George Lucas had a spaceship attacked, Almodovar put a girlfriend in a coma, and Paul Thomas Anderson had a busboy meet an adult film producer. Thousands of screenplays use it. In Casablanca, Ugarte gives the letters of transit to Rick. In Jaws, the shark attacks. In Persona, Liv Ulman goes silent. Every James Bond receives an assignment and Shakespeare killed Hamlet’s father. The inciting incident.
This event is so prevalent in film it has become an accepted rule that every screenplay needs one to start the story, a prompt that sets the plot in motion. Some claim that this must be a singular event that happens to the main protagonist and others that it must happen on page 10.
Yet there are films that don’t follow this “rule” and work. Take, for instance, Juno. Here, the inciting incident –the pregnancy- happens weeks before the story starts. In The Breakfast Club, the kids are in detention because they did something days before the beginning of the film. In Kiss Of The Spider Woman, the inciting incident is having a spy share the jail cell with a dissident. This is something that happens before the story, but we don’t find out until much later.
Can the inciting incident happen much later in the story, say after page 40? If we look at The Godfather as a Michael Corleone’s story, the inciting incident is the shooting of the Don, which happens way after page 10.
What about the rule that the inciting incident must be a single event that happens to the main character? In As Good As It Gets, the inciting incidents (there are two) happen to supporting characters. The beating happens to Jack Nicholson’s neighbor and the waitress has to take her son to the hospital. Both these events don’t happen to the main character, but they set his transformation in motion.
Could it be that some of those “rules” are not as inviolable as many would have us believe? Could screenplays work without even having an inciting incident?
One could argue that in Groundhog Day the inciting incident is the first time Bill Murray hears the same wake-up song. But this is not an inciting event. It is simply part of his new routine and happens several times, so by definition it is not the inciting incident. Is it the fact that he has to repeat the same day over and over? Is the inciting incident waking up? In Groundhog Day, no event prompts this new reality…it just happens. Could it be that banal? And still work?
Badlands, 8 ½, Eyes Wide Shut, The Man Who Loved Women, American Graffiti, The Wrestler, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Goodfellas, The Fighter …none of these films have inciting incidents as defined by the “rules.” Yet they work. And these are not some underground films. They were made by some of the greatest filmmakers past and present.
There is nothing wrong with an inciting incident kicking off a story. Most stories need one. But it is also entirely possible to have a great story without a prompt, have it happen early or late, or to someone other than the main protagonist. Stories may start with a character just wanting to do something (or not do something). It’s the artistry and skill of the writer to make this non-event-approach work.
It seems that us screenwriters flock towards neatly defined elements because that’s how many other films have done it. But each story deserves to have its unique structure and elements. Sometimes those elements will appear on page 10. But sometimes they may be completely absent, or unique and different. And to me, that’s not only OK, it’s desirable.
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