The inspiration for this month's first article is a thread I encountered on a somewhat popular screenwriters' message board (which shall remain nameless) a couple months back. The topic started simply enough, with one user asking for someone to identify the inciting incident of one of the most popular and widely-seen movies of all time, Star Wars. It seemed to be a question that needed only one or two responses from a knowledgeable reader and that be it. But instead, this thread stretched on for well over TEN PAGES. The mind-boggling thing was that most of the answers were absolutely wrong. Every moment over the first half of the movie, from its opening shot to actions that occur an hour into the film, was confidently brought forward by one user or another to be the inciting incident. The fact that there is so much widespread confusion over a concept so simple and fundamental to the cinematic narrative shines a light on why so many, -nearly all- spec scripts are so poorly put together that they bear no chance of ever being produced as a successful feature film.
I put the blame once again on the glut of screenwriting books on the market, and the confusing array of inaccurate bullshit they have spilled across the writing community over the last dozen years. Most aspiring writers assume that just because a book has been published, the author must be an expert and his or her information is accurate. This is often not the case. Since so many books lead their readers in contradictory and inaccurate directions on something as fundamental as the inciting incident, I must once again assert that most of the books on the market do the screenwriting community far more harm than good.
In this article I intend to clear the confusion by laying out once and for all what exactly is this “inciting incident”, what it does, and where is should occur.
WHAT IS THE INCITING INCIDENT?
Let's start by reviewing the basics:
- A STORY is defined as “a structured series of events about a character dealing with a PROBLEM, all unified by a premise.” - For the purposes of this article, the most important part of this definition is the problem. All stories at their simplest levels revolve around characters struggling with, and trying to overcome a single, particular story problem.
- Cinematic stories carry out their narratives through a structure known as the STORY SPINE. The Story Spine is composed of five elements: a. the Story Problem, b. the main character's Story Goal that once achieved, will overcome the problem, c. the Path of Actions the character takes to reach that goal, d. the Main Conflict that stands in the character's way of doing so, and e. the Stakes that force the character to continue pursuing that goal despite the resistance created by the conflict. - Everything in a story must relate to these five elements. If a story does not contain a spine with all five elements it will be incomplete and will fail in its execution.
Until a Story Spine has been established, the story has yet to properly begin. The story cannot yet truly advance because there is not yet any clear direction for it to go. The drama is still in the runner's blocks, waiting for the starter's pistol. Until the spine is established, the cinematic story is still in its setup sequence, the opening of a film where the storyteller communicates all important information needed to orientate the audience before the real action begins. The setup sequence is like setting up the pieces on a chess board before play begins. A piece is being put here or there, but the conflict of the game has not yet begun. The inciting incident is the moment play begins. It is the starter's pistol that leaps the story off its blocks and sends it on its path towards the finish line.
The inciting incident is defined as the moment where the Story Problem invades the protagonist's status quo life in such as way that it forces him or her to do something about it. From this point on, every story event centers on the protagonist's attempts to overcome that problem. The inciting incident is an events that works to officially start the story by setting up the Story Spine and all five of its elements. The Story Problem presents itself to the protagonist. Because of this, the protagonist forms an idea of what kind of Story Goal he or she must achieve to overcome this problem, and what is at Stake should he or she fail. The protagonist then decides what first steps must be taken down his or her Path of Action. This action incites the Main Conflict to resist his or her actions.
The inciting incident has not officially occurred until the story has reached the moment where at least some aspect of ALL five elements of the Story Spine have been established. This is likely the source of much of the confusion that can arise over what specific event in a particular story officially constitutes the inciting incident. In some stories, an event occurs that establishes all five elements of the spine immediately and simultaneously. In others, there can be a slight delay between the establishment of the Problem, the Goal, to the first step of the Path of Action, etc... This leads us to our second question:
HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN THE INCITING INCIDENT HAS OCCURED?
The inciting incident has not yet occurred until three qualifications have been met:
- The Story Problem exists.
- The protagonist becomes aware of the Story Problem.
- The protagonist decides to do something about that Story Problem.
- The Story Problem exists.
Given the definition of “story” presented above, it goes without saying that a storyline cannot begin to form until a problem arises. Before this happens, the narrative is just a bunch of people carrying on with their daily lives. However, there are many films where the source of the Story Problem presents itself immediately. Sometimes it arises in the first scene, sometimes it already exists before the movie has begun. But this does not mean that the inciting incident has already occurred.
The Story Problem of Star Wars is that the galaxy is ruled by an evil empire, an empire on the verge of crushing a virtuous rebel army that is the good people's only hope for freedom. But the moment the audience receives this information is not the inciting incident. Darth Vader then conquers Princess Leia's ship and take her prisoner. This is also not the inciting incident. Princess Leia has given R2D2 a secret mission and launched the two droid to Tatooine, where they promptly get lost. This is not the inciting incident either. Why? Because neither Princess Leia nor R2D2 are the story's protagonist. The Story Spine is all about the direct opposition between the protagonist and the source of the Story Problem/Main Conflict. The protagonist of Star Wars is Luke Skywalker. Luke Skywalker has not even appeared on screen yet. This means that all these events are nothing but setup.
- The protagonist becomes aware of the Story Problem.
Finally, Luke Skywalker enters the narrative when his Uncle Owen purchases the Princess's two lost droids. Though part of the Problem has now entered Luke's life, this is still not the inciting incident. Luke is still completely unaware that a problem exists or that his life has in any way changed.
But once the protagonist becomes aware of a problem, that still does not mean the inciting incident has occurred. I am personally currently aware of many dramatic problems. I am aware of the national debt crisis. I am aware of the drug cartel wars killing thousands in Mexico. I am aware of the civil uprising in Syria. But this by no means suggests that I am currently engaged in a dramatic struggle to fix any of these problems. Even though I am aware of these problems, I personally do nothing about them and continue with my daily life because these problems have not yet done anything to impact the status quo of my life in a way that would motivate me to take action. This is the same situation that exist for a protagonist at this stage.
To give an example, Lester Burnham begins American Beauty with his Story Problem already in place. His problem is that his life; with his family, his work, and his view of his own status and worth; is unacceptable to him. From the opening moments, we understand that Lester is very aware of his problem. But this does not mean that the inciting incident has occurred. Lester has yet to take any action against the problem. Instead, he just mopes through this status quo, suffering under the problem's weight. His story adventure does not start until the moment something occurs in which:
- The protagonist decides to do something about the problem.
American Beauty does not reach its inciting incident until the moment Lester first sees his daughter's teenage friend Angela. The lust he feels at this moment creates the “awakening” in him that motivates him to create change in his life and overcome his Story Problem out of a desire to obtain Angela.
It is important to note that the inciting incident occurs at the moment the protagonist decides to take action against the problem. Whether or not the protagonist takes physical action at that very moment is inconsequential. It is the change in the protagonist's consciousness that is important. In many stories, the protagonist may make this decision, but does not immediately have a chance to act. His or her first actions towards the his or her Story Goal may have to be slightly delayed due to the logic of the narrative. Yet still, the inciting incident has occurred. A change has been made within the will of the protagonist so that he or she is now ready, willing, and able to take action when the opportunity arises.
Given these three qualifications, what then is the real inciting incident of Star Wars?
After the droids are purchased by Uncle Owen, Luke is ordered to clean them. While performing this mundane task, Luke triggers a fragment of message recorded by Princess Leia before she was captured by Vader asking for help from Obi-Wan Kenobi. Since Luke has already expressed a desire to join the Rebel cause, he is highly intrigued by this mysterious message. He can see that a problem exists (this woman seems in desperate trouble) and, due to his Rebel sympathies, Luke feels a strong desire to find out more about the message. This is the official inciting incident. Luke's desire to do something about the message leads him on the first step of his Path of Action ( to find Obi-Wan Kenobi), which then leads him forward into every other event of the story.
Much of the confusion over the identity of Star Wars' inciting incident comes from the fact that, though Luke desires to take physical action to find Obi-Wan, he is not the character to actually make the first move to do so. Instead of Luke boldly hitting the road to find Obi-Wan, he is led to him indirectly when R2D2 runs away. This course of events turns out to be a necessity of character, not plot. Luke may want to take action, but as the story begins, he is not the type of person to be so bold. He is forbidden to act by his Uncle and can do nothing to argue. In stories where the protagonist starts as passive or powerless, he or she often need a push from an outside character to set him or her on the path of adventure. R2D2 running away was simply a way to get Luke on his Path of Action while maintaining the integrity of his character. Situations like this are why it is the moment the protagonist finds a desire to take action that predicates the inciting incident, not the moment when that action is actually taken.
INCITING INCIDENT IGNORANCE AT WORK
One of my biggest surprises of 2008 was the movie Taken. My surprise was not because such a small film performed respectively at the box office. I was surprised that such an amateur screenplay was produced in the first place. Taken's script is a joke, highlighted first by the writers' inability to understand their own inciting incident.
Taken is the story of a father's attempt to rescue his daughter after she is kidnapped while vacationing in Paris. The simplest way to pinpoint an inciting incident is to ask what the story's main conflict is about, and then identify the moment that launches that conflict. Given the premise of Taken, this would have to be the moment the kidnapping occurs and the father decides to rescue her. But instead, the writers thought the inciting incident to be to be the moment when the daughter asks to go to Paris. If Taken's story was all about a father who feels sad that his daughter has gone abroad, this might work, but it is not. The daughter leaving for Paris is nothing more than another piece of setup. It does not begin the story's main conflict and definitely does not launch the Story Spine. The real inciting incident (the kidnapping) is then placed extremely late in the narrative, at the end of the first act, resulting in a movie whose opening 30 minutes are nothing but a snorefest with few events of real significance. This mistake threatened to lose the entire audience before the story could even start.
Taken faltered because it failed to identify which event belonged where in its structure. On the other hand, I am shocked at how many screenwriting books are so ignorant that they confuse the inciting incident with the first act turning point entirely. I have seen many that state that the inciting incident does not occur until the end of the first act- 30 minutes into the film! Let me say that another way. These books believe it to be good screencraft to keep audiences waiting for a full half hour until something worth a damn happens. This is longer than an entire television sitcom. Any book that believes and audience will sit and wait for that amount of time before the conflict engages and the story finally begins proves it does not know what it is talking about. If you want to bore your audience and make them wonder why in hell they are sitting through this crap, go ahead and take these books' advice. Otherwise, throw the damn things out a window.
To see the effects of a long-delayed inciting incident, take a look at 2002's Minority Report. Minority Report is the futuristic story of a detective tasked with arresting pre-visioned murders before they can happen, who himself becomes framed for one of these murders. Given this premise, the inciting incident is clearly the moment when the detective finds he has been fingered for murder and decides to take action. Only this inciting event does not occur until FORTY minutes into the film! It takes forty whole minutes for the real story to begin! Everything before this moment is nothing more than a long, tedious setup filled with techno-babble, long-winded exposition, and a lot of Tom Cruise waving his fingers around. The final film could have been greatly improved if only its storytellers had recognized their inciting incident was misplaced and done some simple editing to move it to its proper position. That way, the audience did not have to wait through forty minutes of this “action-thriller” before that action finally began.