The Inciting Incident: Who Needs it? And Does It Have To Be On Page 10?

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George Lucas had a spaceship attacked, Almodovar put a girlfriend in a coma, and Paul Thomas Anderson had a busboy meet an adult film producer. Thousands of screenplays use it. In Casablanca, Ugarte gives the letters of transit to Rick. In Jaws, the shark attacks. In Persona, Liv Ulman goes silent. Every James Bond receives an assignment and Shakespeare killed Hamlet’s father. The inciting incident.

inciting incidentThis event is so prevalent in film it has become an accepted rule that every screenplay needs one to start the story, a prompt that sets the plot in motion. Some claim that this must be a singular event that happens to the main protagonist and others that it must happen on page 10.

Yet there are films that don’t follow this “rule” and work. Take, for instance, Juno. Here, the inciting incident –the pregnancy- happens weeks before the story starts. In The Breakfast Club, the kids are in detention because they did something days before the beginning of the film. In Kiss Of The Spider Woman, the inciting incident is having a spy share the jail cell with a dissident. This is something that happens before the story, but we don’t find out until much later.

Can the inciting incident happen much later in the story, say after page 40? If we look at The Godfather as a Michael Corleone’s story, the inciting incident is the shooting of the Don, which happens way after page 10.

What about the rule that the inciting incident must be a single event that happens to the main character? In As Good As It Gets, the inciting incidents (there are two) happen to supporting characters. The beating happens to Jack Nicholson’s neighbor and the waitress has to take her son to the hospital. Both these events don’t happen to the main character, but they set his transformation in motion.

Could it be that some of those “rules” are not as inviolable as many would have us believe? Could screenplays work without even having an inciting incident?

One could argue that in Groundhog Day the inciting incident is the first time Bill Murray hears the same wake-up song. But this is not an inciting event. It is simply part of his new routine and happens several times, so by definition it is not the inciting incident. Is it the fact that he has to repeat the same day over and over? Is the inciting incident waking up? In Groundhog Day, no event prompts this new reality…it just happens. Could it be that banal? And still work?

Badlands, 8 ½, Eyes Wide Shut, The Man Who Loved Women, American Graffiti, The Wrestler, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Goodfellas, The Fighter …none of these films have inciting incidents as defined by the “rules.” Yet they work. And these are not some underground films. They were made by some of the greatest filmmakers past and present.

There is nothing wrong with an inciting incident kicking off a story. Most stories need one. But it is also entirely possible to have a great story without a prompt, have it happen early or late, or to someone other than the main protagonist. Stories may start with a character just wanting to do something (or not do something). It’s the artistry and skill of the writer to make this non-event-approach work.

It seems that us screenwriters flock towards neatly defined elements because that’s how many other films have done it. But each story deserves to have its unique structure and elements. Sometimes those elements will appear on page 10. But sometimes they may be completely absent, or unique and different. And to me, that’s not only OK, it’s desirable.

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8 thoughts on “The Inciting Incident: Who Needs it? And Does It Have To Be On Page 10?

  1. Pascui

    Dear Ivo,
    Thank you for helping the writing community to de-template-ize the creative process. I agree that each stories deserves and requieres its proper treatment.
    Now regarding Eyes Wide Shut, I too thought there was no ‘inciting incident’…and when trying to find it I thought it was the scene in which he helps the OD’d girl in the party bathroom.

    But I think what Tony McKibbin offers makes more sense:

    “The following evening, after the party at Zeigler’s, Alice tells Bill of falling instantly in love with a man and would have been willing to sacrifice her life with Bill and Helena for him, her whole future for a night with this stranger. It may be the phone call that forces Bill to make a house visit, but it is this confession that sends Bill into the night, and that leads him to Domino, to Nightingale, and to the orgy, no matter if these are, as we’ve proposed, generally coincidental events.”

  2. librich

    Helpful thoughts, Ivo. I would, however, disagree with your statement that 8 1/2 doesn’t have an inciting incident. The inciting incident is the protagonist’s liberation from his automobile. Fellini uses the metaphor of fighting traffic and being locked in with the mass of humanity as a way of expressing the director’s state prior to his success and public acclaim. His success liberates him from more mundane concerns, and he goes soaring up into the clouds, far above the throng, with a new perspective. It is this liberated (and more solitary) perspective that sets him on the journey of discovery about who he is and wants to be as a film director. The inciting incident is admittedly emblematic, but that was Fellini’s way, at least in this film.

  3. sammie

    It’s good to stay true to yourself and your own way of creating. It’s not good to confuse what things mean. Writers get it; wannabees don’t. For a story to be a story, something has to happen. In order for something to happen, something has to not be happening first. When something happens that changes the intention of the protagonist to move into a different direction -that’s the Inciting Incident.

    IE: In Juno, that’s when she realizes that she is definitively pregnant. She doesn’t know this/doesn’t accept this right away.

    Most 4-act structures can be called 3-act structures. The difference is the terminology. Three acts include the end of Act 1 through the end of Act 2. Four acts call the midpoint the end of an act. So what? There’s no difference.

    It’s productive to argue creativity. It’s not productive to argue nonsense. This article is nonsense.

  4. Richard Finney

    I so appreciate the spirit of both of the answers above from Jeanne, the editor of this site, and Ivo, the original writer of the blog.
    The positive energy of having an online exchange regarding creativity, and that we all take the high road is definitely what I’m signing onto as I write this response.

    Jeanne, its very cool you stepped up and owned your decision to link the phrase, “inciting incident,” to another article, meaning that Ivo did not do this in his original article. But because the writer you linked the reference to actually uses the phrase, “inciting incident” not just in a different way than the writer of the article linked, but he uses it in a fundamentally differnt way that is generally understood to be the correct way, your link without any editorial notation, was a poorly judged decision.

    Isn’t it standard/good practice to actually link something in a writer’s piece (with the writer’s knowledge) and provide context for the reader if it isn’t a “direct” link: meaning the link takes you to either a general definition of the phrase; or a past article written by the same author in which he first began his discussion on the phrase.
    Yes, of course there are plenty of other ways to go concerning linking a phrase without elaboration, but none that I can think of would give you shelter for your choice — you chose to link the phrase to another piece written by someone else/written for your site with a completely different understanding of the phrase “inciting incident.”
    I call you on your mistake (again good for you to stand up and take responsibilty) because readers are not offered any context when you do such a thing. There will be people who read both Ivo’s original piece, check out the linked article… and be confused.
    You want to encourage opposing viewpoints, an online dialogue, but how is that shaped by confusion?
    Honestly, Ivo should feel very upset that you undercut his piece, with or without his knowledge. But bottomline is the reader — your choice (if the difference in the phrase was understood by you prior to making the link) should have then been elaborated online, so readers would know moving forward. For example you could have put the link along with something like – for a different view on what “inciting incident” means.

    Ivo, as I stated at the outset, I appreciate the spirit in which you responded to my initial response. Seriously, you come off as a beautiful person in what you wrote!
    And in that spirit, I will definitely endeavor to maintain my manners in what I write.

    In being creative there are choices, and those choices are indeed subjective, and it is difficult and indeed impossible at times to declare one wrong and one right… and that is beautiful.
    Creativity is in many ways, doing what someone declares as not good… and others declare as wonderful.
    With that said, there are still standards in creation, especially when discussing specific forms of art that have been with us for hundreds of years. And when is writing about art created in the marketplace for mass audiences, there are standards. These standards can be ignored for sure. But when one doesn’t seem to even understand what those standards are…
    Someone else needs to stand up and blow a whistle.
    But why? Why take the trouble to blow the whistle?
    Unfortunately, what you write in your piece Ivo is wrong.
    This is not a difference of opinion, but a flat out objective judgement.
    You’re wrong.
    There are so many things that are creative that are open to debate. But what you write doesn’t rise to the standard.
    You can’t use a phrase, “inciting incident,” that is generally understood to mean one thing and twist it to make your point, citing examples of your confusion to support your misguided premise. If we are to have a creative discussion there should be a base line.Because of the topic you wrote about, your incomplete understanding of the phrase, and your incorrect citing of proof to substantiate your point… you are objectively WRONG.
    What you write is very similar to writing about what should happen when a playwright is designing the first scene after the intermission…
    But if you describe aspects of what the playwright should do by citing examples from scenes from the first act to support your cause, you need to be called on it. And this is exactly the case in what you wrote. Your advice is not supported by apples vs. apples / oranges vs. oranges, despite your effort to justify your sample scenes in your response to my original post.

    There is right and wrong to the screenwriting craft. It’s not all subjective.
    Believe me if you are wrong in what you write, there are times you will learn that fact very quickly.
    But beginning/fledging screenwriters who read your post, and your response, might not know that fact. And they indeed may be confused that there’s even a standard.

    Ivo, you are confused about what you wrote and much of what you posted is flat out wrong.
    Jeanne you did not do Ivo, nor readers of Ivo’s post any favors by your editorial judgement.

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to follow up, so beginnig and fledging screenwriters can read this exchange and make their own judgements.
    And I definitely hope I rose to the standard of civility you both set with your initial responses.

  5. LFabry

    My thanks goes out to Ivo, Jeanne, and Richard for giving me a lot to think about – although my brain will probably be hurt in the process. If my humble opinion counts, I think the inciting incident, opening, Act I, or whatever you want to call it is when the movie “starts.” Prior to that we get a sense of where we are, when it is, who we are with, etc.

    For example, when I was watching “Inglorious Basterds,” I was wondering when the Nazi and the farmer were going to stop complimenting each other and get on with it. Then the camera dropped below the floor. It may not be a text book incident, but boy that was when the movie started.

    Hope this helps and rock on,
    Lilia

  6. Richard Finney

    I don’t want this to come off as a takedown.
    But Ivo has so much wrong in his article that it almost comes off as something written by a prankster to see who will actually respond.
    I will only make one point before moving on because I already feel like I’m going to be asked to sign a release form the moment I hit summit on this response so my duped behavior can be viewed by millions.

    Ivo, in your piece you have a link connected to the phrase “inciting event,” which takes the reader to an article written by Drew Yanno.
    I’m not sure Yanno will actually appreciate the link to his piece, but now he has to deal with it.
    Yanno’s thoughts on writing the first act in a screenplay is actually an accurate, straight forward, basic description about writing a first act ( I write “basic” because, for instance, what Yanno calls the story plot point that occurs at the end of the first act – “the inciting event,” I label and crucially define differently. Yanno’s definition lacks a very important aspect of this critical point in the plot/screen story that I believe is an essential creative element in writing a professional screenplay).

    The problem, Ivo, is that you take what Yanno writes as an “inciting event” in the story/plot that occurs at the “10-18 minute mark.” Somehow you missed the whole part of 10-18 minutes into the story/movie.
    For instance, despite what you write, George Lucas did not have the “inciting event” in his movie “Star Wars” as a space ship being attacked. I think what you are referring to is the opening scene of the movie after the words flowing through space have disappeared.
    And when a shark attacks a swimmer, that also is not the “inciting event.” Again, that would be the opening scene in the movie, “Jaws.”
    I could go on and on… but I won’t.
    I’m going to stop now, believing that, Ivo, there’s no way what you wrote is actually meant to be taken seriously. Right?

    Richard

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

      Hi Richard,
      I want to clarify something here. As editor of the site, I am the one who uses anchor text within posts to link to other articles on our site with a similar topic. Ivo didn’t link “inciting incident” to Drew’s post. I did. The reason being, twofold: I want writers to see varying opinions on any given topic, and I want to make it easy for them to find those related articles. On another note, I encourage dialogue on opposing viewpoints of writing strategies and don’t mind that my own contributors might disagree on a topic. I hope that clarifies some issues for you.

    2. Ivo RazaIvo Raza Post author

      Hey Richard, I am absolutely serious and I think it’s awesome you disagree with my points. That’s what creative work is all about…not blindly following what anyone else is saying.

      And that is exactly the point of my article…the fact that there are many ways to tackle different elements of a script. The point is that both Jaws and Star Wars have these large events without which these two stories wouldn’t exist. In Jaws, the shark attack is the opening scene and the inciting incident of the overall story…if the shark didn’t attack there would be no Jaws. There are smaller inciting incidents for other story lines. Same with Star Wars.

      At the end of the day, Richard, we are screenwriters and artists and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. You have your way of interpreting elements, I have mine. You may outline, I may not. You may follow the 3 Act structure, I may not. And that’s the essence of creation. There is no wrong or right. Everyone must follow his or her own process.

      Jeanne is a very smart editor who knows this and therefore allows varying sides of the topic to be presented.

      Cheers, I

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