The Inciting Incident #7
I wrote this in 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. 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 movie work.
About an hour into Friday evening’s class, he introduced the concept of the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident is the event that makes the story start.
It may come anywhere 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 when the story starts.
Is this stuff simply academic? Or does a writer actually use it when she’s structuring a story?
I can tell you that I, absolutely and with total conscious attention, craft an Inciting Incident using all the checkpoints I’ve learned over the years:
In the inciting incident, the hero acquires his or her intention.
The climax is embedded within the inciting incident.
The inciting incident = “the Call” in the hero’s journey template.
Here’s a link to the first five chapters of my upcoming novel of the ancient world, A Man at Arms. (I’m not trying to inflict a chore of reading on you. Skip over this if you’d like.)
I actually learned something new working on this Inciting Incident. I’ve followed the principle for years that “the hero acquires his or her intention” in the Inciting Incident. Think about Rocky when he’s picked by Apollo Creed to get a shot at the title … or Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers when his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped by Comanches. Both heroes acquire their intention in those inciting moments.
But what I hadn’t thought about (though I certainly should have) was that the hero’s intention inevitably changes as the story progresses. In fact you could make a strong case that, if the story is going to be more complex than straight-ahead vanilla, the hero’s intention must change.
Consider the Detective or Private Eye story. The detective acquires his intention when he’s assigned to the case. “Find my missing daughter.” “Recover the stolen jewels.” “Track down the Maltese Falcon.” And the detective indeed starts out on that trail.
But inevitably things change. The private eye or homicide cop learns things he wasn’t supposed to. He uncovers secrets. By the time the story reaches its Act Two Curtain, everything the detective believed at the start has been turned on its head.
In A Man at Arms, the hero too is given an assignment. (You’ll see the moment in the first five chapters.) As I was working on this scene, I was thinking, “Yes, this is the Inciting Incident.” But …
But indeed the hero’s intention does change. It has to, or the story would remain “first-level” and the hero would be revealed to be one-dimensional.
How the hero changes and what his intention changes to … that’s what makes the story interesting—and reveals the protagonist’s deep character.
I learned something new working on A Man at Arms.
The hero’s intention can (and must) change as he or she progresses through the events of the narrative.