What is an inciting incident? Let’s start with an example. This example has a name. Fred.
Fred is a Captain in the New York City Fire Department. For Fred, it’s just a usual day at the station. As the TV plays yet another episode of The Office and as his colleagues laugh at the same jokes they’ve seen a thousand times, Fred slowly starts to doze in his chair when…
KA-BOOM! An explosion in the distance. The station airhorn roars into action. No nap for you, Frederick.
The firefighters hurriedly jump into trucks, switch on the sirens and screech out of the gate.
On arrival at the building, the street is ablaze. Flames. Debris. Carnage. Fred has a quick chat with the first responders on the ground and learns that the building has been evacuated. Phew. All but one couple are safe. It’s up to Fred now.
Using the news camera monitor to zoom in and assess the situation from below, Fred sees the faces of the two frightened office workers holding onto each other for dear life. Despite the screams of his team to get up into the building, Fred is transfixed. Perhaps it’s because the chances of saving them is so low at this point he’s praying. But Fred’s not religious, whats going on?
Well, the woman wrapped in the arms of the besuited man is Fred’s wife, Carol, (who should be on a business trip in the Netherlands) and the man? Well, it’s his wife’s ex-husband, whom Carol had promised to rid from her life after a violent incident with the kids.
From here Fred has a choice to make. Risk his life and those of his team to save his cheating spouse and her criminal lover, or walk away.
Fred’s journey from fire station couch to making this choice is his inciting incident. The moment that begins it all.
See everything was normal for Fred before the explosion in the street. Just another day. However, what follows the explosion and the call to action will turn his life inside out in more ways than he could imagine.
That is the importance of an inciting incident. It’s the finger that pulls the trigger in a character’s story. The bullet leaving its chamber and hitting its target is the entirety of the show/film, and we, the audience, are invited for the ride.
To follow any traditional screenwriting arc, you must have an inciting incident. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a small rom-com, dramatic feature, or an action blockbuster superhero film of Marvel-esque proportions, no inciting incident, no story.
An inciting incident is the moment that kickstarts the story arc of a book/film/tv episode. It is the fault line that takes the character(s) from their previous life, into the action of the story.
While inciting incidents can differ dramatically in scope, they all fulfill the same simple purpose whether it’s an alien invasion in Independence Day or a couple meeting during a car journey in When Harry Met Sally.
Let’s consider some great examples in detail to demonstrate the inciting incident in action.
In Die Hard, our no-nonsense protagonist, John McClane, is a detective flying into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to attend his estranged wife’s office holiday party. With hopes of reconciling their relationship, John’s plan is soon sidetracked when Hans Gruber, the movie’s villain, and his henchmen trap everyone at the party as hostages. With the police unable to get inside, McClane, who’d popped to the office bathroom to change clothes, suddenly finds himself the only man able to save his wife, the party goers and defeat Hans (Alan Rickman) and his extreme German accent.
Die Hard’s inciting incident occurs when Gruber takes McClane’s wife hostage. It’s the point of no return for John McClane. A choice must be made. The funny thing is that the life of McClane before the hostage situation was anything but boring. He had an estranged wife, an eccentric personality, and worked as a Detective. This is an important point to note because inciting incidents don’t only come to humdrum characters living the 9-5, it can happen to anyone, at any time. The drama is merely relative. Yes, John McClane had some colour in his backstory but his wife held up at gunpoint on Christmas Eve? Now that’s an action movie.
In Pixar’s most imaginative movie to date, 11 year old Riley's feelings are governed by personified emotions in her head. When her family move from Minnesota to San Francisco for her father's new job, Riley (and the emotions in her head) are confronted with an explosive inciting incident.
Uprooted from everything she knows, over the course of the film, Riley must come to terms with the new life she has been presented with and learn the benefits of each one of the characters in her head...even sadness.
We interviewed Inside Out screenwriter Meg LeFauve on the Red Carpet Rookies podcast, where she provided insight into the making of the movie if you were interested in learning more about this Pixar modern classic.
In Tootsie, our protagonist is a talented but problematic actor who has become unemployable due to his nasty attitude and reputation for acting diva. Failing to gain roles of substance, our inciting incident occurs when his agent explains that due to his unreasonable demands on set, no one in town is going to hire him. He will not succeed. His dreams will not be realised unless he makes a change. Hmm sounds like an inciting incident to me!
Fired up by the exchange, our protagonist decides to cross-dress as a woman to apply for the roles the casting agents won’t offer him. Coming from a place of pure desperation, this inciting incident sends us into a hilarious but touching story of an obnoxious actor’s journey to empathetic individual.
In a Monster’s world powered by screams, it’s the day job of our protagonists, Sully and Mike, to burst through doors into frightened childrens’ bedrooms with the aim of collecting ‘scream power’ for the titular Monster’s Inc company.
After Sulley’s arch-rival, Randall, leaves a door open on the scream factory floor, Sulley’s world is flipped when he discovers that the little girl who lives there has wandered into their life.
What is the inciting incident here? You guessed right; the introduction of the cute little girl into Sulley’s world. It overturns everything he believed about humans because in a materful twist on the usual monster-child dynamic, the monsters are terrified of humans, whom they consider extremely dangerous.
The introduction of Boo is where Sulley’s real story begins. His worst nightmare coming literally through a door to disrupt his life and take him (and his best pal Mike) on a journey of discovery.
There’s a reason why John Wick is one of the most iconic action characters in modern cinema. The inciting incident is unforgettable and unmistakable.
John Wick is a retired assassin leading a quiet life with his dog, Daisy (left to him by his recently deceased wife). When the pompous son of a Russian criminal accosts John attemptsing to buy his car, John refuses. Not wanting to look a silly billy, our Russian friend takes revenge of super villain-like proportions, proceeding to break into John’s house and to the dismay of us all…murder Daisy.
Unfortunately for the Russians, John Wick isn’t just equipped with a subscription to I Love Puppies magazine, he’s got some serious firepower. So, naturally we are led into a predictable but no less glorious, 2 hour bloodbath of gangsters on the streets of New York.
Lesson: Kill a dog in the first few pages and you’ve got an inciting incident. The audience is on side. They’re ready to go. Time to kill some bad guys.
Spotting the inciting incidents of TV shows can be tricky. Each episode presents an inciting incident of its own but the ball that sets everything rolling can always still be found in the pilot.
Let’s delve into some examples.
Walter White was once destined for scientific accolades, wealth and status. Now working as a high school chemistry teacher and moonlighting at a car wash, we meet him at a middle age low point. His career goals are crushed. His once loving wife doesn’t even respect him.
So when Walt’s inciting incident appears in the form of a terminal lung cancer diagonsis, he is presented, like all our character examples, with a choice. Will I continue on my path, or will I make a change? Thankfully for the viewer, he decides to make a change. Might have been a bit boring if he didn’t.
Faced with the stark truth of his mortality, Walt’s awareness of the ticking clock in his chest gives him the power that he lacked. He doesn’t care anymore. Little of life’s consequences matter to a dying man and it is this power that allows him to rise as a criminal kingpin.
Kevin Spacey commanded the world’s attention when he stepped into Netflix’s first original series as Washington House Majority Whip, Frank Underwood.
Through luscious dialogue floating on Underwood’s southern drawl we learn that Underwood is powerful. Driven. The future President of the United States? Well he certainly thinks so.
The plan hits a speed bump when the President refuses to promote Underwood to Secretary of State, unwittingly becoming enemy number one of Washington’s most brutal statesman.
My my sir, I do believe we have an inciting incident.
What’s more volatile than an Italian mob boss? An Italian mob boss having a panic attack.
This is the inciting incident for Tony Soprano, the violent New Jersey Don who at first comes across as your typical knuckle dragging mafioso.
Comfortable in his life, he’s resistant to change but his perspective is altered when he has a speight of panic attacks. Challenging his power both physically and mentally, big Tony begins to see a psychiatrist with whom he must talk about his feelings. Eurgh, what will the boys think of him!
The Sopranos inciting incident is a worthy case study as not only does it fulfill its primary function, it creates a plot device through that can be ultilised to enhance the depth of the story. The psychiatric treatment opens a door for the viewer to understand our protagonist in a way that we would have never seen otherwise.
A gritty and darkly comic show deserves an inciting incident that fits the tone and wow does The Boys deliver.
Swiping at our oversaturated superhero led media landscape, The Boys presents a world where superheros are the ‘influencers’ of society. Not only are they untouchable in their beauty, wealth and privilege, they are literally untouchable. They’re bloody superheros.
Given we have become accustomed to never ending positive presentation of superheros The Boys grips us from the off by presenting an inciting incident that warns of the perils of super powers that existing franchises never do. The harm they can cause.
We meet Hughie Campbell, the type of guy who helps Grandmas across the road, who watches his girlfriend get obliterated before his eyes by a superhero who literally runs through her with his super speed. Dripping in her blood, the writer has now presented Hughies with motive.
He walked out of the electronics store in one life and moments later entered another. Therefore when Hughie gets called up by an anti superhero vigilante crew he has to make a choice, one that is informed by his new motive. Again we see the one two punch of a great inciting incident. Cause and effect.
In a circular end to a section begun with Breaking Bad, we shall finish with Ozark, its spiritual child.
This inciting incident introduces us to mild mannered Chicago accountant Marty Byrde. Usually labelled as the world’s dullest profession, Ozark shakes this up by revealing that Marty has been laundering money for a murderous Mexican drug cartel. Wow accounts is so cool and interesting now! Not only that, his business partner, Bruce, has stolen 8 million dollars of the cartel’s dinero.
Like The Boys, Marty’s associate is murdered in front of him but before they can pull the trigger on him he makes a pitch. He will wash 500 million dollars of cartel money in 5 years if they spare him his life.
A win win deal for the cartel, they take the deal and the stage is set.
Every story has an inciting incident and the best ones have a great one.
Notice from the examples above that a brilliant inciting incident not only kicks off the action, but is continually relevant to the arc of the protagonist. Will Hughie Campbell get revenge on the superheros for killing his girlfriend and become the confident man he wants to be? Will Walter White reach his potential before he dies from cancer?
Make sure that your inciting incident is not merely an irrelevant moment to the story that’s easily forgotten. Have it as central to the piece and use it elevate your script to the next level. Ozark’s never ending drum beat of tension all stems from the inciting incident. Knowing that Marty’s initial promise to the cartel could come apart at any moment and put the Byrde family in a barrel is what keeps the audience on tenterhooks.
You now have everything you need to create a powerful inciting incident. Use the examples above to craft your own nuanced and impactful inciting incident or failing that just kill the hero’s pet. I mean it worked for John Wick. Now go incite some drama!