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What Is An Inciting Incident In A Screenplay?

The Ultimate Inciting Incident Definition
With Famous Movie Examples

 

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April 11, 2018 14 comments
what is an inciting incident

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay?

Does it have to involve the protagonist? Does it have to occur during a specific minute in Act 1? What story function should it serve?

A quick Google search will reveal a whole host of different answers. One well-known screenwriting blog gives an example of an inciting incident from Boogie Nights near the beginning of Act 1—the moment when Eddie first meets adult film producer, Jack.

Another gives an inciting incident example from Tootsie—the moment when Michael’s agent tells him he’ll never work in New York again. But this occurs at the end of Act 1… Yet another says it can be anywhere you want, and often isn’t even in the movie at all.

On top of all this, you may also have heard of terms like “catalyst,” “inciting event” and “point of attack” bandied about in place of “inciting incident.”

In this post we’re going to finally put to bed the confusion surrounding the question of “What is an inciting incident?” We’re going to show you how to write an inciting incident and also where it should go in Act 1. (Or not, depending on the type of movie you want to write.)

Here’s what’s coming up:

  • Just what is an inciting incident? The three different inciting incident definitions
  • The inciting incident in relation to the other two major plot points in Act 1
  • Our inciting incident definition
  • Inciting incident examples from famous movies
  • How to write an inciting incident for your screenplay

Let’s dive on in by taking a look at some of the confusion that’s currently out there surrounding the inciting incident in a screenplay.

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay? The Three Options

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

It’s no wonder many aspiring writers are left confused about the nature of the term “inciting incident” when it’s routinely used to describe three different major plot points during Act 1 in the first thirty-minutes of a movie.

Let’s first take a quick look at these three different inciting incident definitions. Then we’ll explain what we think is the best approach when it comes to writing an inciting incident in a screenplay.

Inciting Incident Definition #1 (min 1 – 3)

Some refer to the inciting incident as the moment in the first few minutes of a movie that ignites the story, whether the protagonist is involved or not.

Catherine murdering a man during sex in the opening scene of Basic Instinct would be an example. Or Cady moving from Africa back to America in the opening of Mean Girls.

(Note: sometimes this definition occurs off-screen, such as Chris and Rose arranging to visit her parents in Get Out.)

Inciting Incident Definition #2 (min 10 – 15)

This popular inciting incident definition is that it introduces the protagonist to the conflict they’ll need to resolve in the rest of the movie around twelve minutes into the film.

An example would be Greenberg meeting Florence in Greenberg. Or Rachel learning about the existence of the tape in The Ring.

Inciting Incident Definition #3 (min 20 – 30)

Others stipulate that the inciting incident occurs around minute 25 when the protagonist is hit by another major crisis and leaves Act 1 to enter the “new world” of Act 2.

An example would be when Carl fires blanks from the apartment window in Detroit and the cops mistake it for a sniper attack. Or in La La Land when Mia and Sebastian walk back to their cars together after she teases him at his gig and they perform a dance together.

You will see all inciting incident definitions in books, blogs and magazines and hear all three used by screenwriters, managers, producers and script readers. It can all get pretty confusing and so let’s see if we can answer the question “What is an inciting incident?”

An Inciting Incident Definition

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

Question: Which out of the three inciting incident definitions above is correct?

The answer is: all of them.

The term “inciting incident” is just that: a term. Technically all three definitions are correct because you’re free to use it to describe whichever of the three plot points above as you see fit.

What you choose to call each of them doesn’t really matter, as long as you understand their individual roles. What’s important is that you understand the function of each of the three plot points in Act 1.

Although they all get called an “inciting incident,” they are three completely different plot points with different functions. The first plot point around min 1 – 3 doesn’t necessarily have to be in your screenplay, but the other two most definitely do.

Let’s clarify the roles of each plot point and then take a look at which one we think best deserves the title of “inciting incident.”

The Three Major Plot Points In Act 1

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

As you probably know, Act 1 usually introduces the protagonist and some kind of conflict or problem for them to overcome during the movie.

This is revealed to the audience through these three major plot points, which all get called an “inciting incident” depending on who you’re talking to. (There are actually 12 major plot points in Act 1 but for now let’s stick to these main three.)

Plot Point #1 (Inciting Incident Definition #1)
Min 1 – 3

This is the opening scene or couple of scenes of the movie. It usually shows the moment when something significant changes for the protagonist although they may not be aware of it at the time. They may not even be present when it happens. However, without this plot point the whole story wouldn’t exist.

If Ruben doesn’t marry Lisa at the beginning of Along Came Polly, the whole plot wouldn’t unfold as it does. If Jason Bourne doesn’t get pulled from the sea onto the boat at the start of The Bourne Identity, the whole franchise dies in the water.

In each case, this is the life-changing moment in the protagonist’s life that the writers chose to kick-start the story.

Sometimes this plot point gets left out all together. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for example, we don’t see Mildred’s daughter get raped and murdered. Likewise, in Drive there’s no inciting incident—we just see Driver’s skills behind the wheel of a getaway car.

When an inciting incident is missing like this it’s usually replaced by establishing character. If you do include an inciting incident here, though, it can help to think of it not necessarily as a major crisis that affects the protagonist, but more as a moment of change which they may or may not be aware will soon lead to a major crisis.

what is an Inciting Incident

Plot Point #2 (Inciting Incident Definition #2)
Min 10 – 15

This plot point, however, definitely has to involve the protagonist and be seen on screen. It’s the call to action. The beckoning of adventure. The phone call out the blue. The hologram message from a droid.

It’s the moment the protagonist becomes aware of the antagonist and of the movie’s core conflict. Often, but not always, it’s a moment that turns their entire world upside down.

When Andy gets dragged to the poker game in The 40 Year Old Virgin and the guys catch on that he’s a virgin, his cover is blown. And when Jay says that he wants to get Andy laid, his whole world is turned upside down.

When Indy is told by the army intelligence guys in Raiders of the Lost Ark, that the Nazis are looking for the Ark, the conflict is clear: the future of the whole world is at stake because an army which carries the Ark before it is invincible.

This plot point usually signifies the end of the first sequence in Act 1. We’ve been introduced to the world of the story and the protagonist—now we see how they’re forced to deal with the antagonist in some way.

The core conflict of the movie has been set in motion, whether the protagonist is aware of it or not.

Plot Point #3 (Inciting Incident Definition #3)
Min 20 – 30

The protagonist often struggles to get to grips with a crisis established by plot point #2 and this leads them straight to plot point #3. This is the moment which really signifies what they’re up against as the core conflict is “locked in” and a major problem that needs solving is established.

If the protagonist has been relatively unaware of a crisis before this point, they’re certainly not any longer. This is the moment they’re forced to (or decide to) make a major decision in order to solve a problem of some sort. They’re now aware that they’re on a potentially life-changing adventure and we, the audience, are aware that they’re committed to it, no matter what.

This plot point signals the end of Act 1 and soon after the protagonist will leave it to embark on their adventure in the unfamiliar world of Act 2.

Our Inciting Incident Definition

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

As we’ve already noted, the important thing to remember is that what you choose to call these three plot points is much less important than being aware of the fact that they each fulfill a unique, specific role.

You could if you wanted simply label them like this:

  • Inciting incident #1 (min 1 – 3)
  • Inciting incident #2 (min 10 – 15)
  • Inciting incident #3 (min 20 – 30)

However, we think the easiest way to label them is like this:

  • Inciting incident (min 1 – 3)
  • Call to action (min 10 – 15)
  • Act 1 turning point (min 20 – 30)

So, here’s our inciting incident definition:

An inciting incident is the first major plot point in the movie that usually occurs between one and three minutes in. It’s the major change or formative event that ignites the protagonist’s connection with the antagonist. Without this moment there would be no story, and while this is also true of later plot points or “inciting incidents,” this one is the first. Therefore the label “inciting incident” seems most apt.

We like to call inciting incident #2 the “call to action” because this better describes the moment the protagonist is actively called into the story. They’re made aware of the source of antagonism in the movie and get pulled out of their comfort zone into a conflict zone.

Finally, we think “Act 1 turning point” better describes the moment the movie’s core conflict gets locked in than “inciting incident.” To call this point the inciting incident feels strange if you consider how late it arrives—after at least two other plot points have already ignited the story.

Inciting Incident Examples From Famous Movies

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

With these new labels in mind, let’s now take a look at some inciting incident examples from movies in each of the major five genres. We’ve used our labels of inciting incident, call to action and Act 1 turning point, but feel free to use whichever you choose.

(Note: There’s no need to worry too much about which minute each plot points land on as it’s far from an exact science. We’ve included the time-stamps for each one as a rough guide, but it’s probably not a good idea to write with them in mind. Write your Act 1 as you see fit and then in the rewrite process use the time guides to get each plot point roughly where it needs to be.)

Drama: Whiplash

INCITING INCIDENT   
Min 1 – 3

At the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, talented pupil Andrew practices drums in a rehearsal studio. Famed tutor, Fletcher enters to listen. Andrew fails the impromptu audition. (min 3)

Protagonist meets antagonist in this first scene in the movie, although neither are aware of their future conflict.

CALL TO ACTION  
Min 10 – 15

Fletcher invites Andrew to join his studio band as an alternate core drummer. (min 12)

Andrew’s delighted—but still completely unaware of the impending conflict with Fletcher.

ACT 1 TURNING POINT
Min 20 – 30

Andrew rehearses with Fletchers band but struggles to keep the tempo. Fletcher loses his temper, throws a chair at his head and screams at him. (min 29)

If Andrew has been unaware of the threat posed by the antagonist up until this point, he certainly isn’t any longer. The core conflict of the movie is established: Andrew’s desire to be a professional drummer vs. Fletcher’s psychopathic teaching methods.

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

Comedy: (500) Days of Summer 

INCITING INCIDENT  
Min 1 – 3

Tom, as a kid, watches The Graduate as a voice over says how Tom always felt he’d never be happy until he met “The One.” (min 1)

The way Tom’s feelings about love were fermented at a young age, is summed up by this image of him watching The Graduate. Without these childhood experiences and feelings, he wouldn’t have grown up to be the person he is and the movie wouldn’t have a plot.

CALL TO ACTION  
Min 10 – 15

At a work party, Tom talks to new girl, Summer, for the first time. They seem to get on well, even though he worries he’s making a fool of himself. (min 12)

What’s known as a “cute meet” in Romantic Comedies, this is the moment Tom’s relationship with Summer is officially ignited. He’s immediately smitten and thinks she could be “the One.” She likes him but has no such romantic yearnings, and thus Tom’s antagonist is established, not his love match.

ACT 1 TURNING POINT
Min 20 – 30

Tom and Summer enjoy a great night out with their work colleagues. The next day at work, they find each other alone in the photocopy room and she kisses him. (min 25)

The core conflict of the movie is locked in by this major turning point: Will Tom end up with Summer? Summer turns Tom’s world upside down here as he now commits to trying to forge a relationship with her in the scary world of Act 2.

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

Action/Adventure: John Wick

INCITING INCIDENT  
Min 1 – 3

John is plagued by flashbacks of his now deceased wife, Helen. He remembers how she collapsed as they walked home one night and her death from a terminal illness, but also the good times they shared. (min 3)

These flashbacks form the basis of the movie’s inciting incident. If John’s wife hadn’t died, he wouldn’t have been driving around alone with the puppy she left him as a gift, and run into the Russian gangsters.

CALL TO ACTION  
Min 10 – 15

Having refused to sell his Ford Mustang to a group of Russian gangsters at a gas station, they break into his home, beat him up, steal his car and kill his puppy. (min 15)

If this isn’t a call to action we don’t know what is. John’s awareness of who the force of antagonism is made painfully clear. Having lost his wife, he’s now lost his favorite car and the one connection he had to his deceased wife: the puppy.

ACT 1 TURNING POINT
Min 20 – 30

John digs up his weapons in the basement and calls Viggo Tarasov, the head of the Russian mob. Viggo tries to talk John out of seeking retribution, but John hangs up on him. (min 27)

In this scene, the conflict for the whole movie is locked in: John wants retribution and will stop at nothing to get it. It’s not so much a transition for John into an “unknown realm” of Act 2, but a begrudging one. He knows this world inside out, but hoped he’d left it behind.

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

Thriller: Nightcrawler

INCITING INCIDENT  
Min 1 – 3

Nightcrawler is an example of a movie without a traditional inciting incident at the beginning to gets things rolling. Instead, the opening focuses on revealing character as we see Lou beat up a security guard at a scrap yard and steal his watch. We then see him sell the material he also stole from the yard, giving us a perfect introduction as to just who this guy is. (min 3)

CALL TO ACTION  
Min 10 – 15

In his shabby apartment, Lou surfs TV channels and settles on a news item involving a horrific car crash. He watches with interest… (min 11)

Despite the prosaic nature of this scene, this is Lou’s call to action—the moment his interest is piqued in something outside of his bleak existence. We can see he somehow senses an opportunity within the flames of the burning car wreck, but aren’t sure what it is. At this point, neither is Lou, but stumbling upon this news report is the start of his reawakening.

ACT 1 TURNING POINT
Min 20 – 30

Lou sells footage of a fatal carjacking to a TV news station. Nina, the news director, tells him what she’s looking for—footage of violent incidents in affluent areas—and Lou tells her she’ll be seeing him again. (min 21)

Lou’s found his calling. He’s now fully committed to his goal of recording the aftermaths of violent deaths and selling them to the station. As Lou is an anti-hero, there’s no traditional antagonist here, but the core conflict of the movie is established: Will Lou succeed with this endeavor, or fail and wind up in worse place than he was at the start of the movie?

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

Horror: The Shining

INCITING INCIDENT  
Min 1 – 3

The inciting incident is Jack being offered an interview for the position of caretaker at the Overlook hotel, but again it occurs before the movie begins. Instead of showing Jack, say, at home with Wendy and Danny and receiving a phone call from Ullman, we hit the ground running with Jack arriving at the hotel for the interview. (min 4)

CALL TO ACTION  
Min 10 – 15

Ullman tells Jack about the previous caretaker, Grady, who went crazy and killed his wife and two little girls at the hotel. Jack calls Wendy to tell her he has the job (something the protagonist, Danny, already knew). Danny doesn’t want to go to the hotel and has a vision of gallons of blood cascading down a hotel corridor and of the two dead Grady girls. (min 12)

Jack being offered the job is the movie’s call to action, and the revelation that Grady went insane and murdered his family isn’t enough for him to turn away from it. The core conflict of the movie is set in motion. Jack is completely unaware of it, but Danny can foresee exactly what this conflict will entail.

ACT 1 TURNING POINT
Min 20 – 30

The hotel cook, Hallorann, explains to Danny how some people have a gift to see the future and read people’s minds—which he calls “shining.” He says some bad things happened at the hotel and tells Danny to stay clear of room 237. (min 35)

This scene is a long conversation between Danny and Hallorann that starts on minute 29 and ends on minute 34. However, it’s one of the most powerful in the movie as we shift from Act 1 to Act 2 and the central problem becomes clear: there are evil forces at play in the hotel which Danny’s telepathic gifts will pull him closer to. Will he be able to resist and, more importantly, survive?

Tips On How To Add These Three Plot Points To Your Script

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

In this section we’re going to take a look at some tips on how to write an inciting incident. Using inciting incident examples from the movies above, we’ll show you how to effectively craft each of the three major plot points: inciting incident, call to action and Act 1 turning point.

How to write an inciting incident in your screenplay (min 1 – 3)

Many spec scripts we review at Script Reader Pro include an inciting incident that fails to emotionally satisfy. Or they open on a vague set of scenes that just kind of tumble together without any clear inciting incident at all.

As we’ve already noted, not every story needs one, but if you do include an inciting incident within the first few pages you need to make sure it hooks the reader into the story. A common way of doing this is by establishing an emotional connection between the reader and the protagonist.

In Whiplash, for example, we can see right off the bat how talented Andrew is and how badly he wants to impress Fletcher. Because of this, we want him to succeed. When Fletcher returns to the room having forgotten his coat, we’re just as disappointed as Andrew is, due to the way the inciting incident has built an emotional connection between viewer and protagonist.

In John Wick, even though we know nothing about John’s goal in the same way we do about Andrew, we feel a deep emotional bond to him because we can see how much he loves his dying wife.

If your inciting incident doesn’t include the protagonist, you still need to make sure it hooks the audience into the story, but in a different way. Usually by surprising, entertaining, or shocking us in some way.

Thriller and Horror movies, for example, often start with inciting incidents like these. In the opening scene of Get Out we see a young black man walking through an affluent white neighborhood at night and him getting bundled into the back of a car and driven away somewhere. Jaws opens on a woman getting killed by the shark while her boyfriend naps on the beach.

The point is, we don’t know these characters but the inciting incident has done its job of grabbing our attention and hooking us into the story.

How to write a call to action (min 10 – 15)

When writing this plot point, the number one thing you need to make sure is that it emotionally affects your protagonist. Whereas the inciting incident doesn’t have to include the protagonist (or be in the script at all) the call to action should blow their world apart. Or at least make them sit up and take notice of some form of conflict.

The way to do this is to again try to pack as big an emotional punch as you can into the scene. In (500) Days of Summer, for example, when Tom meets Summer for the first time, he’s awkward and seemingly always seconds away from screwing up. We can sense that if he messes this up she’s not going to want to talk to him again, and so there are high emotional stakes at play.

The call to action usually also comes as a direct result of the inciting incident. In John Wick, for example, it’s precisely because we’ve seen how distraught John was at the death of his wife that the call to action has such resonance. If all we saw was a retired hitman living in the Hollywood hills, and then he gets beaten up, his car gets stolen and puppy shot, we wouldn’t feel his pain in nearly the same way.

All too often the call to action in a spec screenplay feels “small.” Something’s changed, but don’t pay close enough attention and you may miss it. This is the exact opposite of what a call to action should be: a big, bold and emotionally resonant scene that turns the story in a completely new direction.

what is an Inciting Incident

How to write an Act 1 turning point (min 20 – 30)

Everything in the previous paragraph about the call to action also applies to the Act 1 turning point. We need to see a big scene here that announces with a bullhorn, “Now we’re getting serious!” (Unless, of course, you’re writing a low-budget arthouse film.)

This should be the moment the whole of your Act 1 has been leading up to. The moment in which your protagonist realizes the full force of what they’re up against and get spun into Act 2. Or the moment they make a decision and commit to solving whatever problem’s been established at the inciting incident and call to action.

In Whiplash, Andrew feels the full force of Fletcher’s psychopathy after having a chair thrown at his head. In (500) Days of Summer, Tom’s mind’s blown by Summer kissing him in the photocopy room. In John Wick, John decides to bring down Viggo and his mob. In Nightcrawler, Lou commits to his new career after selling the tape to Nina. In The Shining, Danny realizes the evil power of the Overlook hotel.

In each of these cases, remember, the core conflict of the movie is also established: will the protagonist achieve XYZ goal? Whether that’s becoming a top jazz drummer, falling in love, getting revenge, becoming a successful reporter or surviving the winter in a haunted hotel.

Remember: Each of these scenes in your script—the inciting incident, call to action, Act 1 turning point or whatever you wish to call them—should be slightly longer than usual as they’re big plot-changing events.

Forget trying to squeeze them into one or two pages and instead give them the space they need to play out. Each scene should have ample opportunity to let its drama and emotion really hit the audience between the eyes and take the plot in a completely new direction.

Ideally these three plot points should establish the core conflict of the movie, anchor Act 1 in place and push the protagonist into the new world of Act 2. So give them some extra care and attention and your script will reap the benefits.

What Is An Inciting Incident? Conclusion

What Is an Inciting Incident in a Screenplay

What is an inciting incident in a screenplay? Put simply, it’s the term used variously for any of the three major plot points in Act 1. If you want to use the term for the first plot point as we do, that’s fine. Equally it’s fine if you label the call to action or Act 1 turning point an “inciting incident.”

What’s far more important than what you call these plot points is understanding their various functions, and making sure they’re well-crafted, “big” scenes that pop off the page in your screenplay. Try not to get too obsessed with which page/minute they land on, but instead focus on making sure they forge an emotional connection between the protagonist and the reader.

###

Which plot point do you call the “inciting incident?” Have you made up your own labels for each of the three major plot points? What do you think of ours? Have we successfully answered the question of “What is an inciting incident”? Let us know in the comments section below!

14 Comments
  1. Freddie says:

    Hey, that’s pretty cool. That’s probably one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. I’ve heard so many rumors about inciting incidents and what they are that I ended up being super confused. Thanks for cleaning that up!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome Freddie. Thanks for reading.

  2. Barbara B. says:

    It’s really about engaging and captivating the audience (which at first is the reader, then the producer, and final the people who watch the movie) with your writing. Writing for the screen is an art form and a craft; there’s flexibility in art as long as you know the craft inside and out.

  3. Jack says:

    This post hits the nail on the head. It really depends which blog you read where they say it lands. This is the first post that breaks it down like this. Thanks for the info, Script Reader Pro!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Jack! Glad you found it helpful.

  4. Brad Salem says:

    Some people think the inciting incident happens before page one, some think it happens on page 32. Doesn’t matter to me. Producers loved the script I wrote last summer. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is if they can’t stop reading it because they want to know what happens next.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yup, that’s ultimately all that matters.

  5. Kat says:

    The idea of an inciting incident is simply that you better have a story going before the reader gives up on you. If the writer understands that, it doesn’t matter if you’re aware of the concept of inciting incidents.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kat!

  6. Garg says:

    Very informative, thanks.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome!

  7. Navid says:

    Hi
    Thanks, it’s amazing.
    But We must first consider the audience. If the contact is just a script reader, it’s better to lock the chains sooner. That is, the reader is not tired of reading the first or second page.
    Now, We can continue to talk about the story, but with the instigator of the incident, creating doubts, to play the reader’s brain. The story should not have a simple and simple procedure. And do not go too far from this branch to another. The first one is boring and the second is lost in the story.Changes are good. Better abrupt changes.But everything changes to the audience. If the audience is a viewer, we must do something to see it. Or wait for something to happen. It is easy to lock a viewer’s chain and require him to continue to visit. If we use the trigger for the incident only in minutes 1 through 3, minutes 10 through 15 and minutes 25 to 30, in order to only close the first screen, it seems to me wrong. There must be a point of hesitation, thinking, up and down in all these stages and minutes … and you have to do that to nail the reader or the viewer on his chair. The author has a complete freedom and, as he pleases, begins and continues the story, but at what cost?True, scriptwriting law, like the community. But I think it’s boring to just follow that law. In most cases, the content of the story makes it impossible to follow the law, but in reality the scriptman follows the law. So if we want to follow script writing rules, we need to work on story content. In the end, screenwriting is another world of this mortal world and the creator of that world’s, Is scriptwriter.

  8. Mac McCord says:

    Thank you for offering some clear insights into the inciting incident confusion!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You are very welcome, Mac!

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