Imagine this scenario: Secret agent Rex, whose wife was assassinated 15 years ago is now the sole caregiver and father of their 17-year-old daughter, Kari. Life has been calm since that fateful night, 15 years ago; Kari is the best in her class and has just been accepted into Harvard, and Rex’s missions are tame enough that he’s never too far from home. The close father and daughter have movie nights and pizza nights and shopping dates, testament to Rex’s promise to his deceased wife to give their beloved daughter the most normal and stable life he can. One evening, the two argue about a boy she’s seeing. He ‘can’t choose who she loves’ and she ‘shouldn’t be with a low life like Punk Dave’ and Kari storms off. That same night, Kari doesn’t return home and when the clock strikes 11pm, a ransom note lands on his porch floor. Kari has been abducted and her captors need more than just money from Rex in order to save her life.
Okay, I know. That is a fairly tired example to use, but that, in its most simple form, is what an inciting incident looks like.
The inciting incident in your screenplay is that moment of disruption usually at the end of your first act and the moment a new, life-changing goal takes form for your protagonist (or even other key characters, including your antagonist, but we’ll get to that a little later on). In this example, it is the moment Rex’s world is about to change forever; the moment where his goal is to find his daughter, desperately wanting to fix the broken glass that is his humanity, but no matter how much he ‘fixes’ this, he’ll still be left in the resolution of the third act with cracks. He will be left with a completely different perspective to the world he experiences now than to the perspective he experienced before the inciting incident happened.
Now, the inciting incident doesn’t need to be devastating or potentially fatal as the above; be clear that it can be almost anything: your character takes on a new job / meets a new girl or boy / has a fallout with their boss / a random trip away that he has won in a raffle (among many things). The one rule, is that it has to be an event that transcends from their ordinary daily processes into something extraordinary and how your characters react to that significant change.
- Taken (Daughter is kidnapped)
- The Breakup (Couple fight and break up)
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (Jack discovers Christmas land)
- The Dallas Buyers Club (Protagonist discovers he has aids)
- Jurassic World (Extremely dangerous hybrid dinosaur escapes her enclosure)
Okay, so now the definition is out of the way, the above scenario demonstrates some key things that writers should consciously think about when writing their own inciting incident:
- The presentation of the ordinary world/universe your character lives in
- The potential space to write a setup for an exciting payoff later on in the narrative
- The strength of relationship between protagonist and goal/motivation
- A concrete and powerful motivation for change (of which will naturally move the story into a new, engaging direction).
The above propels the protagonist into a new reality and thus, into the second act of the screenplay. As in Rex’s case, it acts as the beginning of revelations and openings of old wounds from a once dormant past. So now, Rex’s desires become as much about saving his daughter and keeping his promise to his deceased wife, as to figuring out why she has been taken and how this might connect to him or his deceased wife. There you have it, an organic subplot.
For the more seasoned screenwriter, consider exploring what the inciting incident really means to your story: where does it occur, how many times could it occur and who does it belong to?
Let me give you a prime example of where the writer plays around with the traditional placement of the Inciting Incident: Gillian Flynn’s unforgettable Gone Girl.
The inciting incident seemingly happens when the protagonist notices that his wife has gone missing in the first act. Almost as soon as he realizes that she’s gone, the public suspects him of murdering her. And so his desire becomes proving his innocence by finding her, whether she is alive or dead.
Fast forward to our antagonist (his wife) as we learn of her plan to frame her own husband for her ‘murder’. A flashback reveals the moment, way before the story begins, where she sees her husband kiss a younger woman and learns that he is having an affair. This is arguably the real or first inciting incident and as you’ll notice, happens way before the first act and to the antagonist. The writer has created a universe where the antagonist isn’t just supplement to the protagonist as is often the case, but as pivotal a character as the protagonist. By doing this, the writer brings in a whole new dimension to the screenplay with added depth. So, Gone Girl posses two inciting incidents, that change the course of reality for two characters and occurs at very different times during the story: one expectedly during the first act, and the other, before the story begins shown only through memory flashback.
The fundamental beauty of writing your inciting incident, is the moment your story will unfold, perhaps in ways you may not have planned for, so don’t be afraid to play with it. In this moment, you will find that your characters will naturally delve into corners of their psyche that they may never have used before to pursue their deepest desire – and this, is how your story will begin.