Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Victoria Lucia

How to Write an Inciting Incident

Write an Inciting Incident

Do you find your stories just dragging in the beginning? When writing your first act, do you find yourself just wanting to hurry up and get to the exciting action of it all? Have you gotten feedback that the start of your story wasn't attention-grabbing enough? Then you might want to take a closer look at your inciting incident! If you're asking yourself, "what's that?" then keep reading because today I'm talking all about how to write an inciting incident!

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"The inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in your protagonist's life."

Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee

"Here's the principle: When a story begins, life is in balance. Yes, your hero may have a problem, but it's a problem he's always had - his status quo. Then the catalyst kicks things out of balance and gives the character a new problem, need, goal, desire, or mission. The central character spends the rest of the movie trying to get things back into balance."

David Trottier, "The Screenwriter's Bible"

What is an Inciting Incident?

Whether they're a screenplay, a pilot script, or even a novel, all stories have a moment that kicks off the story, often referred to as the inciting incident, the catalyst, the big event, or the trigger. This exciting incident is the major event that occurs and pushes the protagonist into a situation outside of their status quo to set the story in motion. It is the thing that sets the protagonist on the path that the audience is going to follow for the rest of the story until the hero reaches their external goal (or internal goal). 

Pretty important, right?

How to Find Your Inciting Incident

All stories are different, and sometimes pinpointing this moment can be tricky to nail down. You're looking for that pivotal moment of no return early on in your story. What is the thing that starts the chain reaction of events that, once it happens, your main character can't just walk away from it?

What Makes a Good Inciting Incident

Many things go into making sure this scene works well, but here are some general guidelines:

1) It has to be unexpected

This means something out of left field catches our characters by surprise and throws them completely off guard. It is outside their status quo. We often think of these moments when we read books or watch movies where someone gets shot or stabbed unexpectedly. These types of scenes work well because they catch us off guard and force us to react. We don't know if the person will live or die, so we become invested in seeing who survives. The incident becomes the story driver. 

2) It should change everything

Once this moment hits, nothing else matters anymore. Everything changes after that point. Our hero must now deal with the consequences of his actions. They may not like those consequences, but they have to accept them. To survive, they need to learn new skills or overcome obstacles.

3) There shouldn't be any way back

Sometimes people try to use the trigger as a way to bring the story full circle. They say, 'oh yeah, my character was always destined to end up doing X…' That doesn't work very well. A trigger isn't supposed to resolve anything. It's meant to set up the next chapter. So, whatever comes after the inciting incident should be unpredictable.

4) Make sure it's believable

As much as possible, make sure that the scenario is something that can actually happen. Don't just throw together a random plot device that seems cool. Instead, make sure that the circumstances surrounding the scenario were real-life situations, at least in the genre you're writing in. Different types of stories have different expectations.  

5) Keep it simple

Don't slow yourself and your story down by taking too long to explain the catalyst. The best way to get through a screenplay quickly is to keep it short and sweet. Focus on getting the moment done right and done quickly. 

Other Elements That Great Inciting Incidents Have in Common

Great inciting incidents all involve a protagonist who has been living a life of complacency or comfort. This is a person who has never had to deal with any real adversity before.

  • They create a ticking clock; there's a sense of urgency or at least a sense of time where the character will have to act or take care of this asap.

  • It's a kind of conflict that needs to be resolved.

  • They're all external things happening to the main characters and forcing them to act in some way.

  • How the main character reacts to/deals with the inciting incident tells the audience more about them.

  • They create questions for the reader or watcher, making them wonder what will happen next. 

There's no simple formula to crafting the perfect inciting incident, and it can be easy to confuse which moment in your story is THE moment that sets all the events to motion. However, knowing and understanding your main character can help shed light on the inciting incident.

Know Your Characters

Understanding what motivates your protagonist is key to writing an effective story! The inciting incident is the first moment the reader or audience will get a taste of what your character's story arc might be.

  • What do they want before the inciting incident?

  • How does the inciting incident affect their plans?

  • How does your main character deal with the inciting incident differently from how other characters might handle it?

Taking the time to contemplate your main character's personality and how it plays into the events around them can help you to understand your inciting incident.

Inciting Incident Examples in Movies

  • The Hangover

    Screenplay by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
    A gang of bachelor party celebrating friends wake up confused after a night of barely remembered debauchery and find their friend, the groom, missing.

  • Jaws

    Screenplay by Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb, and Howard Sackler
    A shark kills a young woman skinny dipping by herself late at night.

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

    Screenplay by Steve Kloves
    Hagrid tells young Harry Potter, who doesn't have any knowledge of a magical world, that he's a wizard and has been accepted into a wizarding school.

  • Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory

    Screenplay by Roald Dahl
    Charlie, a kind boy from a poor family, wins a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

  • Superbad

    Screenplay by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg
    High school seniors, Seth and Evan, agree to procure alcohol for a big party.

As you can see, without these events all happening, these films wouldn't have a plot. The characters would have just gone about their days as usual. Harry Potter wouldn't have gone to Hogwarts, and the small town in "Jaws" would have had a lovely peaceful beach-going season.

While the inciting incident isn't necessarily the be-all, end-all to writing a great story, it is a decidedly important element to a complete story. A clear and believable inciting incident that sets your protagonist on a path of no return makes for a stronger and more compelling story. Both knowing your protagonist and writing an adequate inciting incident that pushes them to action go hand-in-hand. So don't be afraid to dig deep and do some thinking about your main character's motivations. If you were in their shoes, what would incite YOU to do something?

Happy writing!

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