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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 12: The Inciting Incident Part 2

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Previous Article in series.

So where do you place the inciting incident?

Outstanding question and one that requires some additional thought. Let's take a look at the big picture. I assume most of you are using 3 Act Structure and since 3 Act Structure is the most prevalent, I'll talk more about the inciting incident utilizing this.

INCITING INCIDENT RULE: Your inciting incident definitely needs to occur somewhere in Act 1. Plain and simple. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Why the 1st Act?

Glad you asked. Because at some point in your 1st Act, your Protagonist has got to get off his or her ass and get moving i.e., MAKE A STORY! In fact, in Act 2, they need to start exploring the NEW WORLD.

In order to get the Hero into the new world, you've got to create some kind of believable disturbance that gets your Hero moving.

Since Act 2 is your Hero's venture into the new world, Act 1 must contain a plausible inciting incident or disturbance that causes your Hero to react. This reaction must also be plausible and commensurate with your inciting incident.

Now let me say this; if you understand this much, you are way ahead of the game because most screenwriters trying to break into the industry rarely create a plausible disturbance or inciting incident that makes us want to read through to Act 2.


Because these screenwriters do not know anything about structure. I see a lot of weak inciting incidents that don't seem to fit with the reaction of the Hero. Not only is the inciting incident or disturbance weak but so is the Protagonist's reaction to the weakness.

Most newbies watch movies and try to emulate the structure in some particular movie thinking that if this disturbance worked there, then it will surely work for their screenplay. This is fine as far as it goes but I have literally seen too many screenplays where somebody dies and this death is supposed to kick the Hero in the ass enough to explore the new world.

Nope. Not buyin' it.

Make your inciting incident FIT your STORY. Make it FIT your Protagonist. Remember, it needs to KNOCK him right out of his socks. It's something he's not expecting. It takes him by surprise.

If you watch some of the older movies, you'll see a myriad of inciting incidents occurring all over the 1st Act. Hell, in some older movies, you don't even see an inciting incident at all. This is because movies were slower back then and the fact is that many of these classic films simply do NOT keep the interest of the current movie ticket buying demographic.

I would even venture to say that many of us older audience members have been lulled into the enjoyment and desire of the faster paced film.

Having said that, where in the 1st Act do you put your inciting incident? You're gonna love this answer...

It depends but NO LATER THAN PAGE 12.

That sucks, doesn't it? It depends on your story. It depends on your genre. It depends on your Protagonist. In other words, some films might require that you dive right into the action and throw that inciting incident right on page 1. Again, it depends on your story, your genre, and your Protagonist.

That's not to say that specific genres REQUIRE the inciting incident to be placed on page 1 or page 10 because they do not. Hope I'm not losing you. Let's take this a little further. What definitely NEEDS to happen in Act 1 BEFORE the inciting incident?

Here's my personal list:
  • Set the tone of your story i.e., comedy, thriller, dark, edgy, crime, etc.
  • Introduce your Protagonist or show us a glimpse of your Antagonist or even a victim of the Antagonist.
  • Show us your Protagonist's Ordinary World.
  • Show us your Protagonist's fatal flaw and while you're at it, a few character flaws as well.
The above list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, there's a lot more things that I would include BEFORE the inciting incident but the above is what I feel is the absolute MINIMUM that NEEDS to be there BEFORE you trigger the inciting incident on your Hero. I think the usual screenplay should very likely have the inciting incident occur on one of the following pages: Page 9, Page 10, Page 11 and NO LATER THAN Page 12! So, now knowing that this is the usual standard of structure, this is what you should shoot for on your first draft. On your rewrite, you'll need to do some serious thinking and consideration about your story, genre, and your Hero and his or her Ordinary World. The great thing about having the inciting incident occur on one of the above pages and no later than page 12 is that during your rewrite, you should be able to tweak the inciting incident to occur even sooner "IF" the story warrants it.

How would a story warrant moving the inciting incident up a few pages? It depends. A thriller might warrant moving the disturbance up. So might a horror but again, it depends on your story. Hell, for that matter, even a drama could get a healthy shot of adrenaline by sticking the inciting incident on page 1 IF the story warrants it.

There is no hard and fast rule but before breaking the rules, be sure to know the rules first. We all know what will happen if we go rob a bank, right? The police will be after us...

Same thing goes for the rule of the inciting incident. Know that with today's audiences, it should occur no later than page 12. Make that your basic rule before you go breaking it and when and if you do break it, you'd better have a good reason i.e., your story, genre, and Protagonist warrant the break.

One of the first things a producer usually does is either ask the reader when the inciting incident occurs or if they decide to read it themselves, they turn ahead through the pages to see what gets things moving and if you don't have some inciting incident to get your Protagonist of his or her ass by page 12 -- and absolutely no later than page 15 -- don't expect a call back about your script.

Is it formula? Nope. It's form.

It hits us upside the head just a little harder these days when you give us the inciting incident within the first 12 minutes of your story. The mass audience of today isn't really interested in sitting around waiting for a half hour for something to get your protagonist's ass in gear. Remember, these are the people sitting in the audience sending text messages and even making phone calls. You really think these are the kinda people that wanna wait a half hour or gasp -- never -- for your incitiing incident?

Not on your life...

In fact, you may want to consider writing your inciting incident so that these rude sons-a-bitches decide to turn those damn cell phones off till the end of your film.

Some artistes might want to argue this cold hard fact. Don't bother arguing about it with me. Not interested.

The big thing you need to remember about the inciting incident is that you need an event to happen to your protagonist that causes him or her to eventually make the decision to leave the safety of their ordinary world, and remember... They won't want to leave. They will probably try to figure out a way not to leave but eventually, they acquiesce to the fact that they gotta go on a new journey to resolve whatever conflict the inciting incident just caused.

Make note that you've actually got quite a bit of leeway with the inciting incident, so try to come up with an inciting incident that we've not seen before. Astonish us. Grab our attention so that we lean forward in that theater seat and invest ourselves into the rest of your story. Catch us by surprise... Don't telegraph it to us.

Come up with an inciting incident that grabs us by the throat -- something we haven't seen before (yes, it can be done) and you're on your way to a compelling story.

Remember, you've shown us your Protagonist's ordinary world. We've seen how he or she behaves within that ordinary world. We understand it. We understand your Protagonist. It may not be a great place (I'm not talking location here) to be but it's one that the Protagonist is at home in. He or she is safe within that world because they know the rules and they exist and make decisions based on the rules of that world.

The inciting incident is that unexpected banana peel your Protagonist slips on. He didn't see it coming and neither did we. It's that drive-by that happens for no reason.

It's that grenade that makes no sense.

Knock your Protagonist off his or her ass and you've got our attention.

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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