Your screenplay lives or dies by its inciting incident, which paves the way for all of the conflict in your story to unfold. The inciting incident also establishes your main character’s goals and, thus, affects their motivation from beginning to end.
No pressure, right? Read on to learn everything you need to know about inciting incidents, what you should strive for when writing one, and a few helpful examples to get you started.
The inciting incident is an event that upends your main character’s status quo, leaving them no choice but to embark on whatever journey you’ve cooked up for them. It also sets up the main conflict of your story—the obstacle holding your character back from their goal—allowing rising action and character development to lead to falling action and your climax. The inciting incident takes place early in your story—usually toward the middle of your first act—after the characters, setting, and world have been established. It’s the event or moment that steadily pushes your protagonist toward your main story, or your second act.
Inciting incidents can range from big bombastic set pieces to a quiet passing moment. What matters is that it sets your story in motion, takes your main character out of the life they knew, and establishes the goal that your story is working toward. All of the conflict and obstacles stem from your inciting incident, and how your protagonist reacts to it reveals their beliefs, desires, flaws, and motives.
“Iron Man” Courtesy Marvel Studios
In this 2019 film, the inciting incident is when Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) gets fired from his job as a party clown for bringing a gun into a children’s hospital. This severance from the one steady thing in Arthur’s personal life tips him into his downward spiral. It eventually leads to him murder three Wall Street bankers on a Gotham City subway—the moment that propels Arthur (and the audience) from Act 1 into Act 2.
This Showtime series takes place in two different time periods, so the pilot episode arguably contains two inciting incidents. In the past, a New Jersey high school soccer team is stranded in the wilderness after their plane crashes on the way to a tournament. Decades later, several members of the team, now adults, receive threatening letters alluding to what happened out in the woods. In both cases, how each character reacts to a traumatic event and chooses to ensure their own survival illuminates who they are to the audience, a vital part of writing any ensemble piece.
In the middle of demonstrating a new piece of warfare technology, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is attacked and kidnapped by terrorists. This is a great example of a textbook inciting incident—Tony goes from the height of wealth and comfort to a cave—that also kicks off the protagonist’s internal arc. Tony sees that his attackers are using missiles developed by his own Stark Industries, a throughline that informs his decision to use tech for good.
In the pilot of Vince Gilligan’s AMC series, high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) learns he has inoperable lung cancer. This inciting incident not only directly leads to Walter turning to a life of crime to support his family, but also acts as a form of dark irony underneath his character arc. The deeper the show gets, the clearer it is to the audience that the protagonist’s original noble motivations pale in comparison to his growing greed and ambition.
“The Wizard of Oz”
This classic film contains one of the clearest illustrations of an inciting incident in storytelling history. A tornado quite literally carries starry-eyed farm girl Dorothy (Judy Garland) from the black-and-white world she grew up in to a technicolor fantasyland that represents her desire for something more.
“Mission: Impossible - Fallout” Credit: Chiabella James
There’s no hard-and-fast rule to writing an inciting incident, but to really make yours stand out on the page, consider these three factors:
- Dig in early: Your inciting incident should take place in your first act, once you’ve firmly established your world and your protagonist’s place within it. Saving your inciting incident until too late in the story runs the risk of boring the audience. The purpose of an inciting incident is to turn your set-up on its head. Saving that for too long means staying in a situation that doesn’t change.
- Make your protagonist uncomfortable: Whether your protagonist is a billionaire living in a mansion or a drug addict camping on the streets, they should always start with a sense of “comfort.” This doesn’t always mean literal comfort—it just means your main character has gotten used to their circumstances. When crafting your inciting incident, ask yourself what would interrupt that status quo enough to send your main character in a different direction.
- Use situational irony: Once you understand your main character on a deep level, you’ll know what they want—and what they definitely do not want. This means your inciting incident can be chock-full of situational irony, or the divide between a character’s intentions and the result of their actions. Give your protagonist the exact thing they do not want: A permanent bachelor discovers they have a child. A promising athlete suffers a devastating injury. A workaholic gets fired from their dream job.