by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Every story needs one, but it can be one of the most misunderstood elements in scriptwriting. It’s called by many names – catalyst, initiating beat, and inciting incident are just a few. How well you can engage the viewer in that exact moment often determines whether a reader will keep turning pages in your script or move on to something more interesting. Here are four ways to improve the inciting incident in your story.
1. STICK IT IN THE RIGHT SPOT
One of the most common errors I see in scripts from new writers is the misplaced inciting incident. I’ve literally read ten-page, short film scripts where the inciting incident occurred at the bottom of the sixth page. I’ve read just as many features where the moment occurs in an equally bad spot. A common rule of thumb from story gurus of the past has been to have the inciting incident occur around page ten in a feature, or when the story has been roughly ten percent told, regardless of the script’s length.
This is not a bad place to start. Many scripts now open with an inciting incident and build set up after it occurs. This model works well, too. The more dangerous method is waiting too late for an inciting incident. Waiting till the 15% or 20% mark in the story can bore or confuse an audience. This is all assuming we are telling a linear story, of course. In Selma, President Johnson tells Martin Luther King, Jr. that the voting act will have to wait. This is the inciting incident that drives King to go to Selma. Writer, Paul Webb has this occur eleven minutes into the film – right on time.
2. MAKE IT A DAY LIKE NO OTHER
I sometimes refer to the inciting incident as “the phone call that changes your life.” The inciting incident often works best when it occurs on the most significant day of your protagonist’s life. It might be the day someone they love dies. It might be the day they lost their job or their husband left them. It might be the day they found a magic box that could make their dreams come true.
One helpful exercise is to look at an inciting incident from your own life. How was life different when you went to bed that night as opposed to when you got up? Our protagonist can decide whether they will go on the journey later. The inciting incident should create the circumstances that force the decision they will make.
In The Theory of Everything, it’s not Stephen Hawking’s medical diagnosis that serves as the inciting incident but instead his meeting Jane. Writer Anthony McCarten is arguing that it’s this moment that changed Hawking’s life more than any other. The script goes on to make a very compelling argument for that point.
3. MAKE IT PERSONAL
The inciting incident should eventually lead the protagonist to make a decision between two very appealing choices or two very awful choices. For this reason, the moment must be personal. The character must have a lot to gain or a lot to lose based on the situation created by the inciting incident. The more extreme the situation, the higher the dramatic conflict in the story will be.
Has your protagonist just lost what they loved most? Do they now possess the means to have all they ever wanted? Has the man of their dreams just been hired by the company they work for? Whatever the inciting incident, nothing should be the same for your protagonist after it occurs. Cheryl Strayed’s character in the film Wild is never the same after her mother dies. Though the film used a somewhat non-linear storytelling style, writer Nick Hornby makes it quite clear that this event is Strayed’s inciting incident for all she goes on to accomplish. For her, nothing was more personal than processing that tragedy.
4. LET IT BREATHE
After the inciting incident occurs, the protagonist needs a moment to exhale. Don’t immediately rush into another story beat. Give the heroine time to react – time to catch her breath.
One effective method is to provide a sounding board for them. Having a conversation occur with a mentor or close friend can allow the character to explore the pros and cons of going on the journey that the inciting incident has made available. But don’t linger here. Waiting too long to have the protagonist make their decision to engage the journey can bore the audience. We lose our empathy for the predicament the character is in if they appear to be wallowing in indecision.
In The Imitation Game, writer Graham Moore allows Alan Turing’s character to both positively react to the inciting incident (which occurs on page ten of the script, by the way) of being called in to work on a secret project and negatively react to the people he will be working with. The tension between these two realities is what makes Turing’s decision to work on the project a difficult one. As Moore demonstrates, a great inciting incident can accomplish multiple purposes and develop the character from the beginning of the story.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.