The language of TV and screenwriting is constantly changing, just like everything else in the universe – well, our little corner of it anyway – and this TVWriter™ minion has to admit that sometimes even I don’t know what people way smarter than I do are talking about.
Case in point: The phrase “Inciting Incident.” This term has had me scratching my head for years. Does it replace “The Call to Action?” or does it supplement it? I never was able to figure it out till I saw this article on the interwebs last week.
Ah, enlightenment at last! Thank you, Script Reader Pro!
WHAT IS AN INCITING INCIDENT IN A SCREENPLAY?
by Script Reader Pro
…It’s no wonder many aspiring writers are left confused about the nature of the term “inciting incident” when it’s routinely used to describe three different major plot points during Act 1 in the first thirty-minutes of a movie.
Let’s first take a quick look at these three different inciting incident definitions. Then we’ll explain what we think is the best approach when it comes to writing an inciting incident in a screenplay.
Inciting Incident Definition #1 (min 1 – 3)
Some refer to the inciting incident as the moment in the first few minutes of a movie that ignites the story, whether the protagonist is involved or not.
Catherine murdering a man during sex in the opening scene of Basic Instinctwould be an example. Or Cady moving from Africa back to America in the opening of Mean Girls.
(Note: sometimes this definition occurs off-screen, such as Chris and Rose arranging to visit her parents in Get Out.)
Inciting Incident Definition #2 (min 10 – 15)
This popular inciting incident definition is that it introduces the protagonist to the conflict they’ll need to resolve in the rest of the movie around twelve minutes into the film.
An example would be Greenberg meeting Florence in Greenberg. Or Rachel learning about the existence of the tape in The Ring.
Inciting Incident Definition #3 (min 20 – 30)
Others stipulate that the inciting incident occurs around minute 25 when the protagonist is hit by another major crisis and leaves Act 1 to enter the “new world” of Act 2.
An example would be when Carl fires blanks from the apartment window in Detroit and the cops mistake it for a sniper attack. Or in La La Land when Mia and Sebastian walk back to their cars together after she teases him at his gig and they perform a dance together.
You will see all inciting incident definitions in books, blogs and magazines and hear all three used by screenwriters, managers, producers and script readers. It can all get pretty confusing and so let’s see if we can answer the question “What is an inciting incident?…”