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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 11: The Inciting Incident Part 1

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Previous Article in series.

The last post on screenwriting structure covered the first ten pages of the screenplay and your Protagonist's ordinary world. I won't revisit it except to say that you really should consider showing us your Protagonist's ordinary world and make sure that ordinary world is relevant to what's currently happening to your Protagonist. I'm always getting asked about the ordinary world and a lot of you seem to think we're talking about the Protagonist's everyday life and while that might be what you need to show us depending on your story -- that's really not what we're talking about when talking about the ordinary world.

What I usually find is that a lot of screenplays get the ordinary world just a little bit wrong. Remember, the ordinary world that's pertinent to the story. The ordinary world that your Protagonist is caught up in right now! Show us that world and it should be easier to get your story moving along.

The Inciting Incident

Some call it the catalyst. I'm partial to inciting incident and I'll tell you why. It's self explanatory, plain and simple. Let's take a look at the definition of inciting and incident:

incite -verb
to stir, encourage, or urge on; stimulate or prompt to action: to incite a crowd to riot.

incident-noun
  1. an individual occurrence or event.
  2. a distinct piece of action, or an episode, as in a story or play.
  3. something that occurs casually in connection with something else.
  4. something appertaining or attaching to something else.
  5. an occurrence of seemingly minor importance, esp. involving nations or factions between which relations are strained and sensitive, that can lead to serious consequences, as an outbreak of hostilities or a war: border incident; international incident.
  6. an embarrassing occurrence, esp. of a social nature.
  7. -adjective

  8. likely or apt to happen (usually fol. by to).
  9. naturally appertaining: hardships incident to the life of an explorer.
  10. conjoined or attaching, esp. as subordinate to a principal thing.
  11. falling or striking on something, as light rays.
Here, we're discussing the inciting incident within the context of screenwriting structure.

Also called the CATALYST, INCITING EVENT, TRAUMATIC EVENT, HOOK, etc.

What the hell is it?

From my perspective, it seems to be one of the major things LACKING from many screenwriters attempting to break into the industry and start getting paid.

The INCITING INCIDENT is the LIFE-CHANGING EVENT that PROPELS the Protagonist out of his or her Ordinary World and into the New World which eventually leads him or her to finding both mental and physical happiness. Your inciting incident needs to GRAB the audience. Even if we've seen this event before, give it a twist so the audience's prediction is turned upside down and is dead wrong!

It's that one thing that happens to your Hero that throws his or her life completely off balance thereby creating instant conflict and tension.

It's that one thing that happens to your Hero that makes him or her TAKE ACTION.

It's that one thing that happens to your Hero that makes him or her come up with a goal.

The inciting incident can even be a new opportunity presented to the Protagonist. A trip. A new job. Whatever.

The inciting incident, however appealing it may be to your Protagonist, should be an immediate source of conflict thereby making your Protagonist want to RESOLVE this conflict but the only way to resolve the conflict is for your Hero to take ACTION.

The inciting incident you come up with for your screenplay should cause your Hero to transition from NEED to DESIRE.

Need? Sure. At the beginning of your story, your Protagonist is in dire NEED of something. Maybe it's love. Maybe it's money. Maybe it's a job. Maybe it's to get off drugs. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Just make sure it's a good need. If it is something tangible like money, make sure you create a damn good reason for that need. We don't NEED to see your Protagonist jumping through obstacles throughout your entire screenplay so he can get enough money for the cigarette machine. Although on second thought, that might actually be funny if handled correctly. See Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. I normally don't like movies like these but this one had what it takes to actually make me laugh.

Desire? Sure. After you've identified your Protagonist's need, that very need should transition into desire. The inciting incident should be like a LURE to your Protagonist to quench that desire and, just like that elusive brown trout (yeah, I fly fish) that splits as soon as he sees your shadow hit the water, your Protagonist should swim around that lure or fly trying to decide whether or not he should take a bite.

Your Protagonist must then attempt to satisfy his or her desire by taking action but of course this action is futile at first.

Make no mistake, when your Protagonist does decide to take that bite. AND HE SHOULD, it needs to be his decision to do so.

I see a lot of screenplays with really weak inciting incidents but pretty good 2nd Acts (assuming 3 Act Structure). Somehow, we've been lulled into thinking that the 1st Act doesn't have to be as great as the successive acts, especially, Act 2.

I'm here to tell you that setting up your Protagonist for his or her journey ahead is worth doing well. If you do it well enough, we will want to read through the rest of your screenplay. We will want to sit through the rest of your movie.

Coming up with the perfect INCITING INCIDENT should be reasonably easy to to develop IF YOU KNOW YOUR PROTAGONIST! The better you know him or her, the easier it should be to create the perfect inciting incident that propels him or her into action.

I plead with you to give your inciting incident some deep conscious thought. The better it is, the better your screenplay will be and the easier it will be for us to read through it and watch your movie.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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