The Inciting Incident

An Indispensable Story Point

Robert McKee calls it the inciting incident. Blake Snyder called it the catalyst. Regardless of the term, it’s present in every good film you’ve ever watched. You could even consider it the most important structure point of any screenplay.

But wait…who am I kidding? All structure points are crucial. You really can’t live without any of them. But the inciting incident kicks off a movie like nothing else.

Flawed Heroes

To understand the inciting incident we first must realize that our heroes have flaws. It doesn’t matter if it’s Bruce Wayne, Black Panther, Erin Brockovich or Lightning McQueen. It doesn’t matter how much we love them. Every story is about a flawed hero who embarks on a journey of transformation.

But there’s a problem — Our heroes are human. Or they’re a car endowed with human traits. A common weakness of humanity is a lack of desire to change.

Think about it: Most of us are quite happy with how things are. This doesn’t mean we don’t want others to change. Or our situations to change. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to increase our skills or become smarter, faster or cooler.

Our heroes have flaws. It doesn’t matter if it’s Bruce Wayne, Black Panther, Erin Brockovich or Lightning McQueen

But what about the real stuff? The deep down stuff that we know isn’t quite right? Typically we don’t go there unless something big hits us up the side of the head. Then, as the fog clears, we realize something needs to change, and 99% of the time it’s us.

The Event Before the Crucible

As story tellers, how do we push our protagonist into a journey of transformation that they don’t want to embark on? By creating an event that hits them so hard there’s no going back. An experience that turns their reality upside down. It must be big. Life altering.

Rose Lawson witnesses the murder of her parents and her journey of change begins.

In the short film Rose and the Outlaw, Rose witnesses the murder of her parents. This event launches her onto a journey of change where she must transform from fearful girl to grasping the courage to face her biggest fear.

Stick in your favorite 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and watch the first few minutes. Whether it’s a romantic comedy, drama or action flick, something will happen to the hero that changes everything.

Let’s consider a few studio examples:

Jaws (1975)

When Chief Brody finds the remains of a woman on the beach, his world goes from small town parking tickets to dealing with a killer shark. As the audience we know right then and there that the sheriff and the shark are going to meet. Chief Brody’s world has changed.

Star Wars (1977)

When a disgruntled farm boy named Luke works on cleaning a couple droids, he has no idea what’s about to take place. Soon a message intended for a Jedi Knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi pops up and Luke’s world flips upside down. And we all know Hasbro is glad it did.

Neo asleep before Trinity hacks into his computer. Image © Warner Brothers

The Matrix (1999)

A hacker named Neo is snoozing at his computer when Trinity hacks in and tells him to follow the white rabbit. Soon Neo meets Trinity and discovers The Matrix is real. Neo’s life will never be the same.

Gladiator (2000)

When Marcus Aurelius tells Maximus he wants him to become the leader of Rome, Maximus is shoved into a journey of transformation. We realize Maximus will have to sacrifice his life for the betterment of Rome. We just don’t know how it’s going to happen — and neither does he.

When a Hero Doesn’t Change

Most American films are about heroes who change. Neo becomes The One. Chief Brody blows up the shark. Maximus sacrifices his life for what’s right. However, some films are about people who refuse to change.

Take Michael Mann’s Heat for example. The film is about a protagonist (Al Pacino) and antagonist (Robert De Niro) who remain in their flaws and refuse to change. The good guy loses his most meaningful relationship while the bad guy loses his life. All because they couldn’t prioritize what’s meaningful in life. They refuse to change, and their worlds fall apart.

It’s Not Just For Films

Now that you know more about inciting incidents, watch for them in movies. And here’s the scary thing: they happen in real life too. If you sense an inciting incident in your own life, consider how it can change you for the better. Embrace the journey. Just like our heroes are better off when they transform, we are too.

Write & Direct