Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 59

Inciting Incident

How to Begin Your Screenplay and Engage Audiences Right Away

Kindle First Edition
H.R. DCosta, Copyright 2013
Special thanks to Zoutedrop for the flame image; to Ryoichi Tsunekawa for the Bebas font; and to
Caroline Hadilaksono and Micah Rich for the League Gothic font. You all are awesome!
Screenplay vs Film Screenwriting Tips
Home to the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet
Are you struggling to get your story started? Do you want to know how to capture a readers interest
within the first ten pages of your script?
In JERRY MAGUIRE, Rene Zellweger famously said, You had me at hello. Great scripts (and
novels) do the same. They grip audiences from the very beginning. With the help of the inciting
incident, your story can too.
But, much like THE USUAL SUSPECTs Keyser Soze, the inciting incident can be an elusive fellow
to identify. When asked to isolate the inciting incident of a favorite film, a group of ten fans would
likely come up with at least three different answers. Truth be told, all of them could be correct! No
wonder the inciting incident, as humble as it is, generates so much confusion for writers. Its certainly
the plot point I receive the most questions about through my screenwriting website Scribe Meets
As the saying goes, you fear what you dont understand. Well, fellow scribe, fear no longer. After
you read this clear, comprehensive, fluff-free guide, the inciting incident wont be able to intimidate
you anymore. It cant, not when youll know all of its secrets, including:

the four key characteristics of the inciting incident
the secret ingredient which made Liam Neeson so appealing in TAKEN and Ryan Reynolds so
attractive in THE PROPOSAL (its not what you think)
tips for presenting your heros everyday world
the connection between the inciting incident and the end of Act One
when the inciting incident occurs and when its a wise strategy to keep it off-screen
how MINORITY REPORT got away with such a delayed inciting incident
what conducive conditions are and how to distinguish them from the inciting incident
the pitfalls of beginning your screenplay with extended prologue
strategies for writing your first ten pages
four methods to handle the screenplay sequence after the inciting incident
how the inciting incident can help you edit your script
the relationship between the inciting incident and genre
three alternative approaches to the standard action movie inciting incident
how to choose the best inciting incident if youve come up with multiple options
Im a big fan of learning by example. So I use plenty of them throughout this book to illustrate my
points. But sometimes examples just arent enough. Thats why Ive also included ten detailed case
studies which should help you put together all the screenwriting tips Im about to share.
Each movie in the case studies section was carefully chosen based on its educational value and
commercial success. I cover a variety of genres too. If youve wondered how films as diverse as A
BLONDE, and THE HUNGER GAMES engaged audiences from the very beginning, youre about to
find out.
But before we get to the juicy stuff, I need to address
Caveats and Other Ephemera
Screenwriting Knowledge
This guide assumes that you have at least basic knowledge of screenwriting principles and concepts.
It doesnt address screenplay formatting at all. The focus here is on structure, primarily the inciting
incidentyour secret weapon against audience boredom. While theres usually an inciting incident
for your main plot (A story) and for each of your subplots (B story, C story, etc), for the most part, I
focus on the big kahuna. If you understand how the inciting incident for your A story works, it should
be easy to apply that knowledge to subplots.
Also keep in mind, this is just one way to approach screenplay structure. There are certainly other
successful perspectives. You need to pick the method which helps YOU tell the best story. Speaking
of storytelling
Can This Screenwriting Guide Help Novelists?
Sure! If the success of mega-author James Patterson is any indication, readers enjoy novels whose
plotting, pacing, and twists mirror those found in a Hollywood blockbuster. The principles and
examples contained in this guide can help you craft a movie-style beginning for your book which
keeps your readers turning the pages.
However, my references are made from the point of view of writing a screenplay. Translation?
Youll have to decide how to apply these principles and examples to the process of writing a novel.
Since screenwriting and novel writing are both forms of storytelling, it should be fairly simple!
Spoiler Alert
For the most part, this guide focuses on the beginning of movies, so there are very few spoilers (even
in the extensive case studies). Still be forewarned. There are some. But since all of my examples are
pulled from commercial and/or critical hits (like TAKEN, GLADIATOR, INCEPTION, BATMAN
AND THE SORCERERS STONE), the odds are very high youve seen them already. And if you
haventwhat are you waiting for?
Notes on Style
I usually refer to the main character of a story as the hero. As a female, Im very much aware that
movies also star kick-butt heroines too. But alternating between hero and heroine sounded awkward
and confusing, at least to me. So for the sake of clarity, Ive stuck to hero.
Finally, formatting an ebook can get complicated. To keep things simple, Ive put the titles of movies
in all caps but used italics for book titles. If the creative work Im referring to happens to be both a
book and a movie, (like THE HUNGER GAMES), I usually use all caps.
I think that covers everything. Lets roll!
Part I: The Four Key Characteristics of the Inciting Incident
Choosing THE event which gets a story started can be a tricky businessespecially if you dont
know what youre looking for.
After analyzing hundreds of movies, Ive concluded that inciting incidents share four key
characteristics. Once you know what those characteristics are, isolating the inciting incident in a
movie should be a piece of cake! So lets get started with characteristic #1: passivity.
#1: Its Passive
The inciting incident is something which happens to your hero. He certainly doesnt orchestrate it.
Not directly. Frequently, this passivity is the key to forging an emotional connection between the hero
and your audience. Only the cold-hearted would remain unaffected after seeing someone dumped
(CRAZY STUPID LOVE), attacked (RED), losing a loved one (CATCH AND RELEASE), or falsely
accused of murder (THE FUGITIVE).
Sometimes, your heros actions inadvertently lead to the inciting incident, but that was never his
intention. The award-winning drama THELMA AND LOUISE is an excellent example of this. At a
honky-tonk bar, bullied housewife Thelma lets loose, drinking and dancing with a handsome stranger
named Harlan. In her mind, its all innocent fun.
During the inciting incident, things take a darker turn. Believing shes easy prey, Harlan sexually
assaults Thelma. Everyone else at the bar might have seen it coming (maybe even thought she was
askin for it), but to nave, childlike Thelma, the assault was completely unexpected.
For a more comedic example, lets take a look at the beginning of KUNG FU PANDA. Po is a chubby
panda bear with a gargantuan obsession with kung fu. He does everything he possibly can to secure a
spectator seat at a kung fu tournament which will determine the next dragon warrior: shooing
customers out of his dads noodle restaurant, hustling under the noon-day heat up the hundreds of
stairs leading to the Jade Palace, devising catapults to vault him over the palaces walls, and finally,
tying himself to a chair loaded with booster rockets made from fireworks.
After the fireworks propel him over the walls and into the Jade Palace, at the movies inciting
incident, much to everyone elses dismay, hes the one who is chosen as dragon warrior. Although
Pos comedic actions directly led to the inciting incident, it certainly never was his intention to be
selected as the next dragon warrior. In fact, when he is chosen, Po is as incredulous as the other
competitors, their mentor, and his adoptive father.
Your hero may remain passive throughout your first act, not just during the inciting incident. A
memorable example of this can be found in BATMAN BEGINS. After Bruce Waynes parents are
murdered, he plans to avenge them by killing the criminal who killed them. But the choice is taken out
of his hands when someone else does the dirty deed instead. At the end of the first act, Wayne will
demonstrate more agency, point-blank refusing to kill a man whose greed turned him into a murderer.
For the rest of the movie, Waynes much more in controleven when defending Gotham City from
An overly passive hero is a common problem which plagues amateur scripts, so beginning
screenwriters take note. Once Act One ends, your hero needs to kiss passivity good-bye. To use a car
analogy, your hero should always be in the drivers seat during Acts Two and Three. If he isnt,
audiences will quickly tire of him. Who can blame them? Passive heroes buffeted about by the winds
of change are boring (the heroes of THE GRADUATE and NOTTING HILL being two notable
Andrew Paxton, the male lead in the hit romantic comedy THE PROPOSAL, plays a fairly passive
character. Hell do anything to please the heroine, his overly demanding boss, even going so far as to
pretend to be her fianc so she wont get deported. But he doesnt remain passive for long, using her
predicament to garner himself a promotion. In the audio commentary of the movie, director Anne
Fletcher comments that this turning of the tables was sexy.
Remember that. Personal agency is sexyand in Hollywood, sexy sells.
True, its usually the primary antagonist who establishes the overall dynamic of your screenplay. He
makes the first move. Everything the hero does thereafter is a consequence of the villains bold play.
Nevertheless, even though the hero is initially reacting to the villain, he does so by making active
choices. He gains agencyeventually forcing the villain to react to him. The sooner this happens, the
In several thrillers and action movies, Act Two will have a balance of offensive and defensive
maneuvers. For example, during the first half of MINORITY REPORTs second act, the protagonist is
on the run (defensive); during the second half he infiltrates the organization accusing him of murder
(offensive). In BATMAN BEGINS, Bruce Wayne volunteers himself as Gotham Citys protector, a
course of action which not only threatens the villains success but also causes him to accelerate his
offensive. In the villains own words, None of these people have long to live. Your [Waynes]
antics at the asylum have forced my hand.
TAKEN takes the concept of personal agency to a whole new level. After the villains make their bold
play and abduct Bryan Millss daughter (not the inciting incident BTW, more on that later), Mills
makes a vow to thwart them. I dont know who you are. I dont know what you want. If you are
looking for ransom, I can tell you I dont have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of
skillsskills I have acquired over a long careerskills that make me a nightmare for people like
you. If you let my daughter go now, thatll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue
you. But if you dont, I will look for you. I will find you, and I will kill you.
Proceeding to make good on that vow, Mills is constantly on the offensive, employing his special set
of skills to rescue his daughter. In fact, I cant recall a single instance of him being passive during
the entirety of Acts Two and Three. Thats one major reason for the movies unexpected success.
Despite the tragedy which afflicted him, Mills (played by actor Liam Neeson) exuded personal
agency and control, an extremely attractive trait. Course, Neesons height, blue eyes, and Irish accent
didnt hurt either.
#2: It Jolts the Hero out of His Everyday World
Unlike the first act break, which frequently brings the hero to a new location, the inciting incident
takes place within the heros natural habitat. I like to think of him in a three-piece pinstripe suit,
walking home after work, whistling a jolly tune, whenSHAZAM!something happens.
That something is the inciting incident. If it didnt occur, it would just be business as usual for the
hero. Because of the inciting incident, the heros entire existence is thrown into disarray. Hell spend
the rest of your screenplay trying to restore balance to his lifebalance which the inciting incident
threw out of whack. At the end of your heros journey, he will typically regain order over his life, but
business as usual wont continue exactly the way it did before. It cant, not after the changes your
hero underwent in pursuit of equilibrium.
As youll see in Part II: When Does the Inciting Incident Occur?, this business as usual section
usually doesnt take up a lot of screentime. Still, make it interesting. If the inciting incident didnt
happen, there should be something going on during the heros ordinary existence which would
warrant audience interest. As Alex Epstein comments in Crafty Screenwriting, maybe its not
something youd pay money to see at your local multiplex, but it still piques curiosity, if only slightly.
Naturally, the more curiosity you can generate, the better.
Going back to THE PROPOSAL, even if Andrews boss hadnt been threatened with deportation,
shed still have to deal with the fallout of firing one of her employees (a delicious cameo by Aasif
Mandvi), while poor Andrew would still have to deal with her. Observe that the introduction to the
everyday world of both hero and heroine reveals just as much about their individual characters as it
does about their setting.
In SAFE HOUSE (hmmm, another movie starring Ryan Reynolds), Matt Weston is a green CIA agent
whos tasked with maintaining a safe house in South Africa. Even though hes a CIA agent, Westons
safe house is underutilized, and his everyday existence is pretty vanilla. A new arrivalSHAZAM!
will change all that.
But before that arrival makes his appearance, theres still stuff going on in Westons life. Hes clearly
lying about his job to his French girlfriend. At any minute, his lies can blow up in his face. Hes also
a talented guy with barely anything to do. If the inciting incident hadnt have happened, who knows
what risky action Weston mightve taken to prove himself to his superiors and snag an exciting
assignment away from his boring old safe house?
As the beginnings of MINORITY REPORT and INCEPTION prove, if youre writing a science-
fiction movie, you probably wont have to go out of your way to make the everyday world of your
hero intriguing. Apprehending criminals before they commit a crime? Infiltrating someone elses
dreams? Who wouldnt be curious about those situations?
Its mostly movies set in contemporary times which require more effort on your part. If you dont have
anything interesting happening during your depiction of a day in the life of your hero, then you need
to rewrite your beginning. Taking the time to explore your heros backstory even more than you have
already should get you started in the right direction.
#3: Its Personal
The inciting incident entangles the hero into the main storyline, or A story, of your screenplay.
Therefore, a crime perpetuated by a villain isnt automatically an inciting incident. After all, solving
the crime is a case which potentially could be assigned to any detective or spynot necessarily to
your hero. Its the assignment of the case, not the case itself, which is the inciting incidentunless
the crime is perpetuated against the hero or against something or someone whom he values. When a
villain makes a direct attack like that, the hero becomes instantly involved through necessity.
For a few screenplay concepts, you have to stretch the definition of personal in order to figure out
the inciting incident. For example, during the inciting incident of AIR FORCE ONE, an accomplice of
the villain first attacks Secret Service agents aboard Air Force Onenot the president or his family.
However, both Secret Service agents and the iconic plane are synonymous with the United States
presidency. An attack on them is like attacking the president himself.
For another example, lets examine HOME ALONE. In this blockbuster comedy, eight-year-old
Kevin McCallister is accidentally left home during Christmas vacation when his entire family flies to
Paris without him. This wouldnt have happened if a freak storm hadnt short circuited the electricity
in the McCallisters neighborhood, resetting the parental alarm clock. This inciting incident directly
affects the power grid outside the McCallister residencenot an event most people would categorize
as personal. Its effect on the McCallister household? That, on the other hand, is a completely
different story.
To be clear, most of the time, this distinction wont matter. In the majority of scripts, the inciting
incident touches the hero directly or someone he loves. Its very clear-cut. This criterion usually
comes in handy when youre analyzing movies and are having trouble distinguishing background
information or conducive conditions (more on those in a bit) from the inciting incident.
#4: Its Causally Linked to the First Act Break
Going back to car analogies, think of the inciting incident as an ignition. Without it, the engine of the
particular story youre trying to tell can never get started. For that reason, the inciting incident
typically is an event which specifically triggers the action which occurs at the first act break, when
you hero pursues his goal in earnest. In other words, the inciting incident is the cause; the end of Act
One is the effect.
If youre a fan of car analogies, you can think of it like this: if your inciting incident is like the key to a
Jaguar, then it must ignite a story engine belonging to a Jaguar, not a Volvo station wagonor a
tricked-out Aston Martin, eerily silent Prius, or trusty Ford pick-up truck.
Because of the direct connection between these two plot points, its often helpful to work backwards
to figure out what the inciting incident of your screenplay should be. When youre trying to identify
the inciting incident in movies, ask yourself if the first act break could occur without the event you
think is the inciting incident. If it could, then theres probably a stronger candidate for the inciting
incident than the one youve chosen.
This cause and effect relationship can be very confusing for two reasons. One, the effect of the
inciting incident can become the cause of a later event, which in turn looks like it caused the first act
break. At this point its usually helpful to analyze all the causes which contribute to the first act break,
and see which one meets the other inciting incident criteria. If you have more than one candidate,
choose onemaybe even bothand move on. Dont torture yourself with over-analysis.
Secondly, the inciting incident itself can follow the conundrum of the chicken or the egg. If certain
conditions didnt occur, then the inciting incident never wouldve happened. Couldnt these
facilitative conditions then be the inciting incident?
With some movies, you could definitely make that argument, but if you start down this path, youll end
up tracing the inciting incident all the way back to the ancestors of the hero (or villain). In this case, it
often helps to focus on how you define the everyday world of the hero. Most of the time, that
definition will encompass a certain set of conducive conditions, but not the inciting incident.
All this is a little theoretical without examples, so lets take a look at the sci-fi thriller MINORITY
REPORT to see this point in action. John Anderton is the chief of a Precrime unit which enables
police to catch a criminal before a crime is actually committed. This special police force learns of
crimes in advance through three precogs, humans whose genetic mutations resulted in a miraculous
ability to see the future.
The system depends upon the infallibility of the precogs; if they are ever wrong, then theres a strong
likelihood that the Precrime police are punishing innocent men who would never be guilty of a crime.
At the inciting incident of MINORITY REPORT, one of the precogs, Agatha, touches Anderton. (This
is highly unusual. To avoid tampering with the system, theyre not supposed to have physical contact.)
As she latches onto him, she asks him if he can see as images of a past murder are projected from
her mind onto a screen above. Shaken by the encounter, Anderton re-examines the evidence from that
In the process, he discovers that the precog system has serious vulnerabilities. Its this discovery
which directly results in Anderton being set up for a crime he didnt commit. Anderton had become a
liability, and so he had to be eliminated in order to preserveand expandthe Precrime system.
Cause and effect, baby.
The most analytical (or perhaps argumentative) of you might be wondering why Andertons
interaction with Agatha is the inciting incident, since his discovery of precog fallibility is the reason
hes framed for murder. The answer has to do with other key characteristics of the inciting incident,
primarily passivity and disruption. Andertons encounter with Agatha is the first event which jolts
him out of his everyday world.
The Beautiful Lockdown
In some screenplays, the hero would like nothing more than to dismiss the ramifications of the inciting
incident. But at the first act break, he cant. Hes locked into a path he had formerly dismissed.
Mysteries use this structure a lot: patting himself on the back, the detective solves a case with little
difficulty, seemingly wrapping up all loose ends. By the end of the first act, he discovers that he was
wrong. The mystery initially brought to his attention is part of something far more complex and
sinister than he had originally imagined.
The structure of CHINATOWN follows this model. In its inciting incident, private detective Jake
Gittes is hired by a woman named Mrs Mulwray who wants Gittes to investigate her husband, whom
she suspects is having an affair. Gittes does, accruing photographic evidence of her husbands
infidelity, which somehow winds up in the paper. To Gittes, the case seems open and shutbut thats
not the end of it. Later, the REAL Mrs Mulwray arrives at Gittess office and threatens him with legal
action and negative publicity. Now, he has to figure out who set him up and why. Hes locked into
this particular investigation.
When the Past Is Prologue
Several movies like JJ Abramss 2009 reboot of STAR TREK begin with a dramatic, disruptive, and
highly personal event which happens to the hero, usually in his past. In Writing Screenplays that Sell ,
Michael Hauge refers to this as prologue. Its such an apt term, Im going to borrow it. Because
prologues share so many similarities with inciting incidents, it can be easy to confuse the two. One
way to distinguish them is by using the criterion of cause and effect. Can the first act break just have
easily occurred without the prologue? In other words, is the prologue a direct cause of the story
unfolding now? Or is it perhaps merely a conducive condition?
An example of this can be found in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERERS STONE. The movie
begins with the delivery of baby Harry onto the doorstep of his aunt and uncles home on Privet
Drive. They are the only family he has left. (Later we learn hes an orphan because his parents were
killed by an evil wizard). But while the murder of Harrys parentsand Harrys subsequent arrival
onto Privet Driveare critical parts of the plot, they dont directly cause the plot itself.
At the first act break, Harry leaves for the grand school of wizardry, Hogwarts. The struggles (and
adventures) he faces there are what the story is all about. They couldnt have happened if Harry
hadnt been invited to attend Hogwarts. The advent of the first invitation (borne by Owl Post no
less) is the true inciting incident of the movie. Dont get me wrong. The death of Harrys parents and
his adoption by his aunt and uncle definitely color the story, even playing a crucial role at the climax.
BUT these events dont directly contribute to his arrival at Hogwarts. Thats only made possible
through the owl-borne invitation.
Another way to analyze the inciting incident is also by examining Harrys present, everyday world.
Its not much of one, thats for sure. Unloved and unwanted, Harry lives in the room the size of a
cupboard, is bullied by his cousin, and is treated more like a servant than a cherished relative. The
invitation to Hogwarts, the finest school of witchcraft and wizardry, changes all of that too. For the
first time in a long time, Harrys wanted, welcomedby a place that will nurture his magical talent
instead of suppressing it.
BATMAN BEGINS takes prologue one step further, intercutting Bruce Waynes tragic backstory
throughout the first act of the blockbuster film. Like Harry Potter, Waynes parents were killed while
trying to protect him. Like Harry, this event defines Waynes characterarguably even more so.
Wayne even adopts the lifestyle of a thief in order to understand the criminal mindset.
While in prison, a mysterious stranger named Ducard visits Wayne, extending him an invitation to
train in the path of a manwho wishes to serve true justice. Upon his release, Wayne accepts,
training in the ways and means of the League of Shadows, eventually forsaking them and adopting a
winged alter ego to protect his city from destruction.
Sure, all of this is a response to his parents death, but Waynes response could have taken other
forms. Waynes transformation into Batmanthe entire plot of this moviearose directly from his
experience with the League of Shadows. And that experience wouldnt have happened without the
appearance of Ducard at Waynes prison doorstep. Since its unlikely Wayne wouldve been
receptive to Ducards offer if Waynes parents hadnt have died, a strong argument could be made
that this series of flashbacks comprise conducive conditions which facilitated the inciting incident.
Part II: When Does the Inciting Incident Occur?
Now that weve established what the inciting incident isa personal event which disrupts the heros
everyday world, paving the way for the first act breakwhen does it happen? Thats a very good
question, and the answer explains partly why identifying inciting incidents can be so tricky.
Most inciting incidents occur within the first ten pages of a script. However, some are never shown at
all, while others are delayed until the very end of Act One. Lets take a closer look:
Rule of Ten
As a general rule, you need to complete all of your setup or groundwork by page 25 of your
screenplay, which roughly corresponds to twenty-five minutes of screentime. Thats when your first
act should end. (Theres leeway here, especially if your script is long to begin with, but not much.)
However, if you dont captivate studio readers by page 10 of your script, they may never make it as
far as page 25.
The same holds true for ticket buyers. If the first ten minutes of your movie dont captivate their
interest, theyll have little desire to watch it through till the end. Even if they do stick around, their
initial impatience and boredom will color their experience, typically resulting in negative word of
This means that the first ten pages of your screenplay should:

portray a genre-pertinent event
which hooks audience interest and
inspires confidence in you as a writer (ie a reader will think to himself, Im in good hands.)
Because of their disruptive nature, inciting incidents usually meet all of these requirements. Thats
also why a majority of them take place within the first ten pages of a screenplay. When they occur so
early, its unlikely that the writer has spent too much time laying down groundwork and portraying the
heros everyday life. In other words, the inciting incident is a trusty safeguard against boring
audiences by presenting too much setup at your scripts outset.
Inciting incidents usually meet all of these requirements. Sometimes, they dont. For example, as
mentioned earlier, the inciting incident in a spy movie is often the assignment of the mission to the
hero. This isnt very interesting. Nor is it cinematic. Typically, its a bunch of instructions issued in
an office by a superior.
Audiences didnt spend $10 (or more) to see bureaucracy in action. They came to see real action:
chases, thrills, hand-to-hand combat.
Your first ten pages must deliver on that expectation. Thats why spy movies frequently begin with the
hero already on the case, in pursuit of the villain or engaged in another adrenaline-pumping activity.
The inciting incidentthe assignment of the caseis conveniently shunted off-screen.
An alternate approach which produces the same effect is to show the villain making his bold play,
and then follow that with the obligatory office scene. Either way works as long as the first ten pages
deliver on the promise of action and/or suspense.
INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK follows this model to a certain extent
only its the main character, Indiana Jones, who makes a bold play. In South America, 1936, Indy
attempts to acquire a golden idol. Overcoming several obstacles, he succeeds, only to have it stolen
from him by one of the villainous characters. To survive, he must evade a horde of natives wielding
poison-tipped arrows.
Later, we see Indy return to his staid everyday world, as an archeology professor whos the object of
female adoration. Two men from US Army Intelligence disrupt that world when they pay him a
special visit. They want him to track down the Lost Ark, the chest the Hebrews used to cart around
the Ten Commandments.
While we dont see them assign Indy the mission, their visitheavily laden with exposition
amounts to the same thing. (On the DVD, the sequence is even labeled Special Assignment.)
Audiences were more than willing to listen to this heavy dose of exposition (including details about
the lost Egyptian city of Tanis; the Well of Souls, the Arks current resting place; and the secret map
contained within the Staff of Ra which leads to the Well) because their thirst for action and thrills
had already been sated.
Imagine if the movie had begun with the visit from Army Intelligence and not with Indys quest for the
golden idol. Audiences would have resented having to sit through so much arcane historical
information, even though this knowledge is essential for them to understand what happens later on.
OCEANS 11 takes the off-screen hat trick to another levelvery much in keeping with its wink-
wink tone. In this clever caper, Danny Ocean wants to steal millions from three casinos owned by
ruthless mogul Terry Benedict. To assemble a crack-whip team, Ocean approaches various skilled
con menand his invitation to join in on the con is the inciting incident for each of them. But what
about Ocean? Whats the event which caused him to eye Benedict as a target in the first place? We
never see it occur on-screen, and in fact, dont even learn about it till halfway through the movie.
Then, we discover that Benedict is dating Oceans ex-wife. Thats the impetus for Ocean to create
Oceans 11; thats his inciting incident.
Like I said earlier, for the reasons outlined above, most movies portray the inciting incident within
the first ten minutes of a screenplay. Mostbut not all.
In some scripts, the inciting incident is significantly delayed. This usually happens if you have to
establish a lot of setup in order for your audience to understand your story. In order for the inciting
incident of MINORITY REPORT to make sense, audiences first have to understand how precogs and
the Precrime police unit operate. Indeed, thats what much of the first act is devoted to. Its the prime
reason the inciting incident doesnt occur until twenty-eight and a half minutes into the movie.
Employing the prologue technique discussed in Part I can also delay the inciting incident because you
have to show the prologue and the heros everyday world before you even get to the inciting incident.
To what extent the inciting incident gets delayed depends on how much you need to accomplish.
Sometimes you can still hit the inciting incident by page 10, at other times the inciting incident is
going to get pushed back. Way back.
To get a feel for this timing issue, take a look at the list below. It contains movies which begin using
the prologue technique, followed by the time (indicated via brackets) when the inciting incident takes
place. Notice theres a wide variance. Some movies still hit the inciting incident before page 10,
while othersdont.

STAR TREK (which actually has two prologues for Kirk) [23:47]
WHAT WOMEN WANT (the beginning is a combo of prologue, everyday world, and credits)
KUNG FU PANDA (Pos dream sequence is similar to a prologue) [15:17]
THE MUMMY (which has a prologue for both the hero and the villain) [17:03]
In rare cases, the inciting incident and the first act break can be one and the same. This is highly
unusual however because unlike the inciting incident, the first act break is usually not a passive event.
Furthermore, the inciting incident typically causes the first act break, and cause and effect are rarely,
if ever, the same. This circumstance is so rare that I couldnt come up with an example on my own.
Thanks to Alex Epsteins Crafty Screenwriting, I do have one: THE WIZARD OF OZ.
The tornado which sweeps Dorothy out of Kansas is both the inciting incident and the first act break
of the movie. This point of view makes sense, doesnt it? The tornado certainly meets all of our four
inciting incident requirements: its a disruptive event over which Dorothy has no control, which
affects her life dramatically, and without which, the story couldnt get started.
However others (notably story analyst Chris Vogler, animation artist Dan Bessie, and
screenwriter/author Alexandra Sokoloff) make different arguments. In her blog, Sokoloff writes that
the inciting incident of THE WIZARD OF OZ is when Miss Gulch arrives with a sheriffs summons
to destroy Dorothys beloved dog Toto. In a comment on my website, Bessie contends that the inciting
incident is when Toto escapes Miss Gulchs evil clutches. In The Writers Journey , Chris Vogler
seems to view the inciting incident as an amalgam of both.
The one point everyone seems to agree upon? The tornado marks the end of the first act. The more I
study inciting incidents, the more I think its virtually impossible to equate the inciting incident with
the first act break and to produce a coherent story which engages audiences throughout. But since its
such a theoretical point, its not worth worrying about.
The really important thing to understand is why inciting incidents trend towards the sooner rather than
the later. This point cant be stressed enough because so many amateur scripts delay the inciting
incident for far too longand for no good reason. Usually, if you delay your inciting incident past
page 15 or so (and youre planning to keep it on-screen), its because youve spent too much time
world-building and/or showing your heros everyday existence. But, you need to realize, most heroes
even those as glamorous as the president in AIR FORCE ONE (or as idiotic as THE
HANGOVERs wolf pack)arent interesting to follow for twenty straight minutes without a
disruptive event happening in their lives.
Remember, audiences are waiting for something to happen, preferably something which delivers on
the expectations generated by your movies genre. Even though MINORITY REPORT had to lay
down a lot of groundwork, it delivered on both sci-fi elements and thrills from the very beginning.
The red balls of wood inscribed with the name of a future murderer were visually and viscerally
intriguing, while John Andertons pursuit of that murderer was filled with suspense.
The same holds true for other movies with delayed inciting incidents like INCEPTION and
GLADIATOR. If the beginning of your screenplay captivates audiences by providing them with the
genre elements they came to see, the more you can delay your inciting incident without incurring a
negative reaction.
Still, you should think twice about delaying your inciting incident too much because then you wont
have as much time to play around with the sequence which comes after it. As well see in the next
section, theres a lot you might be missing out on!
Part III: What Happens after the Inciting Incident?
If your inciting incident has to occur by page 10 (assuming its on-screen), and if your first act must
end approximately by page 25, then how do you fill those remaining fifteen pages? For me, this
along with the end of Act Twohas been one of the trickiest screenplay sections to tackle.
When I first started studying screenwriting, I discovered, much to my frustration, that most how-to
guides dont address the issue at all. And even with the ones that did, I found myself wanting them to
elaborate more. In Anatomy of a Story, John Truby advises you to introduce a subplot. Blake
Snyders Save the Cat labels this section as the great debatewhich asks a question of some kind.
In Chris Voglers Writers Journey , this is where the hero, standing on the threshold of fear,
refuses the call of adventure.
Out of the three, Ive found Voglers suggestions the most helpful, and I strongly recommend that you
read the chapter Refusal of the Call of The Writers Journey in full. Sometimes though, its
difficult to visualize the refusal of the call when your hero isnt going on an exciting action-adventure
or thrill-filled quest.
At those times, you might find it easier to conceptualize the section of your script after the inciting
incident like the moment in a courtroom when an overzealous lawyer in an Ermenegildo Zegna suit,
punches his fist in the air and yells, Objection, your Honor! (I once harbored illusions of becoming
a lawyer, maybe thats why this works for me.)
Basically, someonecould be the hero, could be someone he loves, even someone he despises
objects to whatever action the inciting incident necessitates. Thats the most important response to
include after the inciting incident. But its not the only one. You have other options. You can use these
pages to:

fulfill genre expectations
set up gags, action set pieces, or critical information
articulate theme
Lets examine each one of these in turn, starting with the most important: the objection.
As a result of the inciting incident, the heros everyday world is thrown into disorder. Its a problem
for which someone will propose a solution, course of action, or plan of attack. This could be the
hero, it could be somebody else, it could be the very person responsible for the inciting incident. If
your hero is the type to put out a welcome mat just for the occasion when adventure comes a-
knocking, odds are, hell propose the plan while other characters will make the objections.
For example, the heros family or well-meaning friends could object out of concern for his physical
safety or potential harm to his reputation. A workplace rival could dismiss your heros abilities
because the rival wants your heros alpha-dog position. In action movies, the objection could
manifest as a small-scale combat scene between the villains emissaries and the hero.
In the modern dance sensation STEP UP, after wreaking havoc at the Maryland School of the Arts,
hoodlum Tyler Gage is assigned to perform community service at the school as part of his
punishment. Thats his inciting incident. His first response is to begrudgingly complete the janitorial
duties hes tasked with. But when he realizes that a female student needs a dance partner, he tries a
new plan, and eagerly volunteers for the position.
She, on the other hand, vehemently refuses, going so far as to audition several under-qualified
candidates. Who can blame her? Those sculpted biceps destroyed her performing arts center! Of
course, their pairing is inevitableotherwise there would be no storybut her objection makes the
contrivance more credible.
If somebody besides the hero proposes a plan to follow (either directly or tacitly), then its likely that
the hero will be the one objecting. The hero could object on the grounds that the conventional
approach advocated by his friend or superior wont work. Frequently, hell object to his selection as
the hero in the first place!
For example, in GLADIATOR, the emperor Marcus Aurelius asks General Maximus to become the
protector of Rome after I die. Thats the movies inciting incident. Aurelius goes on to elaborate on
his proposed course of action: I will empower you to one end alone. To give power back to the
people of Rome and end the corruption that has crippled itwill you accept this great honor I have
offered you? Maximus replies, With all my heart, no. Ironically, Maximuss reluctance to be thus
honored is the very reason hes the best candidate to protect Rome. (In contrast, the objections to
the selection of Maximus as steward of Rome expressed by Marcus Aureliuss power-hungry son
result in patricide, the murder of Maximuss wife and son, and the transformation of Maximus from
general to slave.)
The heros objections can be a way for him to express oh-so-crucial personal agency, but its in a
muted form, nowhere in comparison to the agency hell demonstrate during Acts Two and Three. The
R-rated comedy HORRIBLE BOSSES is a great example of this. While there are inciting incidents
and ensuing objections for all three heroes, Nick, Kurt, and Dale, Im going to focus on Kurts.
He works for a chemical engineering company and loves both his job and his boss. Everything
changes, however, when his boss dies and the company is taken over by Bobby, the bosss coke
addict son. Bobby orders Kurt to fire overweight employees like Large Marge because theyre
lazy, and slow, and they make me sad to look at.
Kurt refuses: Margies not fat, shes pregnant. Im not gonna fire her. This doesnt deter Bobby who
selects another candidate for dismissala wheelchair-bound employee. Again, Kurt refuses, boldly
declaring, I wont fire anyone. But Kurts attempts to assert agency are squelched when Bobby
threatens to fire all three of them if Kurt doesnt cooperate. This turn of events drives Kurt to take
extraordinary measures and attempt to have his boss killed, a decision which fuels the plot of the
second act while making Kurt feel like hes in the drivers seat.
Taking a cue from your hero or another character, audiences might object to the heros selection right
along with them! In A FEW GOOD MEN, Jo Galloway doubts that Daniel Kaffee is capable of
arguing on behalf of his defendants. Since weve witnessed his Persian food bazaar style of
lawyering firsthand, we object right along with her. Fortunately, Kaffee proves both Gallowayand
Analyzing whos making the objections after the inciting incident (and why) can help you improve
other aspects of your scriptespecially in your revision stages. For this to work, you first have to ask
yourself what the objection tells you about the characters in your screenplay. Then seek ways to use
this information to make your script more realistic, vivid, and engaging.
If your hero objects to the call of adventure because hes filled with self-doubt, youll definitely
want to a) reflect on the past events which made him question his abilities and b) figure out how
youre going to present that backstory.
This should also guide your decisions when youre plotting Act Three. Your climax should be
designed to show that your hero has overcome his particular set of demons. If other characters
besides the hero object to his involvement, your climax can show that their concerns were unjustified.
As long as youre not too heavy-handed with them, these kinds of callbacks are usually very satisfying
to audiences.
Of course, your hero can exhibit reluctance for reasons other than self-doubt. In THE PROPOSAL,
Andrew is not keen on faking an engagement to his boss, Margaret, because shes an uptight control
freak. Andrew couldve just as easily exhibited reluctance because he was secretly engaged to
someone else. But that wouldve been an entirely different story (and a less interesting one methinks).
Lets pretend you had written THE PROPOSAL. If you identified the exact reason Andrew is loath to
pretend to be Margarets fianc, that knowledge could help you make critical decisions when it came
time to edit. For example, it could inspire you to accentuate Margarets meanness, and make her even
bitchier than you originally intended. It could also inspire you to give Andrew opportunities to get
back at her for all the abuse shes subjected him to (without alienating the audience of course).
Analyzing the nature of the objection and the objectors rationale can also give you insight on how to
end Act Two. In an action movie or thriller, that person could be capturedeven killedby the
villain. To create another kind of emotional devastation for your hero, the person making the
objection could reveal himself to be a foe in disguise. His objection was artificial, designed to make
him appear like an ally to both the hero and the audience.
THE BODYGUARD gives us a fantastic example to study. Superstar Rachel Marron is the victim of
hate letters and death threats, but shes reluctant to hire a bodyguard to protect her. That would cramp
her popstar lifestyle. Objecting to Rachels objections, her sister, Nicki, urges her to reconsider, Its
time you took more precautions. It seems that Nicki is the picture of sisterly devotion. But, it turns
out Nicki resents living in her sisters shadow. Shes the one who hired a contract killer to eliminate
Rachel for good.
For another example, lets pretend that you had come up with a script concept similar to the R-rated
comedy WEDDING CRASHERS: two best friends crash weddings in order to pick up women.
Complications arise when one of the dudes (John) falls in love with a high-profile wedding guest.
Getting struck by Cupids arrow is one inciting incident for the movie (and the primary one if you
view WEDDING CRASHERS as a raunchy romantic comedy). But theres another candidate for
inciting incident which takes place earlier on. Thats when Johns best friend, Jeremy, invites John to
crash the wedding for the daughter of the Secretary of the Treasury.
John strenuously objects. I dont know, I thought the season was over. I was looking forward to
kinda taking a break for a little bitIm tired, okay? My feet hurt. My voice is hoarse. Jeremy
counters, finally concluding, Now, if you sit there and expect me to go out on a limb and try to pull
off the greatest crash of all time, I gotta know that your heads right. There is no room for error.
Secret Service. Consequences.
In the movie, evading the Secret Service wasnt a major scene, and Johns objections were used to
embed setup regarding the infamous Chaz Reinhold, who passed on the rules of wedding crashing to
John and Jeremy, and will make a hilarious cameo appearance towards the films end.
Lets pretend for a moment that evading the Secret Service is a major scene in your version of
CRASHERS. Johns objections and Jeremys responses to them would then give you an opportunity
to embed information necessary to understand how they sneak past the sentries. Lets say thats how
your first draft played out. But during your revision stage, you felt that something was off. At the end
of Act Two, you had managed to split apart John and his love interest, but that didnt feel weighty
Then you took a second look at Johns objections, and it helped you discover a story thread you
hadnt explored before: two best friends drifting apart. Johns not just physically tired. Hes tired of
the whole meaningless crasher lifestyle which Jeremy shows no signs of leaving behind. After that
moment of eureka, you decide that Johns quest for love would also jeopardize his friendship with
Voila! You now have several ideas to flesh out your script which not only increase your conflict
quota but do so in a way which feels organic to your story. (I dont know if thats how screenwriters
Steve Faber & Bob Fisher came up with their plot, but they certainly couldve gotten there that way!)
One final note: dont take the concept of objecting too literally. You just need to show some form of
resistance. It doesnt necessarily have to be verbal. The hit comedy MRS DOUBTFIRE is a great
example. To spend more time with his children, Daniel Hillard decides to impersonate a female
nanny. No one verbally objects to this plan. His brother, a talented make-up artist, is in fact keen to
Still, transforming a mana large, hairy one at thatinto a woman is no easy task. The make-up,
wigs, and prosthetics refuse to cooperateat least at first. Its a hilarious sequence, and illustrates
another crucial point. While every script includes some form of objection after the inciting incident, if
you can convey that objection while accomplishing another story goal, your first act will be that much
stronger. Well explore this more in detail in the following sections.
Fulfillment of Genre Expectations
From the Rule of Ten, you already know that you have to fulfill the promise implied by your genre
right away. For that reason, some films (typically thrillers and action movies) front-load their first act
with a heart-pounding sequence or prologue. Other films dont indulge in such a full-scale sequence,
but only give the audience a whiff of whats to come. Usually (but not always) the inciting incident of
those movies occurs right on scheduleby page 10. These films then devote a good portion of the
remaining time in Act One to delivering the genre goods.
A cute example of this comes from 13 GOING ON 30. In this comedy, heroine Jenna Rink magically
transforms from a thirteen-year-old into an adult. Although thats exactly what she wished for on her
thirteenth birthday, she doesnt take kindly to her metamorphosis. Her befuddled reaction results a
series of great physical comedy gags as she inspects her new Miss America body, evades the
amorous attentions of the shirtless man in her apartment, and treats the jolly ring tone of her cell
phone as if it were an emission from an alien spaceship.
On a more dramatic note, extensive swordplay scenes follow the inciting incidents of both
inciting incident of KNIGHT AND DAY precedes an extensive high-octane combat sequenceone of
the few which can claim membership in the Mile High Action Club. As always, you should strive for
balance. If you end your first act with an intense action sequence, give the audience some breathing
room before your next adrenaline-filled scenes.
Act One is prime real estate to lay down groundwork which will become important later. Given the
choice, lean towards presenting critical setup after your inciting incident rather than before. If you
begin with too much setup before your inciting incident, you run the risk of boring your audience with
this background information.
Plus, if you wait till after your inciting incident, you can combine setup with the obligatory objection
discussed earlier. That way, the setup will emerge as a byproduct of conflict, which is a hundred
times more interesting than if you had spoon-fed the audience the same information before. Of course,
this isnt a set-in-stone rule. Some storieslike MINORITY REPORTwill require extensive setup
to occur prior to the inciting incident in order for audiences to fully grasp the heros future
As for the setup itself, it comes in various forms and leads to all sorts of payoffs. You can setup a
comedy gag, an action set piece, exposition, a future plot point, or critical information which can
enhance the credibility of later events. Just remember, the end of your first act should wrap up by
page 25 of your screenplay. Make sure that you dont incorporate so much setup that your first act
becomes as bloated as Jabba the Hutt.
The first act of MISS CONGENIALITY is a great example to study to see how this all works
together. In the inciting incident of this movie, FBI agent Gracie Hart is offered the chance to go
undercover as a beauty pageant contestant. But she doesnt relish the opportunity, dismissing the
contestants as women who cater to a misogynistic Neanderthal mentality.
After protesting, she agrees (reluctantly) to have lunch with pageant consultant Victor Melling.
Eventually, Victor transforms Gracie into a knockout. Is that credible? Definitely. Natural beauty
lurks behind Gracies frizzy hair and aggressive attitude. Plus, Victor has FBI funds at his disposal
(lucky him).
The real issue of credibility has to do with the talent portion of the beauty pageant. Gracies fellow
contestants have been practicing triple back-flips, concertinas, and arias since they were toddlers. If
she suddenly exhibited significant artistic talent during Act Two, it would seem highly coincidental.
Borderline unbelievable.
The screenwriters took care of this credibility hurdle by having Gracie work with what shes already
got and by showing that skill in Act One. When Gracie had lunch with Victor, to annoy him, she
constantly ran her finger over the edge of her water glass, producing a highly irritating sound. This
minor beat of action is funny (fulfilling genre requirements), expresses Gracies resistance to Victor
(one of many objections), and most importantly, establishes Gracies talent for producing music
with water glasses (the crucial setup). Voila! Credibility hurdle overcome.
Lets do another round of make-believe and say that you had come up with the idea of MISS
CONGENIALITY. But Gracies skill involved juggling fruit instead of musical water glasses. If you
dont set up her juggling talent beforehand, it will come across as coincidental when it finally makes
its appearance. Knowing this, youd look for a way to plant her talent earlier on, hopefully in a
scene you had already written. Maybe not at her lunch with Victor, but perhaps during one of the
office scenes at the FBI. When youre in the middle of writing, opportunities to embed setup might not
be that obvious to you, but you definitely should look for them when youre revising your screenplay.
Post-inciting incident setup doesnt have to be elaborate. During the inciting incident of INCEPTION,
Saito, a Japanese businessman, asks dream architect Dom Cobb to plant an idea within the head of
one of Saitos competitors, ie inception. At first Cobb resists, but eventually agrees to the mission.
Then his colleague objects, I know how much you want to go home, but this cant be done. Cobbs
response is brief, Yes it can, Ive done it before, and we transition into Act Two.
This exchange is no mere throwaway, no token piece of resistance. The entire screenplayActs One,
Two, and Threeis constructed around it. Cobb only agrees to Saitos dangerous proposition
because success will reunite Cobb with his children. But Cobb wouldnt have been blamed for his
wifes murder and subsequently lost his children if he hadnt engaged in inception before.
Assembly of Team or Toolkit
In several stories, the hero wont be able to achieve his goal all by his lonesome. Hell need help
from a mentor (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA), a teammate (OCEANS 11), or a special tool
(HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERERS STONE). In this specialized form of setup, your hero
may gather these people and items after the inciting incident.
You dont have to show the hero accruing his team or toolkit during the first act. You can save them
for Act Two. The decision depends on the needs of your storyand especially how much time you
have until you have to hit your first act break.
Because the inciting incident of INCEPTION was delayed for so long, making its appearance twenty
minutes into the movie, Cobb didnt have enough time to assemble a qualified inception team before
Act One ended. That activity is saved for the first half of Act Two. (At least in my structural
LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING has one of the most creative approaches to
the formation of the heros team. Peaceful hobbit Frodo must leave his home, the Shire, in order to
destroy a dangerous ring. He plans to leave with just his best friend Sam, but two other lively hobbits
insist on joining them, transforming the duo into a quartet.
As Act Two progresses the group picks up a human protector, Aragorn. By the time the movie reaches
the midpoint, their ranks swell to include another human, a dwarf, an elf, and a wizard (who was
supposed to join them earlier but had been waylaid by the enemy).
Articulation of Theme
Theme is important, but its usually not a story component which hooks audience interest right away.
For that reason, I suggest you delay introducing your theme until after you know youve got the
audience engagedeither through an extensive genre-pertinent sequence and/or the inciting incident.
Both of these prime audiences to anticipate whats to come, so theyre more amenable to allowing
you to indulge in your thematic musings.
One of the themes running throughout GLADIATOR concerns Romes future and the best way to
govern her. A significant portion of the movies beginning is dedicated towards pontificating upon
that theme. At a celebration of a battlefield victory, the hero, Maximus, is introduced to two Roman
senators. Beware of Gaius, Maximus is told. Hell pour a honeyed potion in your ear. Youll
wake up one day, and all youll say is republic, republic, republic. Later, the emperor, Marcus
Aurelius, summons Maximus to his chambers, asking him, How will the world speak my name in
years to come? Will I be the emperor who gave Rome back to her true self? Aurelius goes on:
There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper,
and it would vanishit was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter.
Maximuss interactions with the Roman senators and his discussion with Marcus Aurelius amount to
old men arguing about the crumbling government of Rome and the benefits of instituting a republic.
But audiences didnt come to see GLADIATOR because they wanted to listen to political mumbo-
jumbo or to witness the birth of a new republicas meaningful and worthy as that goal might be.
They came to see old-school warfare, whether on the battlefield or within the Coliseum. The twelve-
minute battle against a Germania tribe with which the film begins delivered on that desireand then
somepaving the way for audiences to listen to speeches about Romes future with patience.
Sometimes, its impossible to delay presentation of your theme because it pervades your screenplay
concept. For example, in MINORITY REPORT, the idea that technology may usurp free will is part
of the heros everyday world. This theme is inherent not only within the first scene, but within the
way the Precrime police department operates, the way marketing intrudes into peoples very minds,
and the way criminals are punished by having their conscious minds obliterated. Because that world
is so fascinating and because the theme was handled with a deft touch, no one in the audience voiced
Putting It All Together
The pages following the inciting incident are a prime opportunity to be creative and show off your
writing skills. Dont squander it! That doesnt mean you should contort your story to incorporate all
the approaches discussed in this section. But, as you continue analyzing movies, youll notice that the
best screenwriters get a lot of mileage out of their objection scenes, using them to accomplish several
story goals at once.
Speaking of objections, so far, I havent found one movie that hasnt included one, in one form or
another, after the inciting incident. This makes sense. After all, most peoplewhether they be heroes,
villains, or sidekicksare resistant to change. Even though the tendency to resist change is fairly
standard, the way it manifests is not. Make sure that the characters in your story dont express token
resistance. Their objections should evolve from their true being, their fundamental viewpoint about
the way the world operates. The case studies in Part V should give you some ideas on how to
accomplish exactly that.
Part IV: Inciting Incident and Genre
As long as theres a causal link between the inciting incident and your plot, you can choose any event
to get your story going. This holds especially true for comedies and dramas.
However, certain types of inciting incidents will pop up again and again within movies of the same
genre. Once you understand these genre-dependent patterns, youll be better equipped to decide if you
want to follow the trendor if you want to deviate from it.
Mysteries, Thrillers, and Action Movies
In these genres, the inciting incident typically involves the assignment of the case or mission. In the
most straightforward assignment of the case scenes, someone (the heros superior, a client, an outside
agency, etc) relates the details of the task to the hero.
As previously mentioned, in the spy thriller SAFE HOUSE, Matt Weston plays a green CIA agent
whos responsible for overseeing an apparently underutilized safe house. That all changes when his
superior officer commands Weston to prepare his safe house for the arrival of Tobin Frost, a rogue
agent whos an expert manipulator of human assets.
However, not all inciting incidents in mysteries, thrillers, and action movies are so straightforward.
Below are three alternative approaches:
Assignment of the Case Alternative Approach #1
As discussed in Part II: When Does the Inciting Incident Occur?, the assignment of the case scene
can be pushed off-screen, simply because watching the hero receive instructions is not very
appealing. Its like the difference between driving a sporty new convertibleand reading the
vehicles user manual.
To illustrate the point, it seems fitting to use THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, the first film in the
street-racing series, as an example. The movie begins with an exciting theft sequence, followed by the
introduction of Brian OConner, who takes drastic measures to ingratiate himself with a gang of street
racers. Then the action movie cuts to a scene which reveals OConner is an undercover police
What if the movie had kept the assignment of the case on-screen? Imagine if, after the theft sequence,
the audience had been shown OConners superior officer assigning him to the undercover operation
and followed that with showing OConner trying to worm his way into the good graces of the drag
Boring! (At least to the target audience of adrenaline junkies.)
The movie waits thirty-five minutes before revealing that OConner is an undercover police officer.
Personally, I dont think the film waited this long to surprise audiences with OConners secret
identity, which would have easily been revealed in a review or movie trailer. The movie delayed
depicting an office-style scene for that long in order to maintain the kind of frenetic pacing which
could hold the attention of even the most hardened of adrenaline junkies.
Assignment of the Case Alternative Approach #2
Sometimes, no one assigns the hero his mission; he takes it upon himself (a move which pushes the
story forward and reveals loads about the heros character). These movies usually involve a highly
personal inciting incident in which the villain makes an attack against someone the hero cares about.
In this situation, the assignment of the case isnt technically the inciting incidentits the heros
reaction to it.
One of the best examples of this is from the 80s classic BEVERLY HILLS COP. In the inciting
incident of this movie, Axel Foleys childhood friend is murdered. Over the strenuous objections of
his boss, Foley tasks himself with solving the crime. Fun fact: the actor who played Foleys boss was
a Detroit police detective in real life!
Assignment of the Case Alternative Approach #3
While the assignment of the case is the inciting incident in most mysteries, thrillers, and action
movies, theyre certainly not obligatory. It all depends on the story youre trying to tell. Take
TAKEN. Even though its an action-packed thriller, its inciting incident is quite subtle. Barely
memorable in fact.
Retired CIA agent Bryan Mills has moved closer to his daughter in order to repair their strained
relationship. His plans, however, are disrupted when she asks him if she can travel to Paris during
her summer break. (She needs his consent because shes a minor.) Its this simple plea which sets the
entire story in motion.
Assigning the case is a pretty conventional way to begin your mystery, thriller, or action movie. But if
you go that route, it doesnt automatically mean your first act will be boring or stale. Examine your
heros character, his backstory, and the particular set of rules which govern the world in which he
operates. If they are unique, then even the humble assignment of the case scene will shine with
Romantic Comedies
As a general rule, the inciting incident of romantic comedies revolves around the cute meet between
the hero and the heroine. (This is also known as the meet-cute, but that phrase annoys me for some
reason, so I dont use it.) It seems fitting to define the cute meet by quoting THE HOLIDAY, a
romantic comedy written and directed by reigning rom-com queen Nancy Meyers.
In the movie, an elderly screenwriter defines it thus: Say a man and a woman both need something to
sleep in. And they both go to the same mens pajama department. And the man says to the salesman, I
just need bottoms. The woman says, I just need a top. They look at each other and thats the meet-
cute. You can see the meet-cute (or cute meet) in action in such romantic comedies as HITCH,
PRETTY WOMAN, 27 DRESSES, and MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (currently the highest
grossing rom-com ever).
Similar to the assignment of the case style of inciting incident which characterizes mysteries,
thrillers, and action movies, romantic comedy cute meets can be modified into something less than
conventional. As Billy Mernit points out in his indispensable guide, Writing the Romantic Comedy,
NOTTING HILL tweaks the paradigm by using two cute meets. Demure bookshop owner Will
Thacker meets world famous actress Anna Scott not oncebut twice. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
takes it one step further. In the inciting incident of this rom-com, Annie doesnt meet her romantic
interest, Sam, at all. Not really. She only hears his voice over the radio. He, meanwhile, doesnt even
learn of her existence until half-way through the movie!
Currently, it seems trendy to stay clear of the cute meetat least as your primary rom-com inciting
incident. Ironically, while a cute meet is defined in THE HOLIDAY, its inciting incidents (there are
two of them, one for heroine Amanda and one for heroine Iris) dont involve a cute meet at all.
Amandas boyfriend cheats on her (off-screen); their ensuing confrontation results in a break-up.
Meanwhile, Iris learns that her former boyfriend, a colleague shes still desperately in love with, is
now engaged to another co-worker. As a result of these life-altering incidents, the two ladies decide
to swap homes during Christmas. That decision eventually leads to the cute meet scenes so
quintessential to the romantic comedy.
What if your romantic comedy stars two people who already know each other? How can they have a
cute meet? One solution is to make one character see the other in a new light. If you classify AS
GOOD AS IT GETS as a romantic comedy, it makes for a great example. (I categorize it as a
dramatic comedy, in case you were wondering, but thats neither here nor there.) Carole, an
overworked waitress, has dealt with her diners cranky patron, Melvin Udall, for ages. The
curmudgeon only starts to see her as more than a mechanism for delivering food after she boldly
eviscerates him for making tactless remarks about her sick son.
If the hero and heroine already know each other, another option is to follow the trend of abandoning
the cute meet altogether and use an outside event as the inciting incident. That strategy worked for
THE PROPOSAL. Margaret Tate, editor-in-chief at a high-powered publishing house, has known her
executive assistant secretary Andrew for three years. But then shes threatened with deportation
and temporary suspension from her joban inciting incident which throws the world of this
workaholic into major disarray. To restore her world to rights, Margaret proposes a highly
unorthodox solution: a fake engagement to Andrew. In this structural twist, Andrews inciting incident
evolves from Margarets reaction to hers. Whether youre writing a romantic comedy or not, this is
an excellent technique to employ whenever your script is driven by two main protagonists.
Comedies and Dramas
In the sci-fi trilogy The Hunger Games, the organizers of the appalling spectacle carefully
choreograph obstacles like forest fires and genetically modified animals to threaten the contestants.
Basically, anything they can think of that will get the contestants to behave the way the organizers
want, and in the process, give the audiences in the Capitol a good show.
Inciting incidents for comedies and dramas work in a similar way. You can pluck any disruptive
event from the arena of life and hurl it at your hero. As already mentioned at the beginning of this
section, the trick is to make sure that your inciting incident relates to your first act break. As long as it
does that, the skys pretty much the limit.
Your hero can get hired (9 TO 5), experience a change in regime (HORRIBLE BOSSES), or get
passed up for a promotion (WHAT WOMEN WANT). They can get dumped by a boyfriend
(LEGALLY BLONDE) or a girlfriend (THE BREAK-UP), divorced by a spouse (MRS
DOUBTFIRE)or forced into marriage (COMING TO AMERICA). Magic can be unleashed
transforming their bodies (13 GOING ON 30), transporting them to new realms (ENCHANTED), or
granting them unwanted powers (LIAR LIAR).
Dramas frequently lean towards darker life-altering events, at least more so than comedies. For
example, in CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010), the heros entire mortal family is killed during the
inciting incident. Marcus Aurelius offers General Maximus stewardship over the vast Roman Empire
in GLADIATOR. Attempted rape is the inciting incident in both BRAVEHEART and THELMA AND
Comedies and dramas can also steal inciting incidents from other genres. The plots of the
blockbuster comedy MISS CONGENIALITY and the Oscar-nominated drama A FEW GOOD MEN
are both set into motion during classic assignment of the case scenes. (Note: the inciting incident of
the latter will be explored further in Part V: In-Depth Case Studies.)
Choosing the Inciting Incident
If youve come up with a range of possibilities and are having difficulty choosing the best inciting for
your screenplay, think about what other story objectives your inciting incident can accomplish. You
know that it MUST be causally linked to your first act break, kicking your story into motion.
But what else can it do?
Lets pretend youre writing a screenplay about a mother who has to go back to college for one
semester to finish earning her bachelors degree. The complication? Her daughters going to be a
freshman at the same school. Off the top of my head, I have three different inciting incidents which
would force the heroine to go back to college. In one, her own mother dies, leaving our protagonist
with a hefty fortuneas long as she earns her degree within the next year. In option #2, our heroine is
fired from her job after a rival for a big promotion revealed that she didnt technically graduate. In the
third, the heroines husband, the households only breadwinner, abandons her for a younger woman.
Hes paying child supportbut those checks will stop once their daughter turns eighteen.
Depending on tone, this script could be a drama or comedy. It could go either way. (It could even be a
hybrid, a dramedy!) For arguments sake, lets say its a straightforward comedy. If thats the case,
then we should choose the most plot-relevant inciting incident which would best lend itself to
comedic gags. In my mind, both inciting incident options #2 and #3 would naturally segue into a job
application comedy sequence. That would be a logical form of objection for our heroine to take
before she finally resigns herself to going back to school. Option #1 could work too, but it would
probably require more setup.
Another factor to consider is theme. What kind of story are you trying to tell? If you want to examine
the relationship between mothers and daughtersand the pressure of living up to expectations, both
real and imaginedthen inciting incident #1 would be your best bet, even if it might require more
If you want to analyze the nature of male-female relationships, and how even the most independent-
minded of women can become dependent on men, then option #3 is best. To drive the point home, you
might even tweak the heroines backstory so that she dropped out of college to support her then-
boyfriend (and future ex-husband) through law school. Finally, if you want to tell a story about the
merits of streets smarts over book knowledge, then option #2 would be the way to go.
A lot of times you may have a great script idea, but you dont really know what kind of theme you
want to explore. Listen to your gut. Is it advocating for a certain inciting incident? If so, take a closer
look at that disruptive event. Ask yourself what kind of themes would naturally lead from that
particular inciting incident. You wont necessarily discover your theme this way, but at the very least,
the examination should yield some insight into how to strengthen your script.
Part V: In-Depth Case Studies
Ive used examples throughout this guide to illustrate the fundamentals of inciting incidents. However,
oftentimes, to cement your understanding, it helps to apply all of these concepts to one movie. Thats
what Ive tried to do with the ten case studies presented in this section.
Each of the blockbuster movies has been carefully selected because of how well it exemplifies the
principles Ive discussed so far. Ive also chosen movies from a range of genres. If you know what
kind of story youre writing, you might want to skip ahead to the case study from the same genre as
Heres the complete list of movies and their corresponding genres:
MONSTERS, INC. (comedy, family)
THE HUNGER GAMES (sci-fi, action)
AIR FORCE ONE (action, thriller)
A FEW GOOD MEN (drama)
SHERLOCK HOLMES (mystery, action, comedy)
THE MUMMY (action-adventure, romance)
BRAVEHEART (drama, action)
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (fantasy, action-adventure)
ITS COMPLICATED (romantic comedy)
Reading these case studies should give you an idea of exactly how much a well-chosen inciting
incident can accomplish. Hopefully, they will inspire you when youre plotting your own
Logline: In order to win back her ex-boyfriend, sorority girl Elle Woods attends Harvard Law
School, boldly going where no blonde has gone before.
Inciting Incident: Elles boyfriend, Warner, breaks up with her, claiming that he needs to marry a
Jackie, not a Marilyn. [7:30]
Analysis: Clocking in early, this is a classic example of an inciting incident. It throws Elles perfectly
manicured world into chaosand what a world it is! Business as usual for Elle consists of being
hero-worshipped by everyone at her picture perfect sorority house. But lifes not all rosy (or should I
say pink?) for the cheerful blonde.
Because of her looks and sunshine demeanor, shes constantly underestimated. This is revealed at the
beginning of the movie when a boutique clerk tries to sell Elle old merchandise at full-price. Theres
a sense that even if Warner hadnt dumped Elle, she would be driven to prove herself somehow
thats one reason why Elles everyday world piques interest. (It also helps that the movie didnt go
overboard portraying this contemporary world.)
When Warner dumps Elle, shes completely blindsided by it. Audiences, in turn, are instinctively
sympathetic towards her. The connection between audience and heroine is further strengthened
because Warner dumps Elle so condescendingly. Although its a traumatic event, due to Elles
exaggerated response, this inciting incident not only forges a bond between Elle and the audience, it
also elicits laughsfulfilling the genre requirements of a PG-13 comedy.
At first, Elle becomes a passive mess, eating eight grilled cheese sandwiches and forgetting to
condition her hair. But once shes inspired to follow Warner to Harvard Law School, she regains
her personal agency. Thats one of the most alluring things about Elle. Throughout the film, shes
always making plans and taking action: she seeks out her college guidance counselor to learn about
gaining admission to Harvard, she tries to ingratiate herself with Warners study group at law school
by providing freshly baked sustenance, she rescues her manicurists pooch from an abusive owner,
she pursues an internship with one of her law professors, and after securing that internship, she
extracts an alibi from the reluctant defendant.
The post-inciting incident sequence is quite extensive, achieving multiple story goals at once.
Everyonefrom her guidance counselor (Harvard wont be impressed that you aced History of
Polka Dots); parents (Law school is for people who are boring and ugly and serious. And you,
button, are none of those things.); and the Harvard Law admissions committee (A fashion major?
She was in a Ricky Martin video!)expresses doubt about Elles intellectual mettle. While their
wisecracks make audiences laugh, this sequence also delves into the movies theme of believing in
yourselfeven when no one else does.
It also overcomes a significant credibility hurdle. How does a California sorority girl get into
Harvard Law at the last minute? Well, shes a straight-A fashion major. Weve never had one of
those before, one admissions officer reasons. For the sake of diversity (which has the imprimatur of
logic, if not its full force), the noticeably all-male committee offers her a spot at the elite school.
Every scene which follows makes sense, adhering to the way real-world rules would operate within
the context of this particular, semi-outlandish story universe.
If you had come up with the concept for LEGALLY BLONDE (the movie), examining the inciting
incidentparticularly Warners desire for a Jackiecould have helped you plot and revise both
Acts Two and Three. Knowing that Elle will have to overcome obstacles at law school, why not
provide her with an adversary in the form of a Jackie? Thats what the movie did, giving Warner a
new girlfriend (technically, fiance), a snarky brunette who wouldnt be caught dead without her
heirloom pearlsa Jackie O trademark.
By the same token, Elle should also have a supporter at law school, who, unlike Warner, values Elle
as she is, Marilyn-sized bust and all. Enter Emmett. The soft-spoken lawyer consistently plays Elles
champion, telling her, Being a blonde is actually a pretty powerful thingand I personally would
like to see you take that power and channel it towards the greater good, you know?
And thats exactly what Elle does at the movies climax. Clad in her signature pink, she saves a
sorority sister from death row through her familiarity with post-perm hair care. Notice that Elle
doesnt win her court case through a legal trick. She won because she picked up on a detail that a girl
who aced the History of Polka Dots and campaigned for brand-name toilet paper for her sorority
house would pay attention to. Its a detail that a less blonde heroine (like Warners Jackie O
girlfriend) would summarily dismiss.
The ending is not only humorous and thematically relevant, its also satisfyingprecisely because
Elle proved that the objections lobbied against her after the inciting incident were unwarranted. Her
detractors must concede that underneath Elles Marilyn-like exterior, she does have the smarts of a
First Lady! Of course, Emmett knew that all along
Logline: When a human child, Boo, enters their world, two monsters must return her home, even
though theyre terrified of her.
Inciting Incident: When the human child enters the world of Monstropolis [23:06]
Analysis: As a cornerstone of the premise, the inciting incident of MONSTERS, INC. is relatively
easy to identify. Whats notable about this particular inciting incident is when it occurs:
approximately twenty-three minutes into the ninety-three-minute film. Reminiscent of the romantic
comedy cute meet, its an event which definitely throws the world of Sulley, a monster with a
highly successful scare record, into disarray because hes been led to believe that contact with a
human child can kill him. And thats why MONSTERS, INC. can get away with such a delayed
inciting incident: Sulleys everyday world is fascinating.
In this world, monsters are terrified of human childrena belief which delightfully plays against
expectation. Nevertheless, certain monsters, including Sulley, must visit the human world every night
to capture screams from frightened children, screams which are eventually used to power
Monstropolis. Since kids are savvier than ever, theyre becoming increasingly more difficult to scare,
a circumstance which could bring the entire monster world into darkness.
Each of the twenty-two minutes preceding the inciting incident lays down important groundwork, but
its all presented in a highly compelling wayfrom the citys impending energy crisis, Sulleys
rivalry with another monster to break the world scare record, the importance of closing doors leading
to the human world, and the scare floor, which is run as efficiently as any Ford assembly line. Even
though the inciting incident is delayed, the movie makes good on its genre promises from the very first
scene (in which an inexperienced monster flubs a scare simulation) and keeps on delivering grins,
giggles, and laughs till minute twenty-three.
Aspiring screenwriters, especially those of the sci-fi and fantasy genres, take note. You can delay
your inciting incident too, but only if, like MONSTERS, INC., your presentation of your heros
everyday world captivates the imagination, delivers information critical to plot events which will
unfold later, and fulfills genre requirements.
Because the inciting incident is delayed for so long, the first act break occurs shortly thereafter.
Sulleys rival sends Boos doorthe key to returning her homeback into the bowels of the factory,
locking Sulley into his predicament.
Nevertheless, in the brief period between the inciting incident and the first act break, the movie
portrays an objection sequence which tickles the funny bone. His mind filled with anti-human
propaganda, Sulley doesnt want anything to do with Boo. He expresses his resistance in a variety of
mostly non-verbal ways, each one producing more laughs than the next. Like most of the movie, its a
brilliantly written sequence, able to transcend barriers of both language and age.
Logline: In a dystopian future, a teenage girl, Katniss Everdeen, must battle other teens in a televised
fight till the death, known as the Hunger Games.
Inciting Incident: When Katnisss sister, Prim, is randomly selected to be a contestant, or Tribute, in
the Hunger Games [14:47]
Analysis: Like LEGALLY BLONDE, the inciting incident of THE HUNGER GAMES is very
straightforward, clearly jolting Katniss out of her grim everyday world. Whats truly noteworthy
about this inciting incident is that while its extremely personal, it doesnt happen to the heroine, but
instead, to her beloved little sister. A less experienced writer couldve begun this story with
Katnisss name being randomly chosen as Tribute. Either beginning would garner Katniss sympathy
from the audience, and equally important, captivate their interest. Because Katniss volunteers to be
Tributean action which will most likely result in her deaththis sympathy is amplified and the
audience bond deepened.
It also enables Katniss to be portrayed in a more complex light. At times, especially when she rejects
and/or manipulates the earnest love of her fellow Tribute, Peeta, Katniss can be a frustrating, almost
alienating character. However, audiences wont disengage from Katniss, even when she behaves
unsympathetically. They cant, because she never had to participate in the Games in the first place.
Having the inciting incident occur to someone else other than the protagonist yielded major dividends
in THE HUNGER GAMES; it could do the same for your script too.
Additionally, Katnisss reaction to the inciting incident helps her to immediately evince personal
agency. In Katnisss case, this trait is particularly striking because of the tyrannical world in which
she lives. Like every citizen of Panem, Katniss is a mere pawn in the schemes of the Capitol.
Although she has little personal power, she exercises what she does have at every opportunity. Thats
why, despite her brusqueness, shes endlessly appealing.
Katnisss personal agency is also illustrative of the cause and effect issue discussed in Part I: The
Four Key Characteristics of the Inciting Incident. Katniss would never have visited the Capitol as a
contestant in the Games if she hadnt volunteered to take Prims place. Theres a clear cause and
effect relationship between the two. But Katniss would never have volunteered if Prim hadnt been
randomly selected; this decidedly passive event is the true inciting incident of the story.
The movie doesnt begin with a prologue per se, but with a series of title cards which explain what
the Hunger Games are and how they came into being. The movie could have started with a more
dramatic sequence, elaborating on scenes from the propaganda video narrated by Panems president
during the Tribute selection ceremony. If done well, this sequence would not only have been vivid
and engaging, but also fulfilled sci-fi genre requirements. Instead, the movie opted to portray scenes
from the propaganda video immediately preceding the inciting incident.
Structurally, this is advantageous because it prevents the inciting incident from being delayed even
further. It was also a smart screenwriting move because it creates a keen irony: the proclaimed
benevolence of the Capitol is at direct odds with the cruelty of offering young children as sacrifices
killed on the altar of entertainment. The juxtaposition of benevolence with cruelty produces the kind
of dramatic tension and emotional impact that would pin audiences to their seats.
However, this choice does have one major drawback. The first act of THE HUNGER GAMES
doesnt really make good on promises implied by its genre. While elements of science fiction and
actioneven romanceare all present, with the exception of the Tribute selection ceremony, they
lean towards the subtle side. If you are writing a sci-fi screenplay on spec, such subtlety might not be
so appreciated.
There are many themes to take away from THE HUNGER GAMES (both books and movie). The one
which I find particularly resonant is the idea that you can express your independence even in the
midst of great tyranny. Katnisss reaction to the inciting incident is more than a manifestation of her
resistance; her reaction encapsulates this theme perfectly. Even though she has little personal control
in her life, she can at least prevent her sister from being sent to the Capitol as a Tribute. Its not much
of a choicebut it is a choice all the same, one which gets audiences emotionally aligned with
Katniss straightaway. The theme is also expressed after the inciting incident in less dramatic ways.
The three-fingered salute given by District 12 and the mockingjay pin Prim gives back to Katniss are
two such examples.
One of the best screenwriting lessons to take away from the movie concerns objections made by
Katnisss mentor (and District 12s lone victor), Haymitch. En route to the Capitol, Katniss asks him,
How do you find shelter? His response is less than forthcoming. He finally replies, You really
want to know how to stay alive? You get people to like youwhen youre in the middle of the
Games, and youre starving or freezing, some water, a knife, or even some matches can mean the
difference between life and death. And those things only come from sponsors. And to get sponsors,
you have to make people like you. He concludes, Youre not off to a real good starthe [Peeta],
knows what hes doing.
Haymitch is clearly skeptical of Katnisss chances of success. His objections inject the scene with a
nice dose of conflict, but more importantly, embed critical information about sponsors which the
audience will need to know in order to understand later events. Thats the kind of light touch you want
to emulate when establishing your own setup during Act One.
Also noteworthy is the connection between Haymitchs objection and the climax. When Haymitch
praised Peetas charms, Haymitch was specifically referencing Peetas willingness to use the
Capitols desire to be entertained to his advantage. Haymitch didnt believe Katniss was capable of
maintaining such a pretensebut he was wrong. At the end of the Games, Katniss threatens to commit
Romeo-and-Juliet-style suicide; having convinced Peeta to do the same, she will consume poisonous
However, committing suicide was never Katnisss real intent. She manipulates the citizens of the
Capitol and their attachment to the star-crossed lovers of District 12, an act which enables both her
and Peeta to return home as victors, a conclusion which the government never intended, and which
even Haymitch couldnt foresee. In other words, Katniss used the Capitols desire for a good show
against them, invalidating the objection Haymitch lobbied against her at the movies outset.
Logline: The president of the United States must defend Air Force Oneand his familywhen the
plane is hijacked by terrorists.
Inciting Incident: One of the villains accomplices (a rogue Secret Service agent) makes the first
move by killing fellow agents [20:40]
Analysis: Like MONSTERS, INC., the inciting incident of AIR FORCE ONE doesnt take place until
were well into the first act. Surprisingly however, the everyday life of the president isnt as
inherently fascinating as Monstropolis. In that animated feature, observing the parallels and
divergences between our world and the monster one held endless appeal for adults and children
alike, giving them exactly what they came for.
If you examine the beginning of AIR FORCE ONE, youll see that, contrary to expectation, the
everyday life of the president isnt exciting. Nor does it contain a whiff of action. In a Moscow
speech, he announces that the United States will no longer negotiate with terrorists (a bold move
which paints him in a heroic light but hardly captivates the imaginationunless youre a political
science major). Afterwards, he argues with his policy advisors, has a heartfelt chat with his daughter,
receives comfort from his wife, and plans a strategy to handle issues in the Middle East.
However, audiences didnt come to AIR FORCE ONE to see C-SPAN on the big screen, which is
what most of the first act amounts to. Sure, it sets up a neat ironythe president who has just
declared he wont negotiate with terrorists is about to be hijacked by terroristsand establishes
critical groundwork, but while both are fundamental to the plot, theyre not what the audience came
They came for heart-pounding, pulse-throbbing action.
Thats what the first two minutes provide: in the middle of the night, American and Russian Special
Forces capture a man accused of being a dictator and whisk him off in a helicopter. This event, a
conducive condition for the inciting incident, is not just included to illustrate the villains motivation
for hijacking Air Force One. Fulfilling the Rule of Ten, this brief interlude of action is there to sate
the audience before the inciting incident occurs eighteen minutes later, when the action begins in
Even though the premise of the film is strong, the movie wouldnt have been as successful if it had
just begun with Harrison Fords everyday life as president of the United States. As glamorous as the
position is, its daily duties dont provide the audience what they came to seesay it with me
action. Because the genre goods were delivered from the very first scene, studio readers and ticket
buyers had the patience to sit through the groundwork until the action-packed inciting incident kicked
in several minutes later.
Its important to note that while the presentation of the presidents everyday life was not exciting per
se, it was nevertheless compellingly portrayed. If the movie had begun without the Special Forces
maneuver, the first act still would have worked. Just not as an action movie. Perhaps, as a feature-
length version of THE WEST WING?
At first, the objection sequence in Air Force One follows a standard action movie model. The villain
or one of his agents creates disorder, and other characters try to restore the balance in an extensive
action sequence. In this case, its the Secret Service agents still loyal to the president. They try to
regain control of the presidents plane, and the villain and his henchmen (posing as Russian
journalists), object via gunfire. Whats notable about AIR FORCE ONE, however, is that heros
objecting too! Not through bullets, but through his choices.
Secret Service has one goal: to get the president safely onto an escape pod. They are successful, but
at first opportunity, the president sneaks out of it (off-screen). When the pod is deployed, and the
villains have taken control of the cockpit, theres no other safe way off of Air Force One. The
president is locked into this particular situation because he exerted his personal agency.
The movie couldve followed a different plotline. In this scenario, the villains henchmen could have
deployed the escape pod before Secret Service had a chance to reach it. This works logically.
Without stretching the bounds of credibility, the president would again be locked into a confrontation
on Air Force One with the terrorist group. It would still generate lots of action, fulfilling genre
requirements. Act Two would proceed in much the same way
but the hero wouldnt be as half as interestingeven though hes the presidenteven though hes
Harrison Ford playing the president (the tagline for the movie).
Personal agency. Its magic.
Logline: An inexperienced navy lawyer, Daniel Kaffee, must defend two Marines accused of
murdering a fellow soldier.
Inciting Incident: When Kaffees superiors assign him the case [10:03]
Analysis: Because A FEW GOOD MENs everyday world consists of military law and the Marines
each of which possesses its own specialized rules and conventionsthe movie is more like a
period piece or a sci-fi flick despite its contemporary time period. While this unique world-within-a-
world definitely piques interest, the film doesnt dwell on it, presenting the assignment of the case
type of inciting incident right on schedule. Earlier, I said that movies will frequently shunt an inciting
incident like this one off-screen because it isnt very interesting. Thats truebut in A FEW GOOD
MEN, it works.
It all comes down to genre. Unlike a spy thriller, A FEW GOOD MEN isnt expected to provide
heart-pounding action from the get-go. Its a character-driven courtroom drama. Audiences will
engage with the movie as long as the beginning is rife with interpersonal conflicts between complex,
intriguing characters who desperately need transformation.
In the scenes just prior to the inciting incident, Kaffee is established as a flippant, cavalier (but
likeable) lawyer who bullies prosecution with the threat of extended paperwork. Another lawyer,
Lieutenant Commander Jo Galloway, while also inexperienced, possesses zeal for justice which
Kaffee appears to lack.
She wasnt assigned the case, however, even though she put in the request. He wasand audiences,
in anticipation of the impending fireworks, would be at the edge of their seats. Within this particular
context, the inciting incident IS an exciting, high-voltage event. But in an action movie, it wouldve
fizzled like a wet sparkler.
Interestingly, the movie begins by showing the two defendants accosting a fellow soldier, in what
appears to be a hazing incident gone terribly wrong. Its a suspenseful, electric scene without which,
the beginning still would have worked. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkins introductions to both Galloway
and Kaffee hint at the battle of wills and wits which audiences look for in a drama, particularly one of
the courtroom variety. In other words, if AIR FORCE ONE had dropped its two-minute Special
Forces scene, its first act wouldve wilted, but if A FEW GOOD MEN had dispensed with its initial
two minutes, the first act still wouldve dazzled.
Character introductions are just one of the many screenwriting elements which the movie addresses
with skill. The objections lobbied against Kaffee after hes assigned the murder case are handled
with equal finesse. At one point, Galloway point-blank tells Kaffee that she questions whether or not
hes fit to handle the case.
Audiences would be inclined to agree. Kaffees inexperienced, only out of law school for little over
a year, nine months of which have been spent in the JAG Corps. So far, hes displayed little
competencearriving late (and sans a writing instrument) when Division assigns him the murder
case. Furthermore, he lacks familiarity with key military terms (fence lines, Cuban mirrors, and
Code Reds) and personalities (a defendants Aunt Ginny, the victim Santiago, and notably, the
villain Colonel Jessup).
Embedded within these objections are several bits of critical background information and setup.
Kaffees ignorance serves two functions: it not only creates doubts about his competence in the minds
of audiences, it also enables other characters to explain military jargon for their benefit. Through
Galloways skepticism, key exposition is revealed, including details about the fence line incident (a
possible motive for murder) and suspicions about the doctors verdict of poisoning (which leads to a
major payoff during the trial).
We also learn that Kaffee lives under the shadow of his now-deceased father, former attorney general
of the United States, a fact which paves the foundation for Kaffees character development throughout
the film. Galloways doubts also lend credibility to the way she insinuates herself into the murder
case, a plot contrivance brought about through the aforementioned Aunt Ginny.
To these objections, Kaffee proudly boasts, I was assigned by Division. Somebody over there thinks
Im a pretty good lawyer. His proclamation does little to dispel Galloways doubtsor audiences.
That wont happen until the midpoint, when Kaffee, asserting his agency, opts to forgo plea
bargaining and take the murder case to trial. In a clever callback, Kaffee cites Galloways objections
as his motivation to go all-in and litigate for real. Why does a lieutenant junior grade with nine
months experience and a track record for plea bargaining get assigned a murder case? Would it be so
that it never sees the inside of a courtroom?
Its important to note that once Kaffee commits to a trial, Galloway transforms into one of Kaffees
staunchest allies. At one point, she praises his litigator skills. I think youre an exceptional lawyer. I
watch the court members. They respond to you. They like you. I see you convincing them, and I think
Dawson and Downey [the defendants] are gonna end up owing their lives to you.
Galloways praise isnt empty; Kaffee is a fantastic lawyer, managing to acquit his clients of murder
charges despite two major setbacks (one of which was caused by Galloways own inexperience).
Kaffee wins because he puts the pompous and seemingly invincible Colonel Jessup on the stand
something Kaffees father would never have done, something Kaffees co-counsel Sam Weinberg
says he wouldnt do, something which Galloway urges Kaffee not to do (even though she wanted to
put Jessup on the stand all along). If you feel like its not gonna happen, she says, if you feel like
hes not gonna say it, dont go for itIm special counsel for Internal Affairs, and Im telling you, you
could get into a lot of trouble. But at the climax, Kaffee does go for it. Its a bold, courageous move
which has the potential to jeopardize Kaffees entire career. But its exactly whats necessary to
enable him to snatch victory from the jaws of defeatand invalidate all the objections volleyed
against him.
Going back to the objection scenes, observe that not all of the setup is embedded within them. For
example, were introduced to several key playersMarkinson, Kendrick, and their commanding
officer, Colonel Jessupin a scene which has nothing to do with the selection of Kaffee as defense
counsel. We also meet the prosecution, a Marine lawyer who later will be used to intensify the story
stakes. The hero worship of one of the defendants by the other is also established, setting up a
stunning reveal at the end of Act Two. Thematic elements dealing with code and honor are also
touched upon. Because the first act covers a lot of groundwork, its long. Roughly thirty-five minutes.
One reason A FEW GOOD MEN gets away with such a long first acta screenwriting no-no for
most beginnersis because its inciting incident still occurs within the first ten minutes of the movie,
saving the majority of setup for afterwards. Because of this structure, audiences arent asking
themselves, When will this story get started? Instead, theyre wondering if Kaffee will be content to
plea bargain and follow the predetermined path of least resistance or give his clients the defense
justice demands. That driving question will sustain their interest throughout the first act, as long as it
Theres another factor at work here too, and itd be remiss of me not to mention it. Sorkin writes
exceptional dialogue, conveying key information through conflict and humor. The combination of
sound structure with well-written dialogue is potent enough to overcome the presentation of so much
setup. Most amateurs are not yet skilled enough to pull off such a feat. So if youre intending to use A
FEW GOOD MEN as justification for your screenplays super-long first act, make sure your structure
and dialogue are as good as Sorkins!
Logline: Under the tutelage of the Huntsman, Snow White must become a warrior strong enough to
vanquish her evil stepmother, Ravenna.
Inciting Incident: Ravenna orders Snow White to be locked up [13:35]
Or is it?
Analysis: This is a perfect example of the chicken or the egg conundrum mentioned in Part I: The
Four Key Characteristics of the Inciting Incident. If, as I stated, the inciting incident is when
Ravenna takes Snow White as prisoner, this event couldnt have occurred if Snow Whites father
were still around to protect her. He would still be there to safeguard his daughter if Ravenna hadnt
murdered him in his bed. She wouldnt have had this opportunity if she hadnt married him. In turn,
this event couldnt have occurred without the evil queen meeting the king in the first place (he rescues
her from the clutches of a Dark Army, unaware it was all a ruse to lure him in). Furthermore, the king
wouldnt have even looked in Ravennas direction if his first wife, Snow Whites mother, hadnt
passed away.
So we have five equally viable candidates for the inciting incident:

Snow Whites biological mother dying [3:20]
Snow Whites father, the king, rescuing Ravenna and becoming enchanted by her beauty [5:40]
Ravenna marrying the king [7:12]
Ravenna murdering the king [8:26]
Ravenna ordering her brother to lock up Snow White [13:35]
Each of these meets the four requirements of an inciting incident: they are all disruptive events which
happen to Snow White (or to her father, thus entangling her) and appear to pave the way for the first
act breakSnow Whites eventual escape from Ravennato occur. Incidentally, they all also help
forge an emotional bond between audiences and Snow White.
However, out of the five, the death of Snow Whites mother is the one which can be discounted the
most easily. While it does alter Snow Whites everyday existence, its not an event which directly
leads to Snow Whites battle with Ravenna. The king couldve just as easily married someone else
or no one at all, saving Snow White a lot of misery but leaving us with no story!
Its the advent of Ravenna which truly signals a change in Snow Whites destiny. You could trace that
change to the very beginning, when Ravenna enters the picture, or to her first major act of treachery
when she kills the king. Alternately, you could consider the inciting incident to be the cumulative
effect of these story beats. Its completely up to you (although if youre pitching your story to a studio
executive, its a sound strategy to gravitate towards the most dramatic and visually arresting option).
Notice however, that all of these conclusions rest on a major assumption: that Snow Whites
everyday world begins by showing her early childhood, which is peacefulat least until Ravennas
unexpected intrusion. Theres another way to interpret SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMANs
first act. Ravennas insinuation into Snow Whites kingdom is mere prologue, setting the stage for
later events. Snow Whites everyday world doesnt begin until approximately fourteen minutes into
the movie when we see her as an adult, imprisoned in the North Tower.
According to this interpretation, the death of Snow Whites mother, the fight with the Dark Army, the
marriage of Ravenna to the king, Ravennas murder of the king, and her order to lock up Snow White
are conducive conditions which pave the way for the inciting incident to occur. Snow Whites
everyday world consists of imprisonment, so the disruptive event which jolts her out of that world
happens when Ravennas brother enters Snow Whites prison cell to deliver her over to Ravenna,
who intends to steal Snow Whites beating heart. But, unexpectedly for Ravennas brother, Snow
White fights backasserting her personal agency and making good on the movies promise that this
is no fairy tale.
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN proves how subjective inciting incidents can beand why
they cause so much confusion for beginning screenwriters. But being able to identify the inciting
incident in SNOW WHITE isnt as essential as understanding why its beginning engages audiences
right away. Whether you define Snow Whites everyday world as her early childhood or her captivity
as an adult, whether you choose the death of Snow Whites mother or the entry of Ravennas brother
into Snow Whites prison cell as the inciting incident, the kings battle against the Dark Army is the
event you really want to study. Because of it, the movie fulfilled the Rule of Ten, providing audiences
with a taste of action-adventure (and magic) they came to see.
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN is derived from source material with which much of the
world is familiar. Because of this, audiences will come to the movie with two kinds of expectations
general ones generated by genre, and more specific ones generated from their personal experience
with other interpretations of the fairy tale. For example, audiences would be keen to see the movies
take on the poisonous apples and the queens infamous magic mirror. It was a wise screenwriting
move not to delay those depictions, something you should keep in mind if your screenplay is based on
material which would generate similar expectations.
Logline: Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, Dr Watson, must solve a mystery involving Lord
Blackwood, whos causing mayhemfrom beyond the grave.
Inciting Incident: When a young girls parents seek Holmess help to track down their missing
daughter [off-screen]
Analysis: The beginning of the movie opens with Watson and Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade
rushing through the streets of Victorian London in a police coach, while Holmes navigates the city
like an Olympic gymnast. Clearly, theyre all in pursuit of somethingsomeonebut its not quite
clear what.
Soon, it emerges they are trying to prevent Lord Blackwood, the villain, from sacrificing a young girl
in a satanic ritual. Approximately six minutes into the movie, Holmes explicitly states that the girls
parents hired him to find their missing daughterthe assignment of the case style of inciting
incident so commonly found within the detective genre.
However, unlike A FEW GOOD MEN, this assignment of the case scene is more effective shunted
off-screen. Neither interesting, nor cinematic, it doesnt generate much intriguecertainly not as
much as the opening scenes which fulfill the Rule of Ten with a knockout combination of mystery,
mayhem, action, and humor.
Observe that this powerful combination, as entertaining as it is, also serves multiple functions. For
example, towards the beginning of the genre-fulfilling sequence, Holmes trounces one of the villains
look-outs. This is a form of non-verbal objection, expressed by the villains henchman against
Holmess plan to rescue the missing girl. Later, Inspector Lestrade will complain about Holmess
methods, an objection which cleverly sets up the tension brewing between the two which will lead to
a major payoff towards the films end.
While making good on the promise of action, the initial fight scene with the look-out also establishes
Holmess incredible deductive abilities, simultaneously introducing us to Guy Ritchies concept of
Holmes Vision. As explained by actor Robert Downey Jr in Reelz.com, You see Holmes vision
of a punch before he delivers it and then you see the real thing.
In the movie, a voiceover accompanies the vision in which Holmes articulates the deductions which
guide his fighting strategy. This was a smart decision because audiences would be waiting for
Holmes to put his trademark deductive skills on display. Like SHERLOCK HOLMES (or SNOW
WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN), your movie concept may generate additional expectations which
go beyond genre. Its smart to reflect on what those expectations might entail and then determine how
quickly you can meet them in a way which is fresh and organic to your story.
Before he is hung, Lord Blackwood makes his last request: to see Sherlock Holmes. In this spooky
scene, Blackwood voices his objections against the arrogant detective. Im concerned that you
underestimate the gravity of coming events. You and I are bound together on a journey that will twist
the very fabric of nature, but beneath your mask of logic, I sense a fragility that worries me. I will rise
againthree more will die and there is nothing you can do to save them. You must accept that this is
beyond your control. But by the time you realize you were the one who made all this possible, itll be
the last sane thought in your head.
Blackwood is trying to play mind games with Holmes, filling the detectives mind with self-doubt.
While Holmess confidence (some would say megalomania) remains intact, Blackwoods objections
may lodge a seed of doubt in the minds of audiences who might wonder if this will be the case
Holmes is unable to crack. Even if audiences dont question Holmess abilities, this objection scene
is important because it pits the villain on equal (if not superior grounds) to the detective, rendering
Blackwoods threats difficult to dismiss.
Because the inciting incident was shunted off-screen, SHERLOCK HOLMES could devote extensive
time in the first act to a subplot concerning Watson and his decision to get married and move out of
the apartment he shares with Holmes. In a brilliant structural move, the inciting incident for that
subplot is also kept off-screen. Audiences never see Holmess everyday world, not in a pure state,
because its been thrown into disarray by both the new case to find the missing girl and also by
Watsons imminent departure.
With regards to the latter, the movie dwells on Holmess resistance to the idea, which he expresses
both verbally (in another display of his deductive skills, he makes insinuations against Watsons
fiance) and physically (using Holmes Vision, he exorcises his frustration at a bare-knuckled
boxing match). Random fun fact: in the short video SHERLOCK HOLMES: REINVENTED, Guy
Ritchie claims that Holmes is the first martial artist in Western culture.
These objections alone take up approximately twelve minutes of screentime. Its rare to devote so
much of Act One to objections revolving around a subplot. SHERLOCK HOLMES gets away with it
for several reasons. For starters, the leading actors (Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law) share enviable
chemistry. Depicting the way Holmes sees the world via Holmes Vision is both unique and
fascinating. Additionally, Holmess objections to Watsons marriage increase the level of conflict
while also fulfilling genre promises.
However, the main reason the movie could devote so much time to subplot in the first act is because it
dispatched with the portrayal of Holmess everyday world and immediately sated the audiences
desire for action. If it hadnt, the first act (already fairly long) wouldve swelled to epic proportions.
Equally disastrous, its power to attract and hold audience attention would have considerably
To be thorough, it must be mentioned that Holmess relationship with Watson is not the only subplot
introduced in Act One. Approximately twenty-eight minutes into the movie, in a rom-com cute meet
and assignment of the case two-for-one special, saucy thief Irene Adler sneaks into Holmess
apartment and orders him to investigate the whereabouts of a ginger-haired midget. Notice that this
case-within-a-case isnt irrelevant, random fluff added to the mix to pad the movies running time.
Because the ginger-haired midget was working for Blackwood, Irenes assignment dovetails perfectly
with the main story.
Whom Irene is working forwell, thats shrouded in mystery, eventually leading to a thrilling climax
atop the still-incomplete London Bridge. Unlike the parents of the missing girl who first hired
Holmes, Irene plays a critical role in the plot. Thats one reason why the inciting incident of her
subplot is kept on-screen. Since shes the only woman Holmes has ever really cared for, the only
adversary whos been able to outsmart him (not once, but twice), and the only person to unnerve his
equanimity, audiences wouldve felt deprived if they didnt witness Holmes and Irenes exchange
from the first verbal parry to the last.
Some time ago, I wrote an article about inciting incidents on my screenwriting website Scribe Meets
World. (In fact, this article was the genesis for this book). In the comments section, one screenwriter
contended that the inciting incident of the movie is when Holmes and Watson are informed that
Blackwood has risen from the grave. Arguing that his analysis follows the Heros Journey to a T,
he makes a strong case. (You can find his full argument here.)
I, however, maintain my original position. The way I see it, SHERLOCK HOLMES follows the
paradigm of the beautiful lockdown. After he apprehends Lord Blackwood (and rescues the missing
girl), Holmes believes that this case is closed. As Watson declares after Blackwood is hung, That is
the end of Lord Blackwood. Only its not. When Holmes and Watson are informed that Blackwood
has risen from the dead, both are forced to accept that this case is far from over. In other words, the
announcement of Lord Blackwoods devilish feat is the event which locks Holmes into the case, not
the initial event which entangles him into it.
Both perspectives hold merit, and are yet another demonstration of how subjective inciting incidents
how structural analyses of films as a wholecan be. Regardless of which one you agree with,
understanding these opposing points of view should help you think analytically about screenwriting
and what it takes to compose first acts which attractand sustainaudience attention.
And thats the only thing which matters.
Note: In the sequel, SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS, the inciting incident is also
shoved off-screen. However, no one assigns Holmes the case of thwarting Moriarty. Similar to Alex
Foley in BEVERLY HILLS COP, Holmes assigns it to himself. Furthermore, he believes hes the only
one who can solve ita conviction which is perfectly in keeping with his penchant for arrogance!
THE MUMMY (1999)
Logline: A former Legionnaire and a timid librarian team up to uncover lost treasure from the
legendary city of Hamunaptra, but awaken a cursed mummy instead.
Inciting Incident(s): When the heroines brother presents her with a rare artifact [17:03] / When the
heroine approaches the hero and asks him to take her to Hamunaptra [20:57]
Analysis: The beginning of the film consists of a duo of prologues, front-loading Act One with plenty
of backstory. In the first seven-minute prologue, we learn the history of the mummy. Originally, he
was an Egyptian priest named Imhotep, who incurred bad ju-ju by lusting after the pharaohs mistress.
Hence, he was mummified alive. If that werent enough, a powerful curse which involved tongue
removal and beetle bites was inflicted upon him. Gruesome, eh? This prologue also sets up critical
story components like the Black Book of the Dead; the five canopic jars housing the vital organs of
the pharaohs mistress; the puzzle-box key which unlocks the mummys sarcophagus; and the
existence of the Magi, descendants of the pharaohs bodyguards now entrusted with the task of
preventing the sarcophaguss discovery.
In a rare structural move, the prologue for the villain is followed by another extended prologuethis
one for the hero, Legionnaire Rick OConnell. Flashforwarding three thousand years after the death of
Imhotep, this prologue paints OConnell in a heroic light while simultaneously establishing essential
story elements. For example, we are introduced to Beni, a trickster character wholl create plenty of
mischief during Acts Two and Three; to Ardeth Bay, the current leader of the Magi; and to
OConnells penchant for using dynamite to extricate himself from dicey situations.
Because of these two prologues, the first inciting incident of the movie gets delayed considerably.
THE MUMMY was able to pull this off successfully because both prologues are chock-full of the
genre elements audiences came to see, a point which I cant stress enough. OConnells battle with
Egyptian natives satisfies the taste for action and adventure, while the mummys prologue provides
romance (through Imhoteps relationship with the pharaohs mistress) and chills (through the scenes
revolving around the mummys curse).
When the backstory ends, the movie cuts to Cairo, three years after OConnells battle in the desert.
But were not shown his everyday world first. Instead, were shown the everyday world of the
heroine, Evelyn Evie Carnahan. Shes a talented, if awkward, librarian at the Museum of
Antiquities. If the inciting incident hadnt occurred seventeen minutes into the movie, shed still be
restoring the library she inadvertently decimated. Shes rescued from that gargantuan task by the
arrival of her brother, who presents her with a rare artifactthe puzzle-box key to the mummys
sarcophagus. Even more intriguing, it contains a treasure map leading to the legendary city of
Map in tow, Evie and her mercenary brother would have immediately headed off to Hamunaptra.
Unfortunately, the curator of the Museum of Antiquities, accidentally-on-purpose burns a portion of
the treasure map. This objection scene is brief, but establishes important information. First, it sets up
the curators secret identity as a member of the Magi. Secondly, it sets up the kill switch built into
Hamunaptras massive underground treasure chamber, a unique feature which will play a prominent
role during the climax. Finally, it helps to entangle our hero into this adventure
After the curator burns the treasure map, Evies brother is forced to confess that he didnt find the
artifact in a dig in Thebes as he had originally claimed. In truth, he had pickpocketed the puzzle-box
key from OConnell in a cashbah. Naturally, Evie and her brother seek out OConnell to gain his
assistance in locating Hamunaptra. Poor OConnell is no longer the swashbuckling soldier depicted
in his prologue, but an unkempt prisoner, locked away for a reason we never learn. This Cairo prison
is his everyday world; Evies arrival is the event which turns it into disarray. Could you tell me how
to get there [to Hamunaptra]? she asks OConnell twenty-one minutes into the movie. His response is
to kiss her, followed by the exhortation, Get me the hell out of here!
It could be argued that OConnell never wouldve gone hunting for treasure in Hamunaptra and
awoken the mummy if Evies brother hadnt pickpocketed him in the first place. Indeed, it would have
been impossible for Evies brother to have stolen the artifact from OConnell if OConnell hadnt
discovered it in Hamunaptra to begin with. In turn, if the curator hadnt have burned the map, Evie
and her brother wouldve never sought OConnells help at all. However, these events are not
inciting incidents. They are domino-like conducive conditions, which show audiences how the
inciting incident came about, while simultaneously introducing the core relationships between the
main characters.
OConnells inciting incident is interesting for multiple reasons. For one thing, its an example of how
the inciting incident for the same story can be a different event for the hero and for the heroine. In fact,
following the model of THE PROPOSAL (discussed in Part IV: Inciting Incident and Genre),
OConnells inciting incident is caused by the heroines response to hers. Additionally, OConnells
interaction with Evelyn (in particular his stolen kiss), marks the inciting incident for the romance plot
of the screenplay. Its a rom-com cute meet and action movie call to adventure all wrapped up in
the sands of the Egyptian desert.
Actually, several of the main plot points of the adventure story dovetail perfectly with the developing
romance between OConnell and Evie. Although lacking in some respects (I, for one, never felt
OConnell or Evie were three-dimensional characters), THE MUMMY is an excellent film to study
to understand how to interweave two plots togetherand how to use the objection sequence for
maximum advantage.
Ive already touched on how the objection sequence following Evies inciting incident advanced the
story. Now, lets take a look at the objection sequence following OConnells. Its dominated by a
scene in which Evie has to bargain with the Cairo prison warden in order to spare OConnell, whos
about to be hung. Their bartering is not only humorous, it also sets up the wardens insinuation into
Evie and OConnells adventure, expanding the number of characters available as Mummy bait.
Furthermore, its a wonderful model of how to portray resistance to the call of adventure even
when the hero and heroine are perfectly willing to take on the risk.
Although Evie manages to secure OConnells freedom, doubts about his capabilities still fill her
mind. Her objections to the former Legionnaire are several: Personally, I think hes filthy, rude, and
a complete scoundrel. I dont like him one bit. After witnessing OConnells unkempt appearance
and belligerent attitude in prisonhes far from the glory days depicted in his prologueaudiences
might be objecting right along with her! But, unlike A FEW GOOD MEN, audiences wont have to
wait until deep into Act Two to dispel their doubts. Theyll stop questioning if OConnell is up to the
task when he arrives on-scene soon thereafterclean and clean-shaventhe epitome of a classic
action-adventure hero.
Logline: Scotsman William Wallace unites his people to oust the English occupying their country.
Inciting Incident: When Wallaces wife, Marion, is almost raped by English soldiers [42:00]
Analysis: The beginning of BRAVEHEART establishes the historical context of the movie: the king
of England has his eye on Scotland and he will do anything to get itincluding luring defenseless
Scottish nobles to their deaths. As a young boy, Wallace witnesses English brutality firsthand. He
sees the dead bodies of the Scottish noblesand their childrenhanging from the rafters of a barn.
When his father, a farmer, goes to fight the English in protest of their cruelty, he too, is killed, leaving
Wallace an orphan.
In addition to forging a deep bond between Wallace and the audience, both of these thematically
pertinent incidents lay down important sociopolitical groundwork while foreshadowing Wallaces
future. They also meet three of the four inciting incident criteria. Passive, disruptive, and personal?
Check, check, and check. However, they dont meet the fourth requirementcausalitybecause they
are not the events which kick this particular story (Wallaces attempts to liberate Scotland from
English occupation) into motion. Occurring long before the story unfolding on-screen even begins,
these events are a classic example of prologue.
After Wallaces dad is killed, the boy leaves his village to live with his uncle. Many years later, he
returnsand that is when the depiction of his everyday world begins. That world can be summarized
succinctly by quoting Wallace himself, Ive come to raise crops, and God willing, a family.
Wallace doesnt express any intention to fight the English, even though the English king is responsible
for the death of his father, and furthermore, has instituted prima nocte. A conducive condition for the
inciting incident, the barbaric law permits English lords to bed a Scottish commoner on the night of
her wedding.
Wallaces ambition to enjoy a pastoral life changes, however, once English soldiers attempt to rape
Wallaces wife, Marion. To save her, he fights off the soldiers. Interestingly, this is not the first time
the audience witnesses Wallace exerting personal agency. He exerts his independencesilentlyby
marrying Marion in secret, thereby evading the law of prima nocte. After the inciting incident, that
independent spirit is expressed without restraint.
If English soldiers hadnt attempted to rape Marion, Wallace would have continued to live as a
husband and a farmeras least as long as the English would have allowed him to do so. This
passive, disruptive, and personal event jolts him out of his non-resistant, non-rebellious ambitions,
effectively catalyzing his transformation into a resistance leader. That is why it is the inciting incident
of the movie.
Tragically, even though Wallace fights valiantly, he is not able to save Marion. He escapes, but she is
captured, her throat eventually slit. You could argue that her cruel and senseless murder is the event
which pushes him over the edge, driving his need to fight for freedom. By this reasoning, the inciting
incident is the cumulative effect of both the assault and the murder. That argument certainly makes
sense, although I contend that the latter wouldnt have occurred without the former.
If you agree to trace back Wallaces transformation into a freedom fighter to the attempted rape of his
wife, then the movie waits for forty-two minutes before presenting its inciting incident. This certainly
goes against convention, but somehow it works. After the inciting incident, the movie exhibits more
traditional structureusing the post-inciting incident period to fulfill genre expectations and
assemble Wallaces team of rebels. Theres plenty for medieval epic lovers to enjoy: swordplay,
fisticuffs, even an impaling. In the process, Wallace also begins assembling his team, comprised of
fellow Scots who, inspired by Wallaces example, are willing to fight to the death to gain
independence. These include Wallaces childhood friend, Hamish, Hamishs father, a husband whose
wife was the victim of prima nocte, and clansmen from surrounding neighborhoods. (However, a key
member of Wallaces team, the crazy Irishman, wont join the group until the second act.)
Additionally, the action sequences after the inciting incident are good examples of non-verbal
objections. Wallaces forceful attack against the English soldiers and magistrate is his way of
restoring order. Naturally, the soldiers dont comply. This results in captivating fight scenes which
portend the great battles yet to come. These fight scenes also articulate the themethat freedom IS
worth dying for. Anyone wishing to write better action set pieces can pick up a few pointers by
studying BRAVEHEART whose action sequences werent appended to the story because the genre
required them. They arise naturally out of the plot, while organically expressing theme.
While the attempted rape of Marion is the inciting incident of the main story, or A story, Wallaces
courtship of her comprises a subplot, or B story. Similar to the cute meet commonly found in
romantic comedies, the latters inciting incident occurs when Wallace and Marion lock eyes across a
crowd of wedding guests. Whats curious about this subplot is that once initiated, its pretty much
wrapped up by the end of the first act.
This aspect, along with the extensive prologue, is what caused the inciting incident of
BRAVEHEART to be delayed so significantly. While its common to front-load a screenplay with
action, its rare to front-load it with subplot, the bulk of which is usually relegated to Act Two. In the
case of BRAVEHEART, it was necessaryWallaces transformation into a resistance leader
wouldnt have happened without the collision of the A and B stories in Act Onebut this isnt a wise
strategy to emulate.
As much as I love the epic, I must caution you: BRAVEHEART is a special case of do not try this at
home. Its a rare amateur screenplay that could get away with an inciting incident delayed for that
longeven with a beginning as gripping as this films. As a novice, its probably wise to steer clear
of historical epics as a genre. In general, they tend to be longer in length than the average screenplay.
In a beginners hands, this page length usually skyrockets, resulting in a mammoth of a screenplay no
one wants to read. Theres another drawback too. Historical epics are costly to make, so theyre a
tough sell. However, if they are your passion, dont fret. If you can trim yours to a suitable length, you
can use your epic as a calling card which garners you industry attention, perhaps even meetings which
lead to assignment work.
Logline: A divorces life becomes complicated when she has an affair with a married manher ex-
Inciting Incident: Lets just sayits complicated
Analysis: The movie begins with the divorce, Jane, and her ex-husband, Jake, attending an
anniversary party for their friends, who are still blissfully married. Jane is gracious, but still
awkward, around Jake and his much younger second wife, Agness. Later, we learn that Jake had an
affair with Agness while married to Jane, and then eventually divorced Jane to be with Agness.
Although its never explicitly stated, you get the feeling that Jane was completely blindsided by the
affair and the ensuing divorcemaking it a prime candidate for an off-screen inciting incident.
However, a stronger argument could be made that the divorce is a piece of background information,
establishing the context of Janes everyday world. It may have been a disruptive event back then, but
now, ten years later, shes finally grown accustomed to the divorce. (If the movies plot had focused
on the emotional upheaval those ten years produced, then the divorce would likely be the inciting
incident instead of Janes off-screen prologue.)
Since the divorce, Janes life is fairly staid. Shes accepted that Jake has moved on (although
Agnesss youth is an everrenewing source of horror). Shes also resigned herself to being alone, as
evinced by her instruction to Adam, an architect helping her renovate her home, to eliminate the his
and her sinks in her bathroom.
But when Jane and Jake visit New York to attend their sons graduation, they end up sleeping together
an event which considerably disrupts the status quo. Curiously, its very much a passive event.
Jane didnt fly to New York with the intent to seduce Jake (and vice versa). The indiscretion was
hardly a conscious decision, but a consequence of several conducive conditions. Her offspring
abandoned Jane to prep for a house party; Jakes wife remained in California to attend to her sick
child; both are accosted by the triple combination of alcohol, loneliness, and nostalgia.
However, while this inciting incident happened to both Jake and Jane, shes the only one objecting.
He thought their interaction was smoking hot; she argues it was the dumbest thing two people have
ever done. The contrast of her horror with his euphoria is hilariousa perfect example of using the
post-inciting incident objection period to fulfill genre expectations. It also neatly sets up the first act
break, when Jane and Jake sleep together for the second timedespite her earlier protestations. To
quote Jane, Oh God, oh God, its official. Were having an affair. The former spouses could
dismiss the first incidence as a fluke, but the second occurrence locks them down into the
psychological and interpersonal journey of Act Two.
The one major drawback of this inciting incident is that it occurs very late, twenty-one minutes and
forty-five seconds into the movie. Unlike sci-fi films like MINORITY REPORT or INCEPTION, its
delay isnt really justified. Movie-goers are familiar with the rules of the world in which Jane and
Jake live and dont require such an extensive introduction to Janes everyday life. The movie gets
away with such a delayed inciting incident primarily because it was written and directed by Nancy
Meyers who has a proven romantic comedy track record. (It also helps that Janes horrified
expression at the sight of Agnesss jiggling cleavage and Adams smitten response to Janes queries
both of which transpire within the first reelgive audiences a prelude of the hilarity and romance
to come.)
As an untested writer, in this regard, it would not be wise to imitate the structure of ITS
COMPLICATED. Itd be a better decision to trim the first act and begin with a stronger comedic set
piecelike Janes disastrous visit to a plastic surgeons office. With a few tweaks, that scene, which
already includes Jake and Agness, could establish the same critical background information conveyed
during the movies first eight minutes. Admittedly, this move would delay the introduction of Janes
daughters until the graduation ceremony, but the tradeoff would be worth it. It would not only move
Jane and Jakes inciting incident forward into the first fifteen-sixteen minutes of the movie, it would
also save thematic musings on the effects divorce has on children (even grown-up ones) till after the
inciting incidentwhen audiences would be more inclined to indulge in them.
By now, you mayve concluded that Jane and Jakes inciting incident is a classic example of a cute
meet in which the hero and heroine, already well-acquainted, see each other in a new light. But thats
not the only cute meet up this romantic comedys sleeve. For ten years, Janes been planning to add an
extension to her home. Now, shes finally going to get it done. At a meeting with her primary
architect, she praises his preliminary designs. But, it turns out he didnt make the adjustments which
Jane adores. It was his associateAdam.
Throughout their meeting, Janes ignored Adam (its revealed that shes entirely forgotten their first
encounter, he made so little of an impression), but now shes forced to pay attention to him. Nine
minutes into the movie, Cupid shoots his arrow, and she begins to consider Adam as a potential
romantic prospect, an idea which hadnt crossed her mind before. The fact that Janes ex is still a part
of the picture is the obstacle Jane and Adam must overcome in order to be a couple, an obstacle
which will drive the action during Act Two. In this case, you could argue that the first act ends and
the second begins when Jane returns to Californiato Adamafter her indiscretion with Jake.
To elaborate on this perspective, one cute meet could be the inciting incident for the main story, the
other cute meet could be the inciting incident for a subplot, or alternately, both are inciting incidents
for the two main storylines which dominate the script. Meyerss screenplay structure is rock solid.
Janes relationships with both men are interwoven so seamlessly, that a strong argument could be
made for the last option.
You might be wondering why this distinction even matters. For one thing, it will help you make
critical decisions when you edit. If you decided Janes relationship with Adam is the main story, or A
story, then when it came time to make cuts, youd know that between Jake and Adam, youd have to
reduce Jakes screentime and setup. The opposite also applies. If you decided that Janes relationship
with Adam is a subplot, or B story, then you should place more emphasis on her relationship with
There are also distinct marketing advantages to choosing Janes cute meet with Jake as the primary
inciting incident of your screenplay, as delayed as it is. Its dramatic, cinematic, and emotionally
compelling, certainly more so than Janes earlier encounters with Adam. Even more important, this
inciting incident is itself a hook, an intrinsically captivating idea which attracts interest without
further explanation.
Imagine pitching this concept to a room full of studio executives. Which do you think they will want to
invest in: a love story about a successful divorce who starts a relationship with her architect, despite
the interference of her charming exor a romantic comedy about a divorce who has an affair with
her now remarried ex-husband?
Both are equally applicable to ITS COMPLICATED, but only one could immediately elicit the
opening of several checkbooks.
The takeaway lesson? Inciting incidents are relative. They depend on:

when the ordinary, everyday world begins
what the main story is and what the subplots are
which event marks your first act break, and
what your selling strategy is (remember movie-making is first and foremost a business!)
Conclusion: Its a Toy, Not a Torture Device
As you can see, the inciting incident is very much open to interpretationand its subjective nature
can be the writing equivalent of waterboarding! Dont let it torture you. Realize that the importance of
the inciting incident lies within its function, not its presence.
At the beginning of this writing guide, I compared the inciting incident to a car ignition. Heres
another way to think of it: as a toy or distraction device. Its like the Teddy Ruxpin toy youd give to
five-year-olds (if youre old-school) when theyre strapped into the backseat of your minivan in the
hopes the talking teddy bear will distract them until you reach the beach, camping grounds, amusement
part, or whatever destination, when the REAL fun begins.
Like the talking toy, the inciting incident distracts audiences, preventing them from shifting impatiently
in their seats, asking Are we there yet? (Only for audiences, there isnt the beach or an
amusement park. Its the neat hook which brought them to the theater in the first place.) As long as
something exciting happens at the beginning of your scriptsomething relevant to your story and
specific to your genrebeing able to identify an inciting incident is basically moot.
When analyzing the structure of your favorite films, choose a moment which meets the four criteria
and move on. Its much more important to understand why you were bored or entertained during the
first ten minutes of the movie than to specifically isolate the inciting incident.
When youre plotting your own screenplay, again, dont waste too much time obsessing over the
inciting incident. Remember, its a Teddy Ruxpin toy, not a CIA interrogation technique! Still, make
sure you assess the strength of your first act. Verify that you havent bored your audience in the
process of laying down your groundwork. Confirm that you have an exciting incident kicking in at
your storys beginning. It could be the inciting incident; it could be the prelude to it. If its just a
prelude, decide if showing the inciting incident afterwards is worthwhile. In some cases (like
SHERLOCK HOLMES), you might begin immediately with the scenes which would logically follow
the inciting incident, nixing prelude and the inciting incident altogether.
That being said, studio executives love plot points. If you ever have the good fortune to pitch your
script to them, you shouldnt name the inciting incident as such (because you want them paying
attention to your story, not your scaffolding), but if they ask, you should be able to give them an
answer. Name a story event, and articulately defend your choice, keeping in mind that the most
exciting and cinematic event is likely to grab their attention.
If your inciting incident is off-screen, say that and explain your decision-making process. Something
like: Technically, its when the heros boss assigns him the case, but I didnt want to bore audiences
with bureaucracy, so I kept it off-screen. (And wont you sound clever?) Odds are, if your first ten
minutes are exciting enough (ie you havent dilly-dallied too long with your heros everyday life and
youve fulfilled genre expectations early on), youll never be questioned about the inciting incident at
You may use the tips and tricks Ive presented in this book to analyze movies Ive used as examples
and arrive at completely different conclusions than I have. Thats fantastic! It means youre thinking
critically about storyabout what works and why. Even if this leads to disagreements and
differences of opinion, Ive accomplished my goal: to help you craft a compelling story which
engages audiences right away.
Want More?
Your Free Gift
Youre not alone, fellow scribe. Story structure gives every writer a headache. Fortunately, Ive got
something thats better than aspirin. (Its free too.)
Its called the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet. It will walk you, step by step, through the
process of plotting your next screenplay (or novel).
Specifically, the worksheet includes questions and checklists to help you craft:

a logline in less than 10 minutes
a midpoint with meaning
an Act Two ending with emotional impact
a badass climax
a screenplay with commercial appeal (and minimal amateur mistakes)
Download the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet and never fear story structure again! You can
access it here.
Questions or Comments?
Id love to hear from you, especially if this guide has helped you improve your own screenplay (or
novel). You can reach me at scribemeetsworld@gmail.com
Need Help?
Do you need help with your screenplay? Especially with its structure? I can provide you with
detailed feedback that you can use right away to make your script stand out in a crowded marketplace.
To learn more about my script notes, click here.
Improve Your Screenwriting Karma
Did you benefit from this screenwriting book? Improve your screenwriting karma and help other
writers, who are lost in the wilderness of screenplay structure, discover it too!
Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

Leave an honest review on Amazon
Improve your screenwriting karma
Write a sizzling screenplay
Sell it for six figuresor more
It will only take a few seconds. Just click here, and you will be taken directly to the Amazon page
where you can leave honest feedback. I really do appreciate itand so do the laws of karma!
I wish you much successhowever you define iton your screenwriting journey.
Table of Contents
Part I: The Four Key Characteristics of the Inciting Incident
#1: Its Passive
#2: It Jolts the Hero out of His Everyday World
#3: Its Personal
#4: Its Causally Linked to the First Act Break
The Beautiful Lockdown
When the Past Is Prologue
Part II: When Does the Inciting Incident Occur?
Rule of Ten
Part III: What Happens after the Inciting Incident?
Fulfillment of Genre Expectations
Assembly of Team or Toolkit
Articulation of Theme
Putting It All Together
Part IV: Inciting Incident and Genre
Mysteries, Thrillers, and Action Movies
Romantic Comedies
Comedies and Dramas
Choosing the Inciting Incident
Part V: In-Depth Case Studies
THE MUMMY (1999)
Conclusion: Its a Toy, Not a Torture Device
Want More?