S2 E15 – Breaking your Story in Five Easy Steps – Part 4 – What's the Inciting Incident?
Many writers get confused about what the Inciting Incident is, and where it needs to happen in the story. Here's a definition that I've found helpful, along with a few key tips.
The INCITING INCIDENT is something that happens that draws your character into the main conflict of the story and launches them on their journey. Some key things to keep in mind:
1. It's not the first event to occur in the story, which may just be setting up the larger conflict in the world. The Inciting Incident is whatever occurs that draws your main character in the conflict. (Ex. In the film Armageddon, there's a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth, but that is NOT the inciting incident. The inciting incident is when a Nasa guy approaches Bruce Willis's character to help save the world as a deep core driller).
2. There needs to already be something going on in the world at large BEFORE the inciting incident happens. Likewise, your main character needs to already be pursuing something PRIOR to this event. The inciting incident basically hijacks their prior goals and gives the main character a new mission.
3. The inciting incident is what gives your main character his want - what he needs to pursue for the rest of the story. Everything unfolds according to what your character must do to achieve his goal.
4. This means the inciting incident needs to be something significant or important enough to raise the stakes and sustain the action of the story. It should be so important that it causes the character to act in ways he would not otherwise choose to do - but the stakes are high enough to warrant taking radical action.
5. Finally, it needs to something that happens in the present tense. It can't have occurred in the past. Otherwise, it begs the question, why is the character taking action NOW. It needs to be justified.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2_E15. How to Break Your Story in Five Easy Steps Part 4 – What’s the Inciting Incident?
Published December 9, 2021
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: Today, I want to launch into step four of how to break your story in five easy steps, which is, what is your inciting incident? Now, if you've been listening to this series so far, you're going to notice that all of the steps are connected. They're all connected. When you know one, it informs the other and vice versa. And I want to take you through a number of examples of this, so you can see what I'm talking about.
PRESENTATION: However, before we launch into the examples, I need to clarify what an inciting incident is. Because I do think there's a lot of confusion about what the inciting incident is in a story, especially if you don't understand some of the other things that have to be in a story.
For example, I was talking to one of our team members, and he brought up the film Armageddon. And he said, "Well, it seems clear to me that the inciting incident and Armageddon happens at the very beginning; it's the asteroid headed to Earth and is about to destroy everything." And I said, "No, actually, that isn't the inciting incident."
The inciting incident has to do with what sucks your character into the story. What is the event that happens that involves your character in the primary conflict of the overall story?
So in Armageddon, yeah, there's an asteroid that is careening out of control, and it's going to hit the world and destroy it. But that's not what involves the main character. The inciting incident is when a NASA recruitment guy goes to a team of misfit deep core drillers, and says, "You guys are the ones that have to save the world. Because NASA can't do it. We need people who can drill into the deep core of the asteroid, so we can blow it up with a nuclear bomb. And that's going to be you guys." That's the inciting incident. Without that, your main character doesn't get involved in the story.
Now, this is important, because there's already stuff going on in this story. When you start a story, there's already something happening in the larger world. There's already events unfolding. People have agendas, people are doing something. So, bad guys are planning things or natural disasters are happening, weddings are being planned, or whatever the case may be. The question is, what is it that happens that sucks your character into that story?
So something already has to be going down, something already has to be unfolding in the world at large. That's just story itself. That's just the setting for the story. But your inciting incident is the moment, the thing that happens, that draws your main character into that story, and gives them their goal that they're going to pursue for the entire rest of the story.
But here's the other thing, in addition to the fact that something already has to be going on in the world at large, your character himself or herself must already be pursuing something. They already have something in motion, because that's how we are as people. Because that's how the world is. Things are going on in the world. And we ourselves are already pursuing something; we've already got our plans in motion, and whatever the inciting incident is, disrupts the plans of the character. It interrupts whatever it is they've already got going.
So going back to Armageddon, what Bruce Willis already has going, is he's got Ben Affleck's character, that Bruce Willis doesn't like. And so he's already caught up in that drama. He doesn't want his daughter with that guy. He doesn't think that guy is good enough for his daughter. So he is already in the process of testing or trying to sabotage their relationship. He's also in the process of trying to keep his guys safe, because this particular drilling duty is dangerous. So he's a dad and he's a boss. That's what he's got going on. And he's doing the best he can to protect everybody in his world. But then, enter NASA. "Hey, Bruce, guess what, we've got a problem and you are the only one that can stop it."
That means that the inciting incident requires the main character to react to whatever it is that's happening in the world, and then they get sucked into the drama. And it sets off a chain reaction. This is actually what causes the whole rest of the story to unfold. Without the inciting incident, there is no story, because the inciting incident is the very thing that launches your character on their journey. They were headed one way, but boom, something happened. And it disrupts their world and it sets them in motion in another direction, because they can no longer pursue whatever it is that they were already pursuing at the start of the story; the inciting incident forces them to go in a new direction to pursue this thing instead.
Now, usually, they're able to incorporate both, right? They're able to incorporate both in a weird kind of way. In fact, it's usually, whatever the inciting incident is, it's going to tie into whatever they were actually pursuing to begin with. So in Bruce Willis's case, he says, "Okay, I'll go do this, I'll save the world. But I want my own team to go with me, including this hot shot Ben Affleck, because he's not good enough for my daughter." But then, of course, over the course of the telling, he comes to see Ben Affleck differently to the point that he ends up sacrificing himself for Ben Affleck so Ben can go and marry his daughter, and they can live happily ever after. So it all works out. And it's all connected.
The point is, that in addition to something going on in the world at large, the character has to already have something in motion, and the inciting incident is the thing that disrupts that particular plan, and sucks the character into the new one, which launches them on the whole journey, the entire drama of the story, the main action that is going to unfold for the rest of the story.
And this is also important because your character must drive the action of the story.
They drive the action based on what it is they're pursuing. Without the inciting incident, they have nothing to pursue. The inciting incident is the thing that gives them their goal, what they are relentlessly pursuing for the rest of the story. And as a result of what they're pursuing, they make choices to get that thing -- what are they after and how do they get it?
So again, in Bruce Willis's case in Armageddon, he wants to get to the asteroid, drill a hole in it, blow it up, so that he can save his daughter, his friends and the world as he knows it. That's his goal, save the world. So now he takes logical steps to be able to attain that goal. They've got to go get training, he's got to recruit his team, they've got to do this, they've got to do that, they've got to do this, they've got to get the right things, blah, blah, blah, blah, whatever has to happen for them to achieve that goal.
It gives them the clear path to pursue, which is why this is so important in breaking your story. Because if you don't have a good inciting incident, you're not going to have a story at all, because the character must make choices in accordance with the goal that is raised as a result of that inciting incident.
But here's the funny thing. While your character must drive the action of the story from this point on, the inciting incident is the one time in the story where the character can just have something happen to them. See, the kiss of death and story is passivity. If your character is passive, your story won't work. They have to be active, they have to be driving the action of the story because of the choices they're making.
However, since your character is already pursuing something at the beginning of the story, the inciting incident can be something that just comes out of nowhere. It can be absolute coincidence, surprise, random, it is the one time when your character could have nothing to do with whatever's happening in that world, boom, something happens to him. Regarding Henry, he goes to the gas station and boom, he gets shot in the head. He didn't cause that; it happened to him. And the same thing is true in Armageddon. Bruce Willis is just minding his own business. NASA comes to him. NASA finds him and they present him with an opportunity. And he accepts it, because remember, he reacts to whatever it is that's happening in the larger world. And that's how we get sucked into the bigger story. So it's the one time in your story where it can just be totally random and something can happen and your character can be passive.
However, whatever it is that happens to the character needs to be big enough to be able to sustain the entire rest of the story.
So obviously a detective who needs to solve a case -- that's big enough to carry us through the entire rest of the story. But if your inciting incident is that a man didn't get to eat the last piece of pie, well, that's really hard to sustain some sort of riveting drama or some sort of riveting conflict for a long period of time, which means it also needs to raise the stakes. Whatever happens should be a big deal. Now, it can still be small to the rest of the world, but to the character, it must raise the stakes, it must be incredibly important. It isn't something minor. And the reason for that is, it needs to cause a notable shift in the character himself or herself. In other words, the character has to be willing to take risks, they have to be willing to act in a way that he or she wouldn't otherwise act because of what's at stake.
In Armageddon, when you have that the world is going to end as we know it, that's pretty darn high stakes. It means that a man who would never ever contemplate becoming an astronaut who drills into an asteroid that's moving in outer space, would be willing to make that choice because the stakes are high enough. Or in Jaws, you have a sheriff whose inciting incident is that a girl was attacked and killed by a shark. And so now he has to take radical action to make sure that this shark doesn't keep killing. So they have to be willing to take radical action because the stakes are high enough to force their hand.
Now, here's another thing. It also needs to be current. Whatever the inciting incident, it needs to happen now. It needs to be relevant now. It has to be in the present tense.
A lot of times, I'll see stories where the writers are trying to have the inciting incident be some event from the past, but it can't have occurred in the past. For one that lowers the stakes. For two, it begs the question, well, why are they acting now? If it happened so far, long ago, why are they just now acting? So yeah, you can have backstory and all those things. But still, something needs to happen NOW that forces them to finally act on whatever it was. Maybe we'll have a story about somebody who was adopted and they've known that since a long time ago, but they've never looked for their biological parents. Well, you can't just have them decide to do that from nowhere. But if they discover that they're in acute kidney failure, and they need to find a donor, and it has to be somebody that is biologically related to them or they're going to die, now that's the inciting incident that launches them on their journey to find their family. So it has to be present, present present; it cannot have occurred in the past.
So let's look at some examples. Because I want you to see how different this can be, how small it can be, and yet how it's all connected.
So in the movie About Schmidt, which is one of my favorites (if you haven't seen it, you ought to put it on your list). Our main character is Schmidt. At the beginning of the story, he is in the process of retiring. That's what's happening in his world. But what he wants is to be seen as having been important. He wants his life to have made a difference. And he's lying to himself. So he's pretending. He knows that nothing in his life has mattered, but he's not willing to admit that yet. And he's searching for meaning. That's what this story is kind of about.
However, what he needs is to be a better human being, because he's actually a selfish jerk. Now, at the beginning of the story, we follow this trajectory of him retiring, and now we see him in his life after retirement and how he's trying to be important, pretending that they still need him at work, even though he's retired and he pretends he has to go help, or he's going to try to find meaning by rebelling against his wife's instructions, this sort of thing.
But the inciting incident that is often lost on people, by the way, is when he signs up as a sponsor for a World Vision type of a child. He sees an Angela Lansbury ad on the TV about sponsoring these children. And by God, he signs up. And that is the inciting incident for Schmidt. That is the thing that launches him on the journey for the entire rest of the story. And it intersects with this other want, this want to be important, this want for his life to make a difference.
And as he writes his letters to Endugu, because now he's a sponsor, and as he heads out to try to break up his daughter's wedding, because he thinks that's going to be the thing that makes us life matter, he ends up learning a lot of things about himself and about his wife, and about the kind of man he is, which drives him, then, to face the fact that he needs to be a better man. And he has an opportunity to make that choice at a very key moment, because that's where the climax comes in.
See, the climax is always going to be related to their need. Are they going to get what they need in addition to what they want? Generally speaking, the climax is where the want and the need come together. That's what the entire story has led to -- is that moment of climax. And so in that moment of climax, Schmidt has a moment to either choose to be the jerk he's always been or to embrace being a better human being, which is a sacrifice, it means he loses what he thinks he wants, which is to break up his daughter's wedding. He sacrifices his own needs and has to admit that his life doesn't amount to squat, that he will soon die, and it won't have made any difference at all.
That is the moment where he becomes a better person. And now the universe can reward him with what he really wants, which is for his life to actually matter. And that's going to come from Endugu.
In Lars and the Real Girl, Lars is our main character. And at the beginning of the story, what's happening? Well, what's happening in the larger world is that his sister in law is pregnant. And that has spun Lars into some sort of PTSD experience. But that's not the inciting incident.
Now, what does Lars want? What Lars wants is to be able to be with Margot, he wants the real girl. He wants to be in intimate connection with Margo. What he needs is to overcome his traumatic wounds from childhood. His mother died when he was born. And his father never recovered from that, and therefore Lars was grossly neglected and abandoned. And so Lars is very damaged goods. So that's what he wants. He wants to be with Margo. He needs to overcome his wounds. What's happening in the world is his sister in law is about to give birth. And that triggers Lars's trauma and fear that she's going to die in childbirth, but the inciting incident is when he orders a sex doll. Yes, you heard me. He orders a sex doll.
Now, by the way, this is a very chaste movie. It's very beautiful, actually. It's one of my favorites because it happens to be one of the few movies that shows the Christian community behaving exactly as they should. They are not evil, they are good. And they love Lars through his trauma, and they help him to heal because of how beautifully they respond to what he's gone through. But a lot of Christians, of course, they're offended by the fact that Lars orders a sex doll. But the sex doll becomes the fake girl that allows him to work through his trauma. So it's all tied together.
But what launches him on his adventure is actually the inciting incident -- the moment he orders the sex doll. And then all that other stuff comes into it. But that sucks him into the drama.
Okay, Star Wars. What's happening in Star Wars? Okay, who's our main character? Luke. What's happening in the world? Well, there's a war between the Rebellion and the Empire. That's what's happening in the large world. Luke isn't part of that. That's just already going on in the world.
What's going on in Luke's world? Well, Luke wants adventure. He wants to be involved in something important. He wants more than this preventional life. He doesn't want to be a farmer stuck here on this boring planet.
What does Luke need? Well, for one, Luke needs to grow up and become the hero that's going to save the universe from the evil empire.
Now, what is the inciting incident? Well, that's when He buys the droids that ultimately give him the message from Princess Leia, and launches him on his journey to becoming a Jedi Knight, the one that can actually save everybody from the domination of the evil empire.
Okay, what about Matrix? Okay, let's talk about that. Who's the main character? Neo. What's happening in the world at large? Well, something isn't right. Nobody quite knows. There's a mysterious element that is a big secret and Neo, what does he want? He wants to know what it is. He wants to know the truth about what the matrix is and who Morpheus is. He's heard the chatter as a hacker. And he wants to know the truth.
Now, what is Neo doing at the very beginning of the story? What's happening in his world? Well, he has already a secret hacker who's working to solve this puzzle through his hacker name, Neo. The thing that he's already doing is trying to solve this very question.
What's the inciting incident? Well, this is when Thomas Anderson is contacted through some mysterious source, and this person tells him to follow the White Rabbit, which ultimately will lead him to Trinity, and one step closer to Morpheus. So he didn't actually cause the inciting incident. It happened to him. And yet, he then chose to act on it, he follows the White Rabbit, he meets with Trinity. When Morpheus calls him on the phone, he tries to follow Morpheus's instructions. But guess what? He doesn't believe in himself as the one because that's what he needs.
What does Neo need? He needs to believe in himself as the one who has the power to beat the machines and save all mankind.
Again, I want to reiterate, it's not the first event to occur in the story because things are already happening in that world. It needs to be something that draws your character into the larger conflict.
So, in the Iron Giant, you've got the main character, Hogarth, a little boy. What's happening in the larger world? We're in the middle of a Cold War where Sputnik is a thing, and we're afraid of communism, and the nuclear bomb could go off at any minute. It is a terrifying time in history. And that's what's happening in the real world.
What's happening in Hogarth's world? Well, what's happening with Hogarth is that somehow his father is gone. We never actually find out anything about that. But he's being raised by a single mother. So he's alone a lot. And as a result of that, he's trying to be the man of the family. He wants to be a hero, he wants to be the grown up who can protect his mother. He's acting in that capacity as if he's not a little boy.
What does he need? Well, at the end of the day, he needs a friend, a connection, a father figure, he needs a hero.
Now, the inciting incident is when he goes out hunting for The Iron Giant. And then he saves the Iron Giant, because, see, he's actually going against what the world would have him do. He supposed to let this creepy, horrible creature die, because it's a threat. And instead, Hogarth saves this potential weapon, The Iron Giant, and that's what launches him on his adventure, on his story, his journey.
It's what sets off a chain reaction. Everything else in the story unfolds because of that event, and everything that he wants and needs ends up being entangled in that event. So, you see how all of these things so far in the story, all of the steps that we've talked about, we've just gone through that, who is the main character? What do they want? What do they need? And what is the inciting incident?
But in that, notice, you have to also know what's happening in the world at large before the inciting incident. And what does the character pursue before that inciting incident? Because whatever the inciting incident is, it changes that thing. It hijacks it, and makes it into something else. It raises the stakes and then it sets them on a journey that launches them on the adventure that they're going to have to solve over the course of the story.
CONCLUSION: That's the inciting incident. And if you know these four things, you are well on your way to be able to break your entire story. But there's one more thing that you need. And we'll talk about that next week.
CALL TO ACTION: I hope that this has been helpful to you. And if you need even more help, I would love to be of service to you in the form of a script critique, manuscript critique, or help you as a coach to make sure you've identified each of these four things clearly. So check out my services available on the web site, www dot the storytellers mission.com.
OUTRO: In the meantime, thank you for listening to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story. (Thank you, Lulu).