Ten Inciting Incidents to help you write your book
We’re moving into summer vacation, yay for everyone! I mean everyone else—writers really never take time off, because we love what we do so much, right? :)
This week, I’m revising my own Act I, and I’m feeling like continuing with the refresher that I started last week on the crucial Story Elements that are part of the DNA of any story.
In the the First Act— the first 30 minutes of a movie/30 pages of a script/100 pages of a book, these cornerstone elements include—not necessarily in this order! —
The Protagonist’s Ordinary World
The Inciting Incident, Inciting Event, or Call to Adventure
The Progatonist’s Desire
The Protagonist’s Plan
The Antagonist/Forces of Antagonism
The Antagonist’s Desire and Plan
Assembling the Team
The Crossing into the Special World
Sequence 1, the first 15 minutes of a movie, corresponding to about the first 50 pages of a 400-page book, tends to be about the Introduction of the Protagonist in their Ordinary World. We learn their SPECIAL SKILLS, their GHOST or WOUND, and what they think they want, their DESIRE, which is often different from what they really NEED. And by the end of Sequence One there will usually be an INCITING INCIDENT, or CALL TO ADVENTURE, that in SEQUENCE TWO will focus the Protagonist’s Desire and compel them to leave their Ordinary World and go off into a strange and SPECIAL WORLD to win that Desire.
Also in Act I, we will be introduced to the Opponent or Villain, the opposing forces, and the Protagonist may start to ASSEMBLE A TEAM (or a team arrives, courtesy of the Universe) who will help them win their Desire.
Yes, that’s a whole lot of elements to set up fast!
The best way to learn exactly how these non-optional elements work and how to use them yourself is to choose several movies (three for sure, and most preferably ten!), watch them closely to identify each element, and then look closer at how the storytellers handle of these critical moments or junctures and handle them for maximum dramatic effect.
(Why would you want to take the time to do that? To write faster, better, and more profitably. And save yourself years of writing stories that never quite coalesce into a saleable book or script.)
In the extensive movie breakdowns I do in the Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks and workshops, I examine ten movies in depth, talking you through Act by Act and Element by Element, in order, as well as giving hundreds of other examples.
So that’s a great way to get to know all the elements, and I highly encourage you to play along by choosing a movie you know well and watching it with my notes. And then another, and another.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, then of course do it with your own book or script. And watch how you suddenly understand much more about how your story works!
But another way to approach this, especially for a Story Element you might be struggling with in your own book or script, is to look at a bunch of movies in a row for the same Story Element.
So today let’s try that way, with some movies from different genres.
Remember I’m always happy to use examples from movies that are especially relevant for you, just ask! But at first I think it’s even more important to use movies you know pretty well.
And let’s start with one of the absolute most important elements of your story or any other:
Inciting Incident, Inciting Event, Call to Adventure
The Inciting Incident, Inciting Event, or Call to Adventure is the real start of your book or script. It is a life-changing event (even if it may not seem so at first) that will challenge your protagonist to take action to get their heart’s DESIRE.
This film has a very typical action genre Inciting Incident: the massacre of Maximus’s wife and son and Maximus’s arrest by villainous Commodus’s soldiers. The inciting event ignites Maximus’s DESIRE that drives the story, again a very action genre drive: to kill Commodus and avenge his family’s murder.
Last week we talked about how the INCITING INCIDENT focuses the protagonist’s DESIRE and they develop a PLAN to get it. For those of you who know Gladiator: for extra credit, what’s Maximus’s PLAN that drives the action of the story?
The Inciting Event of this clever and witty ronantic comedy happens in in the first few minutes of the movie. High-powered editor Margaret learns she’s being deported: her visa application has been denied because of paperwork she didn’t fill out on time. If she doesn’t take action immediately, she will be sent back to Canada and lose her beloved job.
All in the same scene, we see the DESIRE this starts in Margaret: To stay in the country and keep her job— and we also see Margaret’s quick-thinking PLAN: to force her assistant Andrew to marry her so she can get a fiancee visa and stay in the country, and keep her job. And all within the first 13 minutes of the movie. In comedy, and romantic comedy, things tend to happen fast.
While You Were Sleeping
In this romance, lonely transit worker Lucy is working her small, boring ticket taking job, when businessman Peter, her secret crush, is attacked on the El platform by two muggers. They shove Peter onto the tracks and flee. Lucy jumps onto the tracks to try to revive the unconscious Peter—and as an express train hurtles toward them, she rolls with him to safety (10 minutes into the movie).
Even though there are far fewer people involved in this Call to Adventure scene than in Gladiator, this romantic comedy inciting event is still and important, emotionally big scene, with visual dynamism, high stakes, and suspense—in other words, a SETPIECE. Filmmakers will almost always create SETPIECES for these key events, and you can learn a lot about how to make your books more exciting and more saleable by studying how they do it. (More on Setpieces here.)
But the second part of this Inciting Event comes in the hospital, as Peter remains unconscious and his family mistakes Lucy for Peter’s fiancee. Lucy wants so badly for this to be true that she doesn’t correct them, and this becomes her way of being close to him, and remaining in his world (PLAN).
Note that Lucy’s PLAN isn’t something she sits down and deliberately outlines. Margaret in The Proposal very deliberately, consciously decides to do something amoral to get what she wants. But shy and troubled Lucy is more or less swept up in the fast-moving events around her. Even so, she is pursuing what she wants. The difference in the level of conscious planning in these two heroines (both beautifully played by Sandra Bullock) shows how a Protagonist’s CHARACTER influences how they go about their PLAN.
We were working with this charming musical last month. Sequence 1 of Encanto is all back story and set up—there’s no Inciting Incident yet. Did you go on to Sequence 2 and identify the Inciting Event? It comes relatively late in Act I: At her cousin’s Gifting Ceremony, Protagonist Maribel has a scary vision of the Madrigal family’s magical house, Casita, cracking and crumbling—and the magic candle that is the source of the family’s power going out. (Maribel doesn’t know that it’s a vision at first — at the time—it feels absolutely real to her.)
This event starts Maribel’s DESIRE: to save the magic and make her family proud. But again, unlike Margaret in The Proposal, Maribel doesn’t have a specific and concrete PLAN right away. We see that she wants to figure out what she saw and what’s going on. She wants to persuade her family that it really did happen and that they need to take action. But there’s not a strong declaration of intent. This makes the action of the first act a little soft and maybe even meandering for a while, but you might think that’s fine. After all, Maribel is just a teenager and she doesn’t understand what’s happening or even if it’s real!
It’s not until a whole sequence later that Maribel comes up a concrete plan. I’ll give you a hint: her specific Plan coalesces in a very popular song…
Selma is as good as true history features get: an absolutely riveting drama that effectively uses elements of war stories and thrillers to portray world-changing real people and real events.
It’s also interesting for the unique way the movie handles the Inciting Event. While the Inciting Incident is often something that happens to the Protagonist, that the Protagonist then has to react to, in Selma, Martin Luther King Jr. deliberately forces the Inciting Incident of the story. MLK and his TEAM have been fighting the evil of racism for a long, long time. There’s not one event that sets off their quest, it’s a whole lifetime and a whole history of institutional, legal racism. The movie starts very much in media res, mid-battle.
But King is very aware that he needs to create an incident that encapsulates the South’s denial of Black voting rights, and demonstrates to the whole world, and especially to President Lyndon Johnson, why Johnson must sign a Voting Rights Bill into law. So in Sequence 1 and 2, MKL plans with the Team to select a representative battleground: Selma, Mississippi, and a representative OPPONENT: Sheriff Clarke, whose racism and violence will horrify the world into pressuring President Johnson into action. The Team stages a peaceful protest which Sheriff Clarke violently breaks up, and the political battle for the soul of the nation is on.
In a completely different vein and genre, the musical romance/biopic Funny Girl is another example of a Protagonist forcing her own Inciting Incident (discussion here).
The Princess Bride:
Almost everyone who’s ever taken my class has seen this classic. I bet you have, too. But hold on a minute. Before we even get into the Inciting Incident: Who is the Protagonist of Princess Bride? Is it Buttercup, or Wesley? Or are they equal protagonists?
So… is the Inciting Incident the same for both of them, or is it two parallel events?
I’ll let you think about that one for a while.
I’ll do five more next week, so if you have requests., let me know in the Comments!
Chapter excerpted from Screenwriting Tricks For Authors 4, coming 2022. Copyright Alexandra Sokoloff
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