Setup and Inciting Incident
The inciting incident happens when the hero acquires an intention. Until then it’s all set-up.
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.)
GHOST OF HAMLET’S FATHER
‘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.