The Inciting incident is also known as a catalyst or an inciting event. This is something that radically upsets the balance in your protagonists’ life. Your protagonists’ life will never be the same again until s/he resolves this mess they find themselves in. Your Inciting incident comes in just as you come to the end of your set-up. If you did your set up right, then at this moment in the story we find ourselves going on this journey with your protagonist, we pray for them and hope that they get what they want/need to bring normalcy back into their lives.
The inciting incident can happen anytime in the set-up of your story, it can be the first thing that happens, can come in at minute 5 or 7, whatever the case it absolutely needs to happen within the 25 percent of your telling; for example in a 90 minute film, 25 percent of 90 is 22.5 minutes(Who knew math would follow us on this journeyJ)
In my years as a script editor I’ve noticed that there are some challenges that come with bringing in the inciting incident early, say at minute five. The audience hasn’t connected well with your protagonist and the world and hence if the inciting incident happens too early, the audience struggles to adjust to the world and feelings and trying to root for your protagonist, in turn they might miss out on a good size of the film and important bits. The 25 percent of the telling isn’t a formula but just a guide to help you see how to place your inciting incident. Your inciting incident also needs to be something strong enough that your protagonist cannot say no to; their life needs to be completely turned upside down by the inciting incident that they have no choice but to fight the imbalance in their life.
If your inciting incident is weak and your character can go back to their normal life after it has happened then we might as well say we don’t have a movie/show/story. An example of an inciting incident is; in Mali, a Kenyan soap opera that I worked on, the father of the main family dies, he had two wives and as soon as he dies, the two families start fighting over his wealth. The guy had to die for the story to start, without his death there would be no story as that’s what the entire show is set around. His death was the inciting incident. Take a minute to think of your favourite film or TV show, what was the inciting incident? Now imagine a protagonist ignoring the inciting incident and moving on with life; business as usual, would the film or TV show have potential to go on with nothing happening other than moving images?
Always make sure your incident is strong enough that your protagonist cannot ignore it. This inciting incident is what gives your story direction, because of the inciting incident your protagonist positions herself to accomplish this purpose. Without purpose your story will only be a bunch of beautiful images with no stakes, no emotions and going nowhere.
Something to keep in mind is that; in as much as is possible, have your inciting incident as an action. Something happens to the protagonist, or they do something that gets the inciting incident started. As the saying goes actions speak louder than words, let’s see the inciting incident in action as opposed to hearing about it. Show don’t tell.
Your inciting incident should happen onscreen, not as a message being reported later. We must see the inciting incident in action i.e happening.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book on writing ‘Get writing; A beginner’s guide from Idea to First Draft. There are more excerpts on writing in a guide I give out for free! Subscribe to my email list to get it delivered to your inbox!