by Angela Bourassa
At his recent STORY Seminar in Los Angeles, Robert McKee talked quite a bit about the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the moment in your story where your main character’s life goes out of balance. It’s the moment when their life gets flipped upside down, forcing them to make a choice.
The inciting incident falls somewhere in your first act, then the rest of the act is typically dedicated to the character wrestling with what to do next. If you’re a Blake Snyder fan, you’re always trying to land your inciting incident on page 12. If you’re more of a McKee kind of writer, your inciting incident should simply fall somewhere in the first 25% of your script. It could be the very first scene, or it could be a half hour into the film. Great examples of late inciting incidents are in Rocky and Life is Beautiful. Early inciting incidents happen in movies like Jaws and Kramer v. Kramer.
McKee explains the placement of your inciting incident this way: Ask yourself how much your audience needs to know about your main character in order to have a full reaction to their life going out of balance.
A shark is killing your townspeople? You don’t need to know much more than that. You have a chance to fight the heavy weight champion of the world? We’re going to need to understand who you are before we can appreciate the situation fully.
McKee noted that if your inciting incident comes late in your story (in Life is Beautiful, it’s 50 minutes into the movie), then you need to keep the audience’s attention with a subplot that teaches them more about your characters and their world while also complimenting the central themes or “controlling idea,” as McKee puts it, of your story.
So. How do you find your inciting incident? McKee suggests these five questions:
1. What’s the worst possible thing that could happen to my protagonist?
Depending upon the character, it might be losing their job, going to jail, or maybe having their child kidnapped. Or it could be getting stuck on vacation with the person who annoys them more than anything. What actually qualifies as “the worst” will depend upon your genre, but what matters most is that to your character, it feels like the absolute worst.
2. How could that worst thing turn out to be the best possible thing to happen to them?
How could this thing that throws their life upside down actually make them a better, more fully realized human being? Sometimes it won’t — your daughter getting Taken is never going to feel like a good thing in the end. Again, consider your genre and your character carefully to figure out what works best for your story.
3. What’s the best possible thing that could happen that could then turn out to be the worst thing?
Really think to the limit of human experience, McKee suggests. When does getting what we wish for turn out to bite us in the ass? How far can you take this concept?
4. What quality of event should the inciting incident be?
McKee loves the movie Ordinary People. In that movie, he pointed out, the inciting incident is a woman scraping french toast into the garbage. It radically upsets the protagonist’s life in a subtle but effective way. In Ordinary People, the protagonist is the father, not the son, because he is the person with the will and capacity to go to the end of the line and commit the final action that brings the story to a close.
For your script, your inciting incident could be anything from a war breaking out to a girl agreeing to go on a date. It should be HUGE in the protagonists life and world, and that’s relative to your genre and your story.
5. Does the incident provoke the question, “How will this turn out?” in the audience’s mind?
Your audience needs to care. They need to be invested in what’s going on. OR they need to be so fascinated by what they see on screen that they follow your main character’s journey even though they don’t like them. That’s much harder to pull off. In most stories, your inciting incident should pull your audience forward, making them sit forward in their seats and worry about your main character’s fate.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.