What is an Inciting Incident? (Definitions and Examples)

The inciting incident is the most important thing in the first act of your film or TV script. But what is it and how can you make yours memorable? 

What's the dramatic thing that happens in your story that starts the adventure? 

You know, that thing that clues the audience into the story, tone, adventure, and more? 

If you don't know...then your script probably sucks. Don't worry, it doesn't have to stay that way.

Your inciting incident is the key to your first act and starting your story off with a bang. But if you don't know how to take advantage of it or use it, you've come to the right place. 

Today I want to cover the inciting incident, talk about how important they are inside your screenplay, and give you some tips on how to write them. 

Let's go. 

What is an Inciting Incident? (Definitions and Examples)

Screenplay structure is one of those things everyone talks about and everyone has an opinion on using. I like using our beat sheet to parse out the story level by level. Still, every exec or script reader will tell you that the first act is probably the most important because it hooks the reader right away. 

And the anchor of Act One is the inciting incident. 

Inciting Incident definition

The inciting incident is a plot point or event that hooks the audience into the story. This moment thrusts the protagonist into the plot of the screenplay. 

Uses

Inciting incidents are used in film, television, novels, plays, and stories. They give the protagonist a reason for the quest and are usually highlighted in trailers, pitches, treatments, and even loglines

Boil it down for me!

I call this the "Dude, Where's my Car" moment because it's the thing that drives the entire story. It's the metaphorical lost car that everyone is chasing. 

Let's look at some other examples in film and television. 

Inciting Incidents in TV 

You often think about inciting incidents in films but every TV episode has them. In TV pilots, they're the reason the entire series happens. In other TV episodes, they get the story of the episode started. 

Think about The Sopranos. The inciting incident is Tony having panic attacks. Those attacks force him to see a psychiatrist, which he doesn't like too much. 

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6E8CayOZPpM

What about in a show like Modern Family

Since that show is done like a documentary, you could say that the inciting incident is just this family saying it's okay to film them. As that blends into the background, each episode punctuates its incident in respect to the story. 

Sometimes inciting incidents work two ways. 

In a show like Smallville, they are the reason for the series. Clark arriving on earth. 

But since that came in a meteor shower which imbued people with powers all over and since this show is a "monster of the week" procedural, this inciting incident is the reason there's a series and a launchpad for every episode to introduce its villain. 

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DoBFUuqQYyk

Inciting Incidents in Movies 

Movies are so fun to write. You get characters, a plot, and you scramble them together and have fun. 

To stay organized in act one, you need your inciting incident to pop. 

In a movie like The Hangover, the inciting incident is the moment when the guys wake up in their trashed hotel room with no memory of what happened the night before. As they regroup, they realize Doug is missing...and hilarity ensues.

In a movie (or book) like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the inciting incident is when Hagrid tells Harry Potter that he's a wizard. This fact changes all the events after and reconstitutes everything we've seen in the world thus far. 

In movies, the inciting incident has the habit of inspiring the title. 

This is very true in Gone Girl. 

The inciting incident in this movie is when Amy is just...well...gone. 

The whole movie hinges on her missing. And while there are awesome plot twists the movie still is driving by the absence of Amy and the investigation into Nick. 

What's next? Check out our Beat Sheet

Your screenplay is built up of individual story beats that create emotional reactions in the reader and viewer. These beats are based on classic screenplay structure. The beats help guide the character arcs, story structure, and even your elevator pitch. So where do the beats come from? A lot of people find Save the Cat a little overrated and it seems like every writing website has its own template.

So we made our own. 

Dive in!      

Your Comment

2 Comments

What if I was to tell you that there is no such thing as an inciting incident ?
I have not gone mad . . . At least not yet.
People who describe what one is say it is a quest.

Yes - THE QUEST is a beat from THE HEROS JOURNEY and it is a block from 4 in the conflict HUMAN V SELF. It can fit anywhere in your story - as long as it does feature or there will be a hole. This is why it does not need to feature on page 22 or whatever !

We cannot have a random scene that goes - DUDE WHERE IS MY CAR ? WELL LET US FIND IT THEN !

There are four deep literary themes in THE QUEST . . .

FAILURE
THE GREAT NEED
THE NOW NEED
PERMISSION

THE GREAT NEED - to find the car !

My free ebook THE SIGN OF 4 will clearly explain all.

January 17, 2020 at 12:27PM, Edited January 17, 12:31PM

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And I suppose if you were to demonstrate THE QUEST in that sequence of deep literary themes - then you have gone from NEGATIVE to POSITIVE - just as Robert McKee talks about. But there is no mad arguing nor lying all the time ! ! !

January 17, 2020 at 12:36PM, Edited January 17, 12:37PM

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