How Does A Story Start?
I had been struggling as a screenwriter for about a year when I first heard the concept of the Inciting Incident. Here’s the context from Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t:
I took Robert McKee’s class. It was called Screenplay Structure then. The class was three days—half of Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday. It cost $199, I think. [Check out the 2016 version at www.mckeestory.com.] The class was full of other aspiring screenwriters as well as actors and actresses, studio execs and development guys and gals.
We were all desperate to find out what made a screenplay work.
About an hour into Friday evening’s session, he introduced the concept of the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident is the event that makes the story start.
It may come anywhere, McKee said, between Minute One and Minute Twenty-five. But it must happen somewhere within Act One.
It had never occurred to me that a story needed to start.
I thought it started all by itself.
And I certainly had never realized that the writer had to consciously craft that specific moment.
What exactly is an Inciting Incident—as opposed to the story’s “Set-up?”
The inciting incident of The Martian is when Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed dead and left behind on Mars, sends a transmission from the abandoned red-planet base that lets the world know he is still alive.
The inciting incident of Taken is when Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) speaks to his daughter’s kidnappers over the phone.
I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want.
If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have
money. What I do have is a very particular set of skills …
skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you
let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. But if you
don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
When the kidnapper answers “Good luck” and hangs up, the story has shifted into gear.
The inciting incident of Star Wars is when Luke retrieves from R2D2’s memory the “mayday” hologram from Princess Leia, who has been captured by Darth Vader and the forces of the Empire.
Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.
The inciting incident of Paper Moon is when nine-year-old orphan Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) is taken up in rural 1930s Kansas by traveling flim-flam man Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) and promised to be delivered by him to her only known relative, her aunt Billie, in St. Joseph, Missouri. Moses seems to bear an uncanny physical resemblance to the all-alone-in-the-world Addie.
You my pa?
‘Course I ain’t your pa.
You met my mama in a bar room.
Just because a man meets a woman in bar room
don’t make him your pa.
The inciting incident of Casablanca is the moment when old flame Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) steps through the door of Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) Cafe Americaine.
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,
she walks into mine.
The inciting incident is not the Setup. The setup comes (usually) earlier.
The inciting incident is the moment when the story’s drive-wheels, which have been idly spinning so far, suddenly bite into the surface of the road and, finding traction, begin to propel the story forward.
Over the next few weeks we’re going to explore the idea of the Inciting Incident. We’ll investigate it from these angles:
The difference between the setup and the inciting incident.
The “pole to pole” mechanism that makes the inciting incident generate narrative drive.
The idea that the story’s climax is embedded within the inciting incident.
The imperative that the inciting incident be on-theme.
The connection between the inciting incident and “the call” in the hero’s journey.
And finally, why you and I as writers must know our inciting incident (and understand everything we’re going to ask it to do for us) before we type the first word of our first draft.
[P.S. For Robert McKee fans (and I’m one of ’em), don’t miss his new book Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen, just published a couple of weeks ago. A must-read.]
I always look forward to Wednesday mornings around 0900 EDT.
Really looking forward to this series!
This is super helpful and has me hooked for the series, thanks Steve.
I would have thought the inciting incident in Taken was when the daughter gets kidnapped, but you’re right, it’s when Neeson’s character vows to find and kill her captors.
Looking forward to learning more, thanks once again.
The inciting incident of TAKEN *is* when Neeson’s daughter is kidnapped. It’s both the event that sets the story in motion (that story being Neeson’s quest to get her back) and the even that turns the world of the character (the character being Neeson) upside down. His phone call is the end of Act I. It’s the moment when the hero accepts his quest. It’s the point of no return.
I have been knocking my head (nearly literally) over this damn concept of theme! So how today’s post may apply to my non fiction work (mess, dilemma, piles…) would be only in the stories embedded in the work- right? Vs overall …
Stuck n stumped 🙁 (for friken now)
Thanks so much Steve for your WW posts.
I’ve been reading AN AMERICAN JEW and am moved by your inner-journey to connect with your Jewish heritage and make sense of your ethnic identity.
I myself am an American writer of Dominican heritage. I am witing a travel memoir about my recent 8-month odyssey in the Dominican Republic, and wanted to ask you if you could point out the Inciting Incident (II) of American Jew. I’m still learning how to locate the II in stories, especially narrative non-fiction. This would be exptremely helpful as I become clearer about the II for my D.R. memoir. Gracias!!
Excellent question, Armando. The inciting incident of “An American Jew” (which DOES have an inciting incident, even though it’s nonfiction) is when I, the protagonist, suddenly get inspired to write a book about the Six Day War. Why is this the inciting incident? Because now the protagonist has an INTENTION that is going to propel him forward, against obstacles, toward a goal.
Looked at through the prism of the “hero’s journey,” this moment is “the Call to Adventure.”
Good luck with your book about your “8-month odyssey in the Dominican Republic.” Sounds great!
Thanks so much Steve for your timely response. I love Joe Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and will work on crafting my Inciting Incident to fit The Call. And I look forward to sending you a copy of my book when published;)
I’m fascinated by the distinction between set-up and inciting incident. I’ve always thought the inciting incident of Star Wars is when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed – that is often cited as “the call” to his hero’s journey, for sure.
It’s very helpful to drill down into such detail, because even after taking McKee’s “Story” class and working with these concepts for a couple of years, I still mix them up! I just realized after reading this post, for example, that what I thought was my inciting incident (first scene) is actually the set-up, and what I’ve been calling my “Act 1 climax” is really the inciting incident.
I look forward to future posts, so I can confirm this latest understanding. (fingers crossed)
Julie, re your mixing up your inciting incident with your Act One climax, don’t feel bad. I’ve done it many, many times!
Steven, I’m so happy to have found your website this morning! I want to be part of your Wednesday series! Your comment about the inciting incident being the INTENTION to write the story strikes home. In the memoir I’m struggling to structure, that decision to write the story seems to be the inciting incident. But most of the story happens in another time frame (twenty years prior) and was kicked off by its own inciting incident.
I don’t know if I’m skilled enough of a writer to pull off using that intention as the inciting incident, and keeping the interest and drive of the story going along that pole. I think the Epilogue is in direct relationship to the Intention. But I can’t figure out how that all relates to the “Call to Adventure” which seems to be the main story’s inciting incident?
Clear as mud? Any ideas for me?
It couldn’t incite any better.
It strikes me that the Inciting Incident is a bit like the thesis statement in an essay or non-fiction work (perhaps especially what Shawn Coyne calls a “Big Idea” book). interestingly, while the thesis (theme) can come anywhere in an essay, the vast majority of the time it comes in the introduction, or first paragraph – depending on how long the essay is (first chapter for a book). And in the first paragraph, it most often comes at the end, as the last sentence. The bulk of the first paragraph corresponds to the set-up. (Next most frequent is the first sentence, in which case what follows may be the set-up.)
Worth a lot of thought and investigation. I really enjoy this sort of analysis. Looking forward to the rest.
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