Setup and Inciting Incident


The inciting incident happens when the hero acquires an intention. Until then it’s all set-up.

It's not just action that propels the Bourne movies, it's great Inciting Incidents

It’s not just action that propels the Bourne movies, it’s great Inciting Incidents

Luke Skywalker acquires the intention to fight for the rebel alliance, to become a Jedi knight like his father, to discover his destiny.

Mark Watney, alive and alone on Mars, acquires the intention to survive.

Liam Neeson in Taken is called to find and rescue his daughter.

Rocky to fight the champ.

Addie Loggins in Paper Moon to link with her father.

At these moments, the story starts. Set-up is over. Drama has begun.

One of the great inciting incidents in recent years is that in The Bourne Identity, the first of the five Jason Bourne flicks. Do you remember it?

The story starts with a man (Matt Damon as Jason Bourne) floating on his back in the Mediterranean, unconscious, at night, a serious distance offshore. The crew of a fishing boat spots him and takes him aboard. (This is all set-up so far.)

The fishermen discover two bullets lodged in the Kevlar vest/wetsuit that Matt Damon is wearing (still setup). The crewman/medic also extracts from beneath Matt’s flesh a small pellet-like device which, when held at the right angle, projects the name of a Swiss bank and a number that apparently belongs to a (no doubt secret) account. Damon at this point is still unconscious. When the comes-to, however, it is with a violent start; he furiously and apparently reflexively, i.e. without conscious thought, attacks the crewman/medic who has just saved him, before being calmed down and realizing he’s not among enemies.

“Who are you?” says the crewman.

“I don’t know,” replies Matt, in obvious anguish as this realization strikes him, clearly for the first time.

This is the inciting incident of The Bourne Identity. In this moment, our hero acquires the intention that will drive the story forward all the way to the climax: the imperative to find out who he is and how he came to be in this predicament.

The Bourne stories, like all amnesia tales, are interesting in that a lot of the set-up, instead of coming before the inciting incident, comes after. It’s the set-up that the Man With No Memory is trying to find out.

Here’s Blake Snyder on the subject of set-up from Save the Cat! (one of my favorite books on storytelling)


[The set-up] is where we see the world as it is before the adventure starts. It is a full-fledged documentation of the hero’s world labeled “before.” If the events that follow did not occur, it would pretty much stay this way. But there is a sense in the set-up that a storm’s about to hit, because for things to stay as they are … is death. Things must change


The set-up in Hamlet is an unusually lengthy one. First we meet Hamlet, the melancholy prince of Denmark. We meet Ophelia, clearly his potential lady-love. We learn that Hamlet’s father the king (also named Hamlet) has recently died from a snake bite and that his mother Gertrude the queen has almost immediately remarried—to his father’s brother Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. This uncle now sits upon the throne. Hamlet is totally bummed by this (and indeed suspects foul play) but he has no reason or evidence yet, nor plans to take action. In other words, we’re still in the set-up.

Suddenly Hamlet’s friend Horatio comes to him and tells him that his father’s ghost has been seen walking the battlements late at night. The watchmen have alerted Horatio, who now summons Hamlet to walk out tonight and see for himself. Hamlet, electrified, agrees. Sure enough, the old man’s spirit appears and speaks to his son. (We’re already, by the way, at Scene Five of Act One.)



‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, a serpent stung me;

so that the whole ear of Denmark is by a forged process of my

death rankly abused; but know, thou noble youth, the serpent

that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown.



O my prophetic soul! My uncle!


This (and the remainder of the ghost’s speech, which concludes with “Remember me!”) is the inciting incident of Hamlet. In this exchange, our hero acquires his intention: to avenge his father’s murder, to prove that his uncle did in fact commit the evil deed, to bring him to justice (not to mention the queen, his mother, who is a willing accomplice and conspirator in the murder) and to restore order to the court and to Denmark.

At this instant, the story starts.

Everything that has come before is only set-up.

Let me take back the word “only.” Set-up is critical. A great set-up lays the groundwork for the drama or comedy that follows as surely as the foundation of the Eiffel Tower supports the structure’s ascent to glory.

In the set-up all the moving parts of the story need to be established in their places—the characters, the world of the story, the theme, the problem that needs fixing.

We need to see the evil of Darth Vader, the good of Princess Leia, the peril that the Empire presents to the rebel alliance; we need to meet young Luke, bored to death in the remotest corner of the galaxy, and to understand that, humble as his present straits may be, he is the son of a Jedi knight and thus possesses an heroic destiny, if only he can find the opportunity and the courage to seize it.

These foundational elements need to be set in place before the story can begin. But they must be introduced economically, because our readers, our audience can get bored having this stuff spooned out to them. Remember, they will not be galvanized by the drama until the inciting incident occurs.

It can be tricky sometimes to identify the inciting incident, not just in books or movies, but in our own stuff. I’ve scratched my head over this many, many times.

But you and I as writers must craft that moment and we must know it absolutely.

The good news is that the right inciting incident (Chinatown, Silver Linings Playbook, Jurassic World) propels the narrative forward with such velocity that, if we as writers can only hang on through Act Two, we’re more than halfway to making our story really work.

Next week: the twin poles of inciting incident and climax and how they produce narrative drive.




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  1. Mary Doyle on August 10, 2016 at 7:51 am

    Thanks for helping to clear up something I didn’t know (and didn’t realize I didn’t know) – the distinction between the set-up and the Inciting Incident. So the real challenge is to hook the reader during the set-up so she sticks with you long enough for the Inciting Incident. Back to reworking my Beginning Hook, although it’s almost there. As always, thanks!

    • Joel D Canfield on August 10, 2016 at 9:23 am

      Mary, have you read Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering? It helps expand that idea. Great follow-up to these posts.

      • Michael Beverly on August 10, 2016 at 2:11 pm

        I think there is often a great confusion between the hook and the inciting incident, which maybe the same, but don’t have to be.

        I like an immediate hook myself.

      • Mary Doyle on August 10, 2016 at 2:57 pm

        No, but thanks for the recommendation Joel! I’ll pick it up.

  2. Michael Beverly on August 10, 2016 at 2:08 pm

    I wonder if in the original story (which the movie bastardized and ruined) the inciting incident came much later?

    Bourne goes to an international conference, now I’m reciting from memory a book I read in the 1980’s, so I might be off a bit, but I recall he meets this woman, a Canadian, whom he kidnaps.

    Bourne actually believes he’s a bad guy. All evidence points to the fact that he was, in fact, a brutal killer.

    But when the enemies show up to try and kill him, he defeats them and goes to (yeah, trope of tropes) save the Canadian from being raped.

    She realizes he’s not a killer (this is what the movie totally changed, why I don’t know, the book was better).

    She helps him, they fall in love, and the truth finally comes to light, Bourne is actually David Webb, a deep undercover agent, who was always a good guy.

    SOOOO…the inciting incident in the book, in my mind, is when Bourne goes back to save the woman (whom he’d just kidnapped) from rape, thus starting the path to true discovery of who is he (plus adding a cool love story to the spy action adventure).

    Btw, if anyone is interested there was a television mini series made out of the book with Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith that stayed really true to the story.

  3. Renita Wellman on August 10, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    I wish I had something really helpful to say. This is turning on the lights in my brain. It is pretty exciting to feel the shift. I guess that is meant by “mind-blowing” — such a pat phrase. I would rather use the term “illuminating.” Writing consciously, like this, is shining a light in the darkness.
    Thank you Steven.

  4. Erika Viktor on August 11, 2016 at 1:17 am

    This is brilliant and helped me TODAY with something I was struggling with in a current story. I tend to write absurdly long first acts. I am not sure why, maybe to delay that scary second act? But this is a clue. “Acquiring Intention” is a valuable idea in that once our character knows the action they must perform, the logical next step is to perform it and the scenes write themselves!

    We can dream they do, anyway!

  5. Christine on August 11, 2016 at 9:50 am

    Excellent. As always.
    Thank you.

  6. Ellen Cassidy on August 12, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    But I hear over and over how the inciting incident HAS to happen within the first chapter and no later than the 2nd. How does a person do all this set up required and keep within the time frame? The more I read about I. I. the more confused I get. The examples don’t even help because I don’t see the common link between any of them. Maybe i’m over-thinking.

  7. Mary J Hicks on August 13, 2016 at 6:16 am

    Thanks a bunch for this article! I’ve struggled with this very thing for so long. I THINK this may have helped a lot! 🙂

    Thanks also for the book recommendations!

  8. David Kaufmann on August 18, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    This is an important distinction, which I think I touched on in my response last week. Thanks for these wonderful clarifications and insights.

    But I can’t help wondering how the great writers of the past (Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy and even to our day Twain, Hemingway and the plethora of pulp writers, etc.) managed to tell great stories only by reading other stories, some good, some bad, and without the help of wonderful people like Blake Snyder, Robert McKee and others.

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