The Inciting Incident and “the Call”

An extremely useful way to look at the Inciting Incident is to see it as “the Call,” as in the Hero’s Journey. The two are identical. They’re the same beat.

Setting sail for Tahiti. The inciting incident is the "Call to Adventure"

Setting sail for Tahiti. The inciting incident is the “Call to Adventure”

Here’s Christopher Vogler from his indispensable The Writer’s Journey:

 

The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake. Once presented with a Call of Adventure [boldface his], she can no longer remain indefinitely in the comfort of the Ordinary World.

In Star Wars, the Call to Adventure is Princess Leia’s desperate holographic message to wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi, who asks Luke to join in the quest. In revenge plots, the Call to Adventure is often a wrong, which must be set right. In romantic comedies, [it’s] the first encounter with the special but annoying someone the hero or heroine will be pursuing and sparring with.

 

See the parallels? In each case the Call is the Inciting Incident. It’s the action or event that sets the story in motion.

But let’s back up a moment to review the concept of the Hero’s Journey.

Two ways to look at it: first, the hero’s journey as a template for storytelling; second, the hero’s journey as a living dynamic in our real lives. Here’s what I wrote about the second way in Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t:

 

The hero’s journey is the Ur-Story of every individual from Adam and Eve to Ziggy Stardust. It’s the primal myth of the human race, the cosmic pattern that each of our lives follows (and a thousand increments thereof), whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.

 

If you are the hero of your life (and of course you are), the hero’s journey is the script your life will (more or less) follow, over and over.

 

According to C.G. Jung, the hero’s journey is a component of the collective unconscious. Joseph Campbell identified it in the myths and legends of virtually every culture on earth. Jung found it arising spontaneously in the dreams and neuroses of his psychiatric patients.

The hero’s journey arose, both men speculated, from the accumulated experience of the human race over millions of years. The hero’s journey is like an operating system (or software in an operating system) that each of us receives at birth, hard-wired into our psyches, to help us navigate our passage through life.

 

The beats of the hero’s journey go something like this:

Hero starts in Ordinary World.

Hero receives Call to Adventure

Hero rejects Call

Hero encounters Mentor. Mentor gives Hero courage to accept call.

Hero crosses Threshold, enters Extraordinary World.

And so on through trials and ordeals, encounters with weird and wondrous characters, meetings with allies, confrontations with the Villain, finally to Crisis, Climax, and Resolution.

That’s the hero’s journey in our real lives. It’s us falling in love, quitting a job and launching a new venture, joining the CIA, setting sail for Tahiti, writing the Great American Novel.

Which brings us back to the first way of looking at the hero’s journey—as a template for writing a story/novel/screenplay. Star Wars is literally the hero’s journey. George Lucas patterned his script beat by beat upon Joseph Campbell’s template. So is The Wizard of Oz, Titanic, The Terminator, The Martian, When Harry Met Sally, and on and on.

In each case, that beat that you and I would call the Inciting Incident is, in terms of the hero’s journey, the Call to Adventure.

It’s the action or event that launches the hero out of the Ordinary World (also known as Act One) and into the Extraordinary World (Act Two and Act Three), the world of his or her initiation or passage into a deeper and more complete understanding of themselves and of life.

I know. I know what you’re thinking.

Why, you ask, does Steve keep beating this barely-breathing horse? Aren’t such considerations pure arcana? Technical stuff that we, unless we’re going for our Ph.D. in Literature, really don’t need to know?

No, no, and no.

I write just like you do, by the seat of my pants. I wing it. I trust the Muse. I come up with stuff and if it sounds good to me, I scribble it down.

In other words, I work out of my right brain.

But there comes a time (and that time should happen early early early) when you and I, if we’re smart, will and must switch over to our left brains.

We’ll engage our rational intellect.

We’ll take a cold, hard look at the mess we’ve just spewed across X hundred pages and we’ll ask ourselves, Is this stuff working? Is it a story? Will anybody want to read it?

At this point, we start asking ourselves the questions that every professional storyteller asks, among which are the following:

Do I have an Inciting Incident?

What is it?

How do I know it’s a legitimate inciting incident?

Does my hero acquire his or her intention in that moment?

Is the story’s climax embedded in that moment?

Is that moment on-theme?

And, from today …

Does that moment correspond to “the Call” in the hero’s journey?

I’m working on a novel right now and I am doing exactly this. I’m asking myself these exact questions (and many more).

It helps.

It’s critical.

It’s like standing on the deck of a sailboat in the middle of the Pacific, taking a reading of the stars with a sextant.

Trust me, if we omit these steps we will never make it to Tahiti.

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16 Comments

  1. Mary Doyle on September 7, 2016 at 4:52 am

    I for one appreciate the repetition – I found a missing piece in today’s post that solved a problem in my WIP. Thanks so much!

  2. G_Mac on September 7, 2016 at 6:47 am

    What a great piece and I’m with Mary Doyle in feeling the repetition is essential. Why? Well, as someone who has spent a lifetime in advertising/fundraising and broadcast, it’s stunning how rarely that Hero’s Journey is used as a framework, so clearly the message isn’t getting through. My question is always the same: why would you choose to tell your story form any other perspective? Anyhow, like everything Steve shares, this is more essential reading.

  3. Seaborn Reed on September 7, 2016 at 7:30 am

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I am ~so~ glad I signed up to your mailing list, Mr Pressfield! Thank you so much!

  4. Stacy Chambers on September 7, 2016 at 7:47 am

    Nope, the repetition is much appreciated. Kind of feel like I’ve mastered the concept of the inciting incident. Now if only I could do as well on the other scenes… 🙂

  5. Joe on September 7, 2016 at 8:40 am

    Two words that one often responds to with skepticism, but which are easy to accept when they appear in this space: “Trust me.”

  6. Debbie C. on September 7, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Nice to have specific questions to ask yourself when you know a piece needs help — thanks !!

  7. Jason on September 7, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    What is the inciting incident in The Wizard of Oz? When Dorothy lands in Oz?

    • Adam Abramowitz on September 7, 2016 at 1:19 pm

      I think the inciting incident is the Tornado. When she’s on the bed trying to hide with Toto…

      and then the Tornado sweeps in and takes her to Oz. Now, shes gotta find a way home.

      Or maybe its when she sees that Wizard dude. The guy in that trailer who reads her fortune or something…

      Its been so long. The last 10 times I’ve watched the film its been with Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” playing throughout…

      I tried to watch it without Pink Floyd over the holidays and I couldn’t get through it

    • LarryP on September 7, 2016 at 3:04 pm

      To answer that question, look at the questions Steve asks (translated to the WoO):

      When does Dorothy acquire her intention? (and what IS her intention?)
      Is it when Emma Gulch comes to take Toto away, and Dorothy resolves to run away? Well, it’s AN intention, and perhaps that’s the Inciting Incident of the Beginning Hook (in Shawn Coyne’s nomenclature), but not of the whole story. Dorothy’s intention for the story as a whole is To Get Home. So the Inciting Incident of the story as a whole is the one that takes her away from home — the tornado (or the bump on the noggin, depending on how you interpret her time in Oz).

      Is the story’s climax embedded in that moment (the tornado/bump on the head)? You betcha.

      Is it on theme? Well, what IS the theme? First pass: it’s the last line in the movie: “There’s No Place Like Home”. So, an inciting incident that takes her away from home sure seems to be on-theme.

      And last, does it correspond to The Call of the Hero’s Journey. Well, the Call is what leads you away from the ordinary world, so, yes.

      • amy on September 8, 2016 at 7:40 am

        Oh, you have it explained this so well LarryP! A huge thanks for the clarification — and for separating out the Inciting Incident for the WHOLE story versus the Inciting Incidents for the BH, MB, EP!!!! I was getting confused myself, but you have outlined it in a way that has set me straight. 🙂

  8. Cheryl Lord on September 7, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Mr. Pressfield, I really enjoy your post. You had me at Janie got a gun via “The War of Art:). You make me laugh out, I love that. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

  9. David Kaufmann on September 7, 2016 at 7:58 pm

    What is rather amazing is how many great stories were told before Jung and Campbell. Or the proliferation of how-to writing books (as opposed to The War of Art or NWTRYS, which share what, why and experience). Syd Field wrote that sometimes screenplays that are craft (well-crafted) “rise to the level of art,” a phrase a friend of mine in the graphic novel/comic industry has used. It seems to me that perhaps the Great Works (the art of literature) are so because of the great craftsmanship therein. And any craft, be it pottery or painting, to work must follow due process.

    The other point this post raises (aside from the interesting question of how a temple can degenerate into the formulaic) why the narrative impulse is hard-wired into our neural structure. George Layoff says we think in metaphors. Metaphors are not just rhetorical devices. They’re one of the forces of narrative.

    So THAT we have the narrative impulse rather requires us to use it. (Steve, in one of your books you talk about what happens if we try to deny the muse.) How to control or be controlled by it is the craft-art-mastery tension. WHY we have it – why it is the basic tool in the search for meaning (a useful book), G-d only knows.

    Thanks, Steve

  10. Taylor MacDowell on September 7, 2016 at 8:19 pm

    Loved this. Thank you.

    I’ve tried Heroes Journey before but could never get the pieces to fit with my historical WIP. But today, while reading this, pieces started falling into place.

    I just might get a book outa all these words afterall!

  11. Sharon Hampton on September 11, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Thank you for this article. It clarifies some snags I have in applying the Heroes Journey to my story. I have a question. Can the love interest also act as a mentor in a scene?

  12. chris z on September 13, 2016 at 11:18 am

    The emphasis on the hero’s journey in this weeks post is riveting. It is so applicable to both our lives and the stories that we write. The hero/protagonist is always going to face some sort of adversity in their quest, and usually, the introduction of “the call,” as stated, is the true beginning of the story. The only piece that I would add is that I believe that it is not just the call itself, but the inner journey that has already began to take shape and develop the the protagonist, or character, to help them be able to receive the call. 

  13. Brendon Lumgair on September 26, 2016 at 12:20 am

    Disney’s “Planes” is a carbon copy of the Hero’s Journey. As are most Disney movies.

    Dusty Crophopper leaves the Ordinary life of spraying to go race. With the help of his Mentor he is transformed and beats the Villain and wins.

    I’ve journaled about my own life in the format of the 12 stages. I made a Powerpoint presentation with the title of the 12 stages at the top of 12 Slides, then started writing and going through photos on my computer and plugging them it. Very challenging, but very insightful and therapeutic.

    Thanks for another great post Steve!
    Great discussion everyone!

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