In the simplest terms, every script is telling a story. Every story is simply sharing the journey of its Protagonist. And every journey has a beginning. In your script, that beginning is your Inciting Incident, and it better be a damn good one or you’re never going to get a reader to finish your script. This might seem painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of scripts out there suffering from anemic Inciting Incidents; a lack of focus on this small but absolutely vital part of any screenplay. But today’s the day we change all that.
To really understand the function of an Inciting Incident, you need to first grasp the basic structure of a screenplay’s first act. Now, every screenwriting book out there breaks it down slightly differently, and uses different terms but, when you boil it down, there are really only four things going on:
- Set-Up: Your Protagonist and the world they currently inhabit are introduced.
- Inciting Incident: Something happens which challenges or changes everything that was just introduced. The status quo of the Protagonist’s world has been upset and a journey is offered.
- Follow-up: Depending on the story, your Protagonist will spend the rest of the first act either preparing a response to, or resisting the journey that the Inciting Incident has presented them with.
- Acceptance: As your script breaks out of act one, your Protagonist decides to accept the journey. If they didn’t; if they refused, the status quo would remain, and you wouldn’t have a story to tell.
When you look at it this way, it’s much easier to see how important it is. Not only is the Inciting Incident 25% of your first act, but the other 75% is all setting it up, or responding to it.
To really illustrate how the Inciting Incident serves the story, let’s take a look at one of the seminal films of the 1980’s, and one of my favorite films of all-time…
Inciting Incidents and ‘Back To The Future”
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, Back to the Future tells the story of Marty McFly, a teenager who travels back in time and meets his own parents while attempting to get home. Go back and watch the beginning of the film (Oh, who are we kidding, you’ll end up watching the whole thing), and you’ll find a near perfect example of how to execute your Inciting Incident. Let’s see how Back to the Future fits into the four sections mentioned above.
- Set-Up: As the movie begins, we’re introduced to Marty, his dysfunctional and habitually unsuccessful family, and his fear of being rejected. We also have some exposition weaved in (through an amazing opening sequence) so that we’re aware of Doc Brown, his status throughout town of being a kook, and the fact that he is in possession of some plutonium that was recently stolen. Not to mention several set-ups – the fact that Marty plays guitar, and how the town square clock tower came to be inoperable - that will pay off later. This is Marty’s world and we know his place in it as the story begins.
- Inciting Incident: The event that starts the whole ball rolling is Doc’s death at the hands of terrorists looking to get their plutonium back. As they turn their sites to Marty and beginning pursuing him.
- Follow-up: Now that the Inciting Incident has occurred, Marty is on the run. He’s in the Delorean, which Doc was kind enough to explain the precise operating details of before getting killed, and has to make a decision about whether to keep attempting to evade the terrorists, or to activate the time machine and see what happens.
- Acceptance: Marty ultimately decides to go 88 mph and use the time machine. This acceptance transports him into the past, breaking us out of Act One, and setting up Marty’s journey for the rest of the film.
While most sources will tell you that your Inciting Incident needs to happen at a certain page count (usually somewhere between 10-15), it’s also worth noting that, although all four of these phases are present in most good scripts, the length of time each occupies can vary radically. For instance, in Back to the Future, the Inciting Incident, the follow-up, and the acceptance, all take place within a few pages. The majority of Act One is concerned with setting up Marty and his world so that we’ll understand everything that happens once he travels back in time. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You could just as easily move your Inciting Incident up, and then have a prolonged period of resistance from your Protagonist before they finally accept the journey in front of them. In The Hobbit, Bilbo’s internal struggle, and initial denial of his journey, before finally succumbing, it a prime example of how that can work.
However you decide to do it, your Inciting Incident needs to be something epic (within the scope of your story) that changes your Main Character’s world. Everything that was set up is different now, and the only choice left is to accept the journey and begin our story. Do that well, and you’ll keep your reader reading.
Now, harness that 1.21 gigawatts and keep writing!
- More Specs & The City articles by Brad Johnson
- Meet the Reader: What Makes a Good Screenwriter?
- Meet the Reader: How I Do What I Do
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