by that? I’ll use Sherlock Holmes because it makes for a good example. Let’s say we both agree that the inciting incident is when the young girl’s parents seek out Holmes’s help. But what about when Lord Blackwood abducts her?
Without that event occurring, then her parents would never seek out Holmes…and he would never get involved in the case. Taking it even one step further, what about her birth? And Blackwood’s too! If they had never been born, we wouldn’t have this specific story either…
With every movie, you’re going to have to make a choice about how far back you want take the inciting incident. Good screenwriting principles that are discussed on this site as well as in many screenwriting how-to books should help you choose the best place to start your screenplay.
The Inciting Incident–What it isn’t
The inciting incident is not an active moment: the incident incident is usually something that HAPPENS TO your main character as opposed to something he actively pursues. Throughout your first act, your main character will grapple with the inciting incident’s repercussions, and then finally, will be forced to make a choice–does he get in deeper or not?
The inciting incident is not your screenplay’s first act break: the inciting incident and the first act break are not the same thing. The distinction partly has to do with what I just discussed because usually, at the first act break, the main character makes a choice to explore whatever journey the inciting incident leads to. So the first act break is very much an ACTIVE moment for your hero.
Secondly, the first act break is also where your hook kicks in. The inciting incident and your character’s reaction to it are all set up/groundwork for the unveiling of your screenplay’s high-concept. A lot of times, after the first act break, the hero goes to a new location, which marks the beginning of his journey. Usually, the inciting incident doesn’t take your character to a new place, but instead, occurs within the context of your main character’s current habitat.
These rules are not set in stone. They’re guidelines to help make your screenwriting journey easier…which means that there are exceptions. In very rare circumstances, the inciting incident and the first act break are the same. I couldn’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but Alex Epstein cites The Wizard of Oz as an example of this in his book Crafty Screenwriting.
The tornado that takes Dorothy out of Kansas and into Oz is both the inciting incident that sparks off the fuse of the plot and also the first act break where the movie’s high concept kicks in. If you can think of any other examples where the inciting incident and the first act break are the same, please say so in the comments!
The inciting incident is not something to stress about: Identifying key plot points like the inciting incident is helpful for you, the screenwriter, because it gives you something to write towards. Instead of facing 120 blank pages, you have goals: ten pages till the inciting incident, followed by ten or so pages of the hero’s reaction to the inciting incident (usually resistance), followed by the first act break.
It’s also handy when you’re in the lucky position of selling your screenplay because studio execs LOVE identifying act breaks and such. But plot points like the inciting incident fall into the category of: one man’s treasure trove is another man’s trash bag. Basically, two different people can look at the same movie or screenplay and choose different scenes as inciting incidents or act breaks. Because it’s so subjective, it’s not something that you should spend too much time worrying about.
Remember, inciting incidents and other plot points are there to help you design a solid screenplay structure, not to hold you back.
Inciting incidents: Examples from different movie genres
Comedy: In Legally Blonde, the inciting incident is when Warner dumps Elle, instead of proposing to her as she had expected
Romantic Comedy: the inciting incident is usually the “cute meet.” The Proposal did something a little different since the two romantic leads already knew each other. So its inciting incident is when Margaret is told that she’s going to get deported
Drama: in Gladiator, the inciting incident occurs when Roman troops kill Maximus’s family. After studying inciting incidents even more, I realized that the inciting incident of Gladiator is subtler than that. It’s when the emperor, Marcus Aurelius, asks Maximus to be the steward of Rome
Thriller: in RED, it’s when the South African assassination team comes to kill Frank
Science-Fiction: in the latest Star Trek reboot (2009), it’s when Romulans kill George Kirk, James Kirk’s dad. Again, I have to change my mind! The death of George Kirk is prologue, but not the inciting incident. That actually occurs when Captain Pike asks Kirk to enlist at Starfleet Academy. (To learn more about the differences between prologue and the inciting incident, you’ll have to read my guide!)
Family: the entry of a human child into Monstropolis is the inciting incident in Monsters, Inc.
Classic: Rebecca is an example of one of those subjective inciting incidents. You could say the inciting incident is when the future Mrs de Winter meets Maxim de Winter for the first time…OR it’s when Maxim first invites her to take a drive with him…
And there you have it: everything you needed to know about inciting incidents, including examples. I think I’m going try to do a series of articles along this vein, so be on the lookout for posts dedicated solely to act breaks, midpoints, and climaxes!
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