The Inciting Incident
By Jacob Krueger
Rule #4 THE INCITING INCIDENT
Check out 100 Rules And How To Break Them for more tips.
This installment of the 100 Rules series grows directly out of a question from a former student:
I have a question and thought I needed a fresh perspective from someone outside UCLA… I’m sort of getting in a fight with the teacher of my workshop about my inciting event. In my naturally rebellious style, I don’t think there is a rule that the inciting event has to nail us early in the script. I think it can actually be before anything is ever done on screen. I’m being told that [an event that happens before the movie starts] can’t be my inciting incident... I’m just wondering your opinion. – Dom C.
Opening The Door To Change
The inciting incident is just a fancy name writing teachers like to give to the moment that opens the door for change for a character. And you’re absolutely right. It’s often the case in movies that inciting incidents happen before the movie starts.
For example, in Thelma and Louise, the main characters have already decided to go on their road trip before the movie begins (though Thelma still hasn’t told her hubby). Or, in Little Miss Sunshine, Uncle Frank has already decided to kill himself before the movie starts.
Getting Your Movie Moving
Having an inciting incident happen before your movie begins can often be a good thing, because it keeps the “normal world” of your script from becoming a “boring world” by starting the movie moving and your characters changing from page 1. When this happens though, there’s usually a second inciting incident on page 10 – 12, that shocks us out of the “new normal” world set up by that original inciting incident, and opens the door to change.
For Thelma and Louise, it’s the moment Thelma flirts with the creepy guy at the truck stop who will later try to rape her. In Little Miss Sunshine it’s the moment Olive hears the voicemail saying that she’s going to get to compete in the beauty pageant.
Is This A Rule You Can Break?
You are absolutely right that there are no rules in screenwriting. God did not come down and proclaim that the inciting incident must happen by page 12 (that was Syd Field). Many screenplays have pushed the inciting incident pretty deep down into the story and still worked brilliantly. But if you have commercial aspirations for your script, it’s also worth noting that having a strong inciting incident early in your script will help lock an audience into your story, and help get you past the coverage readers that guard the kingdom.
Besides, if you don’t have an inciting incident where producers are expecting it, almost certainly at some point, some producer is going to create one for you. You’re not going to like what they create. So usually you’re better off giving them one yourself.
No Rigid Formulas
If your professor doesn’t believe an inciting incident can happen late in a movie, tell him to watch There Will Be Blood. PT Anderson starts the movie with about 20 minutes of silent filmmaking before we ever get to the inciting incident. However, when you read the script for There Will Be Blood, there’s the inciting incident, right where it’s supposed to be. By page 6, Daniel’s friend has died, and Daniel is already stuck with the boy. And just in case anyone was concerned that this was too early, there’s another inciting incident right where Syd Field says it should appear: on page 12, when Paul Sunday shows up to tell Daniel about the oil. Anderson knows he’s not going to shoot it that way. But he also knows if he doesn’t write it that way, executives are going to get nervous. Similarly, Michael Clayton moves the end of the movie to the beginning, to create the sense of an exciting inciting incident before one has actually occurred.
Great writers know that that inciting incident is not a rule to which we must conform. It’s a game we play in later drafts, in order to help us capture the attention of our audiences.
Discovering Your Inciting Incident
There are very few things more damaging to a young writer than obsessing over page count. Great scripts come from stepping into a character, and taking them on a profound journey. And it’s impossible to do this if you’re looking in on your script from the outside, and editing every word before your story even makes it onto the page.
The page 12 inciting incident is not where you start as a writer. It’s where you end up. It might take you 50 pages of writing to discover the amazing moment that ultimately becomes your inciting incident. And if you’re so worried about hitting some magic number that you don’t allow yourself those 50 pages, you’re never going to discover the good stuff. In which case, it’s not going to matter where your inciting incident happens, because nobody’s going to want to watch your movie.
Almost every scene has an inciting incident.
Though inciting incident is usually used as structural concept to discuss the moment that starts the engine on the entire film, the truth of the matter is that almost every scene in your movie is going to contain an inciting incident. Another way to think of inciting incident is simply as the moment where things shift for your character: the event that happens– within the scene, the act, or the entire movie– that interrupts whatever has become the normal world for the character, and changes your character or the world around him so that things can no longer be exactly the same as they were before. This is why it’s often the little inciting incidents within each scene that are actually most important for you as a writer. It’s these moments that keep your movie moving, and propel the force of your character’s journey.
If you are driving your story forward and forcing your character to change in little ways in each scene that you write, it’s inevitable that your character is going to go on a profound journey, and you’re going to discover those big turning points that producers are always so worried about.
Once you’ve allowed your character’s journey to play out to the greatest extent of your imagination and discovered those powerful scenes around which your movie turns, you can slice, dice, compress, revise or (if you’re like PT Anderson) downright cheat to make that moment feel producer friendly. But until then, keep your focus where it belongs. On your character.