Smarter Story Structure (online course)

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  • Learn how to execute the essential plot points like a pro. Plus, you’ll see how they connect together within the framework of three-act structure. (This way, you’ll be better equipped to deliver a roller-coaster ride to your audience.)
  • Learn via multimedia content (video, audio, slide decks, and infographics). Depending on your learning style, this can trigger deeper insights and more aha moments (in comparison to text only).
  • Receive 3 workbooks, including the Story Structure Organizer. At a little over 70 pages, the Organizer will help you build a foundation for your next writing project that’s as sturdy and impressive as Stonehenge (still here after 4,000+ years!).

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How to Use the Inciting Incident to Rescue the Beginning of Your Screenplay or Novel

Inciting Incident

Plonk!

That’s the sound of someone putting down your screenplay or novel.

Why?

Its pacing was just too sluggish at the beginning.

It got bogged down by exposition or backstory—or both.

Betcha you want to avoid that, huh?

Fortunately, you can—with the inciting incident.

How does this process work?

It all has to do with the function of the inciting incident.

One of the essential plot points of a screenplay or novel, the inciting incident sets your plot in motion. It’s a catalyst that gets everything going, nudging your protagonist toward his journey.

Now that you know its function, can you see why the inciting incident is so valuable?

It reassures audiences.

When well timed, it tells them you’re not going to stall.

You’re not going to regale them with a bunch of backstory or other material that they don’t really need to know right now (perhaps not ever).

You’re not going to describe everything about your protagonist—except how he actually gets embroiled in the plot.

You’re not going to spend 20 pages, maybe even 50 (gasp!), on the literary equivalent of clearing your throat.

Nope.

You’re going to do what you promised. You’re going to give them the story you enticed them with (in a logline, query letter, book cover, or book description, etc.).

Moreover, you’re going to do it sooner, rather than later.

Having been thus reassured, audiences become confident about your storytelling skills. They will keep on reading your screenplay or novel instead of putting it down.

In other words, if you want the beginning of your screenplay or novel to have the kind of pacing that attracts—rather than repels—audiences, then you need to be able to identify when the first inciting incident of your story occurs. The sooner it appears, the more quickly audiences will conclude that you know what you’re doing.

Here’s where things get tricky: a lot of events can look like an inciting incident…but not really be an inciting incident. Look for the earliest plot point that fulfills all of the following four characteristics.

The inciting incident is:

  • passive
  • disruptive
  • personal
  • causally linked to the first-act break

Let’s go through each of these characteristics in turn:

The Inciting Incident Is Passive

The inciting incident is something that happens to your protagonist.

He doesn’t orchestrate it.

Not directly.

Sure, sometimes his actions may inadvertently lead to the inciting incident, but usually, that’s not his intention.

Look at Kung Fu Panda’s Po.

Was he trying to become the next Dragon Warrior?

No.

He did everything he could to secure a spectator seat at the Dragon Warrior tournament…

  • shooing customers out of his dad’s restaurant so he could stop working and attend the spectacle
  • hustling up the hundreds of stairs that lead to the Jade Palace, where the tournament is taking place
  • devising zany strategies to catapult himself over the palace’s walls

…but he didn’t actively pursue Warrior status.

In fact, at the film’s inciting incident, when he is selected as the next Dragon Warrior, Po is as incredulous as the other competitors, their mentor, and his adoptive father.

The Inciting Incident Jolts Your Protagonist out of His Everyday World

If the inciting incident didn’t occur, it would just be “business as usual” for your protagonist.

But, due to the inciting incident, his existence is thrown into disarray. He’ll spend the rest of your screenplay or novel trying to restore balance to his life—balance that the inciting incident threw out of whack.

This “business as usual” section usually doesn’t take up many pages.

All the same, make it interesting.

If the inciting incident didn’t happen, there should still be something going on within your protagonist’s everyday world that would warrant audience interest.

As Alex Epstein comments in Crafty Screenwriting, maybe it’s not something you’d pay money to experience, but nevertheless, it piques curiosity, however slight.

Naturally, the more curiosity you can generate, the better.

Matt Weston is a CIA agent in Safe House. Because his safe house is underutilized, his everyday existence is pretty vanilla. The arrival of Tobin Frost—a former agent who’s “an expert manipulator of human assets”—will change all that.

But before Frost enters the picture, there’s still stuff going on in Weston’s life. Weston is clearly lying about his job to his French girlfriend. At any minute, his lies could blow up in his face.

Weston’s also a talented guy with barely anything to do. If the inciting incident didn’t happen—if Weston was never told to prepare his safe house for Frost’s arrival, if Frost never arrived on the doorstep of Weston’s safe house—Weston could do something reckless just to prove to his superiors that he’s worthy of an exciting assignment away from his pokey old safe house.

You can see something similar in Total Recall (1990). Like Matt Weston, Doug is dissatisfied with his life, especially with his job. Even if Rekall, Inc. never tempted Doug with its offer of a memory-implanted vacation that’s “cheaper, better, and safer” than the real thing—even if he never went to its headquarters, never discovered that his memories had been erased—there was a real possibility he’d do something rash, just to shake things up.

In sum, Weston and Doug’s discontent with their respective everyday worlds piques curiosity. Mild curiosity, sure—but mild curiosity is better than none at all.

The Inciting Incident Is Personal

The inciting incident personally affects your protagonist (or someone or something that he values) in an essential way.

That is, in most cases.

There is a big exception: it’s the commission of a crime. Without this event, your mystery or thriller plot couldn’t get started. That’s why, technically speaking, it’s the inciting incident of your story.

But if you think about it, the case that results from the commission of the crime doesn’t have to be assigned to your protagonist. It could be assigned to someone else. A colleague of your protagonist, perhaps.

Things don’t become personal for your protagonist until he’s embroiled in the plot.

Until he’s assigned the case.

For this reason, I suggest you treat:

  • a non-personal crime as a facilitative, or conducive, condition
  • the assignment of the case (or however your protagonist becomes personally involved in the plot) as the inciting incident

Operating on this principle should help you better understand when your story’s really getting started, and hence, puts you in a better position to evaluate the pacing and momentum of your story beginning.

Note: If you are writing an action movie, mystery, or thriller, you’ll definitely want to check out the bonus pacing tip at the end of this article.

The Inciting Incident Is Causally Linked to the First-Act Break

The inciting incident specifically triggers the first-act break, which is when your protagonist pursues his overall goal in earnest.

More simply, the inciting incident is the cause; the end of Act One is the effect.

What does this mean?

If you have an idea of what occurs at the first-act break of your story, you can work backward to come up with a potential inciting incident.

Frequently, in romances, comedies, romantic comedies, and buddy-cop stories, the protagonists become locked into their particular situation at the first-act break. (I call these plots of coerced coexistence.)

Think of when:

  • An uptight FBI agent must solve the case with an unpredictable Boston cop (The Heat).
  • An uptight playwright must share her home with a free-spirited media mogul (Something’s Gotta Give).
  • An uptight professional ice skater must pair with an easygoing partner in order to have a shot at a gold medal (Cutting Edge; Blades of Glory).
  • A monster, who’s supposed to terrify children, must come to the aid of a giggling little girl who treats him like a cuddly pet (Monsters, Inc. ).

Because the first-act break and the inciting incident are causally linked, when you know that your protagonists are going to become locked together by the first-act break, you can work backward from the first-act break to derive a potential inciting incident for your story.

As an example, let’s zoom in on Something’s Gotta Give. What could cause the playwright (her name is Erica) to share her home with the mogul—despite her misgivings? What could cause this to happen?

What if the mogul unexpectedly has a heart attack—and receives medical advice to convalesce somewhere nearby? From these circumstances (assuming Erica grants her consent), it’s easy to see how the mogul could end up in Erica’s home.

Heart attack. Voila, instant inciting incident.

Same goes for Blades of Glory. Why would two male figure skaters who (a) are accustomed to singles skating and (b) despise each other want to skate together, as a pair? What would drive them to such extremes?

Well…if they got banished from their specialty and could no longer compete as individuals, it’s easy to see how they might exploit a loophole just to stay in the game.

Banishment. Again, instant inciting incident.

As a quick side note, although Pitch Perfect 2 isn’t driven by a plot of coerced coexistence, it uses an inciting incident similar to Blades of Glory. Only, rather than men’s singles figure skating, Pitch’s heroines are banned from competing in collegiate-level a capella.

Bonus Pacing Tip

This article was originally inspired by a question submitted by Scribe Meets World reader Amadeo. He wanted to know, “What is the inciting incident of Sherlock Holmes (2009)?”

To answer this question, let’s look at three pieces of information:

  1. The plot of the film revolves around Holmes’s attempts to stop Lord Blackwood’s nefarious schemes.
  2. At the beginning of the film, Holmes cavorts around London in order to find a missing girl whom Lord Blackwood intends to sacrifice.
  3. The first event that gets Holmes entangled in this particular plot is when the girl’s parents seek him out, i.e. they assign him this case.

Here’s where it gets interesting: the third item—the film’s inciting incident—isn’t shown onscreen.

Instead, the film begins with Holmes’s reaction to this inciting incident. As a matter of fact, audiences don’t immediately know what Holmes is up to.

Six minutes transpire before Holmes explicitly states that the missing girl’s parents hired him to find her. And that’s why he’s cavorting all around London.

Notice that if this offscreen technique hadn’t been used, audiences would’ve seen the girl’s parents ask Holmes to take on the case. Audiences would’ve experienced this scene firsthand instead of hearing about it after the fact, from Holmes.

Because the offscreen technique was used, audiences were able to skip over this administrative task, which in all honesty, would have bored them.

Indeed, this is one reason why it can be advantageous to dispense with your protagonist’s everyday world and start your screenplay or novel with your protagonist’s reaction to the inciting incident.

From word one, page 1, scene one—your story is in motion.

If you’ve ever been accused of taking forever to get your story started, take the offscreen technique for a little test-drive. It’s an excellent way to quicken the pacing of your story’s opening pages.

With it, no one can claim your screenplay or novel has a sluggish start.

That said, there are some circumstances where you’re better off launching with a more leisurely beginning. (By the way, I discuss what these circumstances are in my writing guide, Inciting Incident.)

Speaking of…

Learn how to start your story in the right place

Although we covered a lot in this article, we’ve just scratched the surface with regard to the inciting incident. There’s more to learn about how to successfully begin your screenplay and novel.

Inciting Incident (book cover)

With the Revised & Expanded edition of my writing guide, Inciting Incident, you’ll learn how to craft a story beginning that sets up your premise and addresses the “slow” stuff (i.e. likeability and stakes)—but which, at the same time, captivates audiences.

Specifically, we’ll cover topics like the following:

  • how much “everyday” world to include before the inciting incident—and when reducing these pages can really backfire (plus 5 tips to make your protagonist’s everyday world more interesting)
  • how to time your inciting incident for best effect, including how to delay it without aggravating audiences
  • the secret ingredient that made Liam Neeson so appealing in Taken and Ryan Reynolds so attractive in The Proposal (it’s not what you think)
  • 6 tricks to make your inciting incident instantly more memorable
  • how to choose the best inciting incident when you’ve come up with multiple options
  • tips for handling the section of your story after the inciting incident
  • how to improve the design of your story beginning to make it more interesting or logical
  • 8 approaches for starting your screenplay or novel (and why some “controversial” beginnings might not be as bad as you believe)
  • how to tell if your prologue is justified (and the simple labeling trick that may save you loads of grief)
  • 7 principles for evaluating the merits of the flashforward opener
  • a tool that will make audiences regard slow scenes with fascination instead of complaint
  • how to determine how many details to provide audiences so that they can immediately understand what’s happening (but without resorting to the dreaded “info dump”)
  • an easy fix to organically weave in exposition and avoid those “as you know” conversations that drive audiences crazy

Buy Inciting Incident today…

…and learn how to craft a story beginning that (a) hits readers’ “buy buttons” and (b) gets your plotting pieces in place.

Download instantly:

Amazon (US) | Amazon (international)

Apple | Kobo | Smashwords

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