Inciting incidents are the reason for every movie and TV show you've ever watched, but they're often misunderstood.
There are lots of definitions and tricks surrounding screenwriting and storytelling. Since the idea of stories have been around since the first humans walked the earth, we've gotten pretty good at developing a strong outline and structure for every story we tell.
When you're writing a story, there has to be a reason for the way the characters act. A reason for the whole thing to take place. That's a character's drive. But what makes that character go forward? What sparks their desire and their mission? An inciting incident.
Today we will go over the inciting incident meaning, go through some examples of inciting incidents across film and TV, and delve into why they might be the most important part of your screenplay.
So let's get going!
What's an inciting incident?
The inciting incident is the most important part of every story. It's what makes the story happen. It can be big or small, but it has to exist to get the characters moving and to get the plot to transition between acts.
Inciting incident definition
An inciting incident is a plot point or event that grabs the reader into the story and propels the character's motivation for change. This is the event that inspires the protagonist's journey within the plot of the story.
Why are inciting incidents so important?
Without the inspiration to go on the journey, there's no reason for the story. We spend a ton of time perfecting the characters and the other elements of the plot, but the inciting incident usually remains unchanged when rewriting. You can beef it up, or make the stakes higher, but the inciting incident is so important it usually makes it into the logline, too.
I want to take a look at a few inciting incident examples to go through why they matter in your screenplay.
Inciting incident examples in film and television
The first inciting incident I want to talk about comes as a call to action. We often see our heroes drafted into battle. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we know Indiana Jones is an adventurer, but the inciting incident is that the United States CIA shows up and asks him to procure the ark before the Nazis get their hands on it.
Indy's conversation with these guys pushes him off to adventure.
Another type of inciting incident is reactionary. Something happens, and a character reacts to that thing, which changes the course of their lives. This is what happens with Breaking Bad's cancer diagnosis. Once Walt thinks he's dying, he has to come up with money and a way to support his family.
He becomes Heisenberg and the rest is history.
There are also inciting incidents that launch chains of events that can work their way into the plot or thrust of a TV show. The New Girl pilot has Jess walking in on her boyfriend cheating on her. This inciting incident means she has to move out of her place, but the TV show doesn't take off until she decides to move in with the guys and be the...new girl...in the loft.
Lastly, I want to look at a movie that has two inciting incidents for its characters.
I'd argue that the inciting incident for Jack in Titanic is when he wins the tickets at poker.
This win gets Jack on the boat. Since he's in steerage, he decides to walk around and runs into a suicidal Rose. As Rose is about to take her life, she's saved by Jack.
Jack saving Rose is their meet cute or the inciting incident for their relationship and for Old Rose to tell the story. There are lots of layers to Titanic. It's a total masterpiece.
What's next? Plan your story with a treatment!
Now that you've mastered the inciting incident, time to plan the entire movie or tv show with a treatment.
You just got out of a great general meeting, and the executive you met with loves your latest idea. You want to develop it together, and that's the first step towards your vision finding its way to the screen. But you have to pump the breaks because you need something first. Before you even write. Something to get all these great ideas down onto the page... That something is… a script treatment
But wait…what’s a script treatment, screenplay treatment or film treatment (we’ll use those terms interchangeably)? And more importantly, how can you write one that helps seal the deal, or even sells the movie?
Click the link to find out.