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.

McKee

Robert McKee during his four-day Story workshop

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.

JAKE GITTES

There’s no need to get tough, Mrs. Mulwray.

EVELYN 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.

THE WAR OF ART

Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.

The-War-of-Art

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1

THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

13 Comments

  1. andrew lubin on February 2, 2011 at 4:23 am

    Oh thank God; I’ve been doing it right. I always assumed you needed something to catch the reader’s attention…some focal point to keep him interested and not want to put your book-story down.



  2. Jen Grisanti on February 2, 2011 at 6:01 am

    Steven, This is an excellent article. I love what is taught with regards to the idea that some ideas need more of a set up while others have the inciting incident happen right away. It gives writers more freedom to know that it just has to happen before pg 28, even though the majority have it between pgs. 12-15. I love the idea that story structure is constantly evolving. McKee is the Master. Thank you for writing this! ~ Jen



  3. Stacey Keith on February 2, 2011 at 6:35 am

    You and Robert McKee. Under one roof. MAN, why aren’t I there? I’d just sit and listen and maybe drink coffee.



  4. Jeremy Brown on February 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Fantastic! I just checked my screenplay and the inciting incident happens on page 12. That was luck and, as you said Steven, instinct. Thanks to this post and Mr. McKee, it will be intentional from now on and likely more powerful.

    I’m looking forward to the next post on this subject.



  5. Marisa Birns on February 2, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Yes, it’s incredible fun to realize there’s more than meets the eye!

    You’ve explained inciting incident really cogently, and eager to read next post.

    Thanks!



  6. Patrick A. Horton on February 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Nicely done. Would have loved to be a fly on the wall with the two of you chatting and I pretty much give The War of Art as required reading assignment to anyone and everyone interested any kind of authentic and successful creativity or life. That said, I suggest that the whole issue of inciting incident is often presented in over simple and confusing way as most stories get started and then directed with more than once incident or series of them. As a result, you can routinely have industry professionals argue endlessly about a given movie and the what and where of inciting incident, turning points etc. The most intuitive definition is the something that happens that means life will never be the same, which is often followed by more incidents that give form to the action to follow. In the case of True Grit, I would argue that the inciting incident was the murder of her father and escape his killer revealed wonderfully with her voice over noting the killer probably thought he had gotten away Scott free and if I remember correctly probably would as no one seemed particularly interested in following. Technically, the inciting incident which led to the obligatory scene or Matty blasting the offender into kingdom come happened before the movie started revealed in flashback. She was already looking for a course of action when told of Rooster Cogburn. Similarly, in Sleepless in Seattle (written by my friend and great guy Jeff Arch), the incident that rocked the world of our protagonist and sun happened before the movie started which we discover in the brilliant opening scene at grave side with a loving father trying to explain how to make sense of what does not make sense. The phone call to radio station later is event that sets direction of story already in motion. In its own way a second or additional inciting incident. Or, as David Siegal would put it in his nine act structure conversation, part of the three bumps and a push.



  7. Stacy on February 3, 2011 at 4:24 am

    I wonder if it’s possible for the inciting incident to take place off-screen.



  8. Steven Pressfield on February 3, 2011 at 11:56 am

    That’s a really good point, Patrick, thanks. Indeed sometimes the inciting incident has levels upon levels–something that happened before the movie even started, which triggers something else once the movie is rolling. Good stuff. Thanks!



  9. André Heeger on February 8, 2011 at 4:51 am

    If not for Robert McKee’s terrific book Story I guess I would never have been able to step back far enough from my original manuscript as I turned it into a screenplay.
    His input is a great help no matter what I write.



  10. Tony Ollivier on February 8, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    I took Mckee’s course last year and I found him to be the most Cantankerous grumpy and antisocial bastard I’d ever met. But as I sat there, I had to get over that and let the information flow. He sure can teach however. He just needs a little more prosac added to his coffee in the morning 🙂



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