Last month we eased into the New Year with some (I hope!) inspirational posts about committing to your writing. Now let’s move on to the nuts and bolts of story structure: the crucial Story Elements that are part of the DNA of any story.
This is just as important for those of you who are in your second or third drafts! No matter how far into your book or script you are, you need to make sure these elements are working in your story.
And let’s start by reviewing one of the absolute most important elements of your story or any other:
Inciting Incident, Inciting Event, Call to Adventure
Yes, I’m skipping right over essential elements of your protagonist for the moment, because your main character is generally the aspect of your story you know the most about. There’s plenty we’ll talk about to help you deepen your character and create a killer CHARACTER ARC. (Paid subscribers can start here.)
But in the beginning, it’s even more important to set up other elements of your story.
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.
It is crucial to the success of your writing for you to understand what an Inciting Incident is and how to make it play effectively for your reader/audience.
SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT.
You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem, but I also strongly suggest that you get to your INCITING INCIDENT as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. It can make or break your submission, so find a way to get it into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it.
So: what is the action that starts your story?
The corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation.
The hero/ine gets their first glimpse of the love interest in a love story and starts a desire to pursue that person.
A boy receives an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy and embarks on that life-changing adventure.
This beat is also often called the CALL TO ADVENTURE (from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces), and that's the phrase I actually prefer; it's just more — more.
There is no story— book, script, or TV series—without an Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure. Period.
But when I ask writers I teach what their Inciting Incident is, it’s often a real struggle for them to just clearly state it. And if you’re confused about it, you can bet that your reader/audience will be just as confused! You need to tell them where the story is going.
The best way to get this is to test yourself: take ten movies and identify the Inciting Incidents. Write them out in plain, active language.
First, right now, if you haven’t done it already, make a Master List.
If you already have your general Master List of movies in your genre, awesome! Now make another one of movies and books that have great Inciting Incidents.
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.
Here’s mine, for the purposes of Inciting Incidents:
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once
While You Were Sleeping
The Princess Bride
The Fault in Our Stars (the book)
In romance and love stories where the love plot is the main plot, the Inciting Incident is almost always MEETING THE BELOVED. So that’s pretty easy, right? The trouble is, it’s so easy that to keep your reader or audience interested you need to work at it to make this scene something special. The reader or audience has to fall in love along with the character!
So making a Master List of best “Lovers Meet” scenes is a great way to get inspired about how to write your own great love scene. (I’ll give you a hint: it’s probably a bit more interesting than the heroine bumping into a cute guy and spilling coffee on him.)
The Fault in Our Stars:
I think the Lovers Meet scene in the book The Fault in Our Stars is charming, real, and unique for its prickly ambivalence. The heroine gets her first look at independent, off -the-wall Augustus in a cancer support group—not your typical romance setting!—and we are right inside her skin as she experiences an acute awareness and fascination with him.
But you don’t need that unusual a setting. Just being true about the feeling of falling in love is enough:
In this reverse Cinderella story, shy bookstore owner Hugh Grant hovers in the aisles of his little shop, realizing that the customer who just walked in is the movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts). In a prolonged and beautifully played moment, he watches her as she browses, but he’s not just gawking at a celebrity. It’s a classic depiction of how time seems to stop when the beloved walks into our lives, and we get to experience that moment with him. A SETPIECE doesn’t have to be a huge action sequence. Emotional power is just as effective!
Mystery, Crime, Thriller - general
In a detective or crime story or mystery, the Inciting Incident is so often the first murder that it’s sometimes called “The corpse hits the floor.” So again, the challenge is to write a scene that the reader/audience hasn’t seen before.
In Collateral, the first murder is the Inciting Incident, but to shake things up a bit, the corpse hits the hood of protagonist Jamie Foxx’s cab - after being thrown from the window of a highrise by Foxx’s last customer of the night, the villain/antagonist played by Tom Cruise.
And before Foxx can recover, Cruise barges his way back into the back seat, armed, and demands that Foxx drive him to four more locations . And we and Foxx understand that Cruise is a hit man who intends to kill four more people that night.
Silence of the Lambs:
Another typical Inciting Incident for a Mystery, Crime or Thriller is the case, job offer or assignment. A client walks into the private detective’s office wanting to hire them. The police officer gets dispatched to the scene of a crime.
In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s FBI academy instructor summons her to his office and tells her he has an “interesting errand” for her (to interview Hannibal Lecter). But the filmmakers brilliantly use techniques of horror movies to bring an almost mythic resonance to what could have been a really standard scene.
Raiders of the Lost Ark:
The Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure of Raiders is also a job offer, but as in Silence of the Lambs, the filmmakers pack this SETPIECE SCENE with layers of mythic and thematic resonance.
And speaking of interesting assignments…
Everything Everywhere All At Once
In this insanely successful and awarded absurdist sci fi action adventure comedy, laundromat owner Evelyn Quan is just trying to get through an IRS audit when in the middle of a meeting with a vicious agent, Evelyn’s husband Waymond's body is taken over by Alpha-Waymond, a version of Waymond from a parallel universe that (Alpha-Wayond says) is now threatened by a parallel version of Evelyn and Waymond’s daughter Joy—and Evelyn is the only one who can save, um, existence.
Yeah, it’s complicated!— and the accompanying action is weird, and wild. But we don’t really have to get every detail about it because we’ve all seen this kind of CALL TO ADVENTURE before. (The first Star Wars, The Matrix…) Bottom line: There’s a mission, and the protagonist has to decide whether to accept the mission and save the world(s).
The dialogue throughout Everything is stellar, hilarious, and this plainly stated CALL TO ADVENTURE is no exception:
Alpha-Waymond: “You can either come with me and live up to your ultimate potential, or lie here and live with the consequences.”
A classic RELUCTANT HEROINE, Evelyn responds, “I’d rather lie here.”
But the thing is, you don’t get to refuse Destiny. Alpha Waymond simply picks her up, throws her over his shoulder and takes her away.
I want you to get so good at identifying Inciting Incidents that it’s second nature for you to spot it in any movie you watch and book you read!
Try writing out the Inciting Incident of some of the movies/books on your own Master List.
Write out the Inciting Incident of your own book or script.
Watch/read the beginning of some of those movies/books and pay attention to what those storytellers are doing to create an exciting SETPIECE.
Now, what can you do to give your own Call To Adventure more impact?
Go here to read breakdowns of five more Inciting Incidents.
This discussion of The Hunger Games includes tricks the storytellers use to craft the Inciting Incident into an unforgettable SETPIECE:
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All material © Alexandra Sokoloff, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors
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Hi Alexandra - kudos on all the wonderful work. It's funny, in my case I've always looked at the inciting incident and the call to adventure as two separate things. For me the II is the initial kick, the hook - the initial scene that sets the tone. I love a good II - and you mention Indy. In Raiders, that opening sets the tone of the film in a fantastic way - as an audience, you know exactly what type of film you'll be getting. To me, the II doesn't even have to feature the protagonist - but it absolutely must set the tone and hook the audience into that film/world.
The call to adventure, in the case of Indy is, as you say, when he accepts the job to get the ark before the Nazis do. Off the top of my head I can't think of a movie where the II is also the call to adventure. Heck, it's probably all semantics. If, in Raiders, Indy job acceptance is both II and call to adventure - what do you call the opening sequence that sets the tone and hooks the audience? Just wondering!