The Inciting Incident
I’m on the road this week, visiting Robert McKee in Sedona, AZ. It’s his birthday. Bob McKee, if you don’t know him, is the guru of screenwriters and the founding force behind Storylogue on the web. His intensive story workshops, which he gives all around the world, are like four years of writer’s college in 96 hours.
I’ve taken his course three times. The thing I say about Bob (and it’s absolutely true) is that he’s not just the best teacher of writing I’ve every known, but the best teacher of anything. If you saw the movie Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper and written by Charlie Kaufmann, you know the profane, bombastic and passionately pro-writer character “Robert McKee,” as acted by Brian Cox. That’s pretty close to reality.
When I praise McKee, I sometimes get asked skeptically, “If he’s so great, what specifically did you learn from him” Here’s one concept of many: the Inciting Incident.
What is the Inciting Incident?
The inciting incident in a screenplay or novel is that event that gets the story rolling. In The Hangover, it’s the moment when the guys wake up in their trashed villa with no memory of what happened the night before–and realize that they’ve lost their friend Doug. With that, the story kicks into gear. Everything before that is just setup.
The inciting incident comes in the First Act. If it’s in a screenplay, it occurs sometime before page 28. Some inciting incidents come right up front. True Grit starts the minute Mattie gets it into her head to hire Rooster Cogburn to go after the man who killed her father—and to ride along with him herself. (A case might be made that the inciting incident doesn’t come till Rooster agrees to go, but in my view Mattie’s will is so strong that we in the audience know she’s going to get Rooster whether he likes it or not.)
In other stories, like the first Rocky, the inciting incident comes late. There, it’s not till Apollo Creed decides to give an unknown fighter a shot at him (and picks “the Italian Stallion” out of the handbook of professional boxers) that the movie really gets rolling. Before that, we’ve had a detailed setup—establishing Rocky, Adrian, Pauly; the fact that Rocky thinks of himself as a bum and so does everyone in his Philadelphia neighborhood; that he’s out of shape, going nowhere; he’s a bone-breaker for a small-time hood; but also that his personality is like Ferdinand the bull—he’s got the strength to take on the champ, but he also has a kind and empathetic heart.
The story dictates when the inciting incident will come. Some tales need more setup up front than others. (Once the story starts, we can’t slow down for more setup.)
All projects have inciting incidents (or should)
The concept of the inciting incident can be applied to all kinds of stuff other than stories. The inciting incident of the iPhone is all the smart tricks it can do. Before that, the iPhone was just a phone. It was vanilla; it was generic. The iPhone’s story kicks in with the apps. Now we’ve got traction. Now we’re rolling.
There’s an inciting incident in this post. It’s at the end of the second paragraph, start of the third. What comes before is setup.
Your new restaurant has an inciting incident. It comes when diners walk in the door, or partway down the menu, or somewhere in the first course of a meal. Your ballet has an inciting incident; so does software project, your rock CD, your youth center in the slums of Sao Paulo.
Before I took Robert McKee’s course, I had never heard the term “inciting incident.” I had already written a dozen screenplays and there was an inciting incident in all of them. But I had done it entirely on instinct; I had no concept to apply consciously. Realizing that there was such a thing as an inciting incident (and understanding its purpose and placement) gave me a check to apply to any story or any project I was working on.
A great inciting incident
One of the all-time best inciting incidents is in the movie Chinatown. Do you remember how the story starts? Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Diane Ladd) hires private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) to tail her husband. She suspects the old man is having an affair with a younger woman. Sure enough, Nicholson snoops around and takes photos of Hollis Mulwary with a “cute little twist,” as Robert Towne’s screenplay phrases it. Somehow this hits the newspapers. A scandal erupts. (But the movie story still hasn’t started; it needs one more turn.
Nicholson is in his office when gorgeous, elegantly dressed Faye Dunaway walks in, accompanied by her attorney. “Do you know me, Mr. Gittes?” Jack smiles and acknowledges that he doesn’t. “I think I’d remember that,” he says. “Then you’ll agree,” continues Faye, “that I didn’t hire you to follow my husband.” Jack’s smile is fading fast. Faye informs him that her name is Mrs. Hollis Mulwray. Whoever hired Jack was an impostor. And she—the real Mrs. Mulwray–is going to sue Jack for all he’s worth.
There’s no need to get tough, Mrs. Mulwray.
I don’t get tough, Mr. Gittes. My lawyer does.
And she turns on her lovely heel and exits.
What’s your inciting incident?
A great inciting incident makes us readers/audience members flash back mentally to what came before—and realize that everything we thought we understood is false. There’s more going on, we realize, than meets the eye. That’s fun, isn’t it?
Ask yourself of your project, “What is the inciting incident?” “When does the ‘story’ take off?” You’d be surprised how many would-be novels/screenplays/restaurants/startups don’t have inciting incidents. That’s why they don’t work.
Next week we’ll talk about the relationship of inciting incident to theme. And what this phrase means: “The inciting incident sets up the Obligatory Scene.”
I got this all from Robert McKee.