Every story begins with the villain failing to achieve a goal. Sometimes this failure is because something happens but sometimes this failure is just because the villain is just starting to pursue a goal. In “Star Wars,” Darth Vader fails to capture the stolen Death Star plans. In “Die Hard,” Hans the terrorist leader just gets his plan started. In both cases, the villain gets the story going by pursuing a goal.
Sometimes the inciting incident starts the story. In “Star Wars,” the first scene involves Darth Vader’s starship chasing and catching Princess Leia’s starship. In “Don’t Breathe,” the first scene shows the villain dragging the unconscious hero through the streets of an abandoned neighborhood. In “War Games,” the first scene involves two missile men who are ordered to launch nuclear missiles but one of them refuses to do so.
If the inciting incident doesn’t start the story, it appears shortly after the story begins. In “Die Hard,” we meet John McClane, the hero, and learn that he’s on his way to meet his wife in a Los Angeles Christmas party. Only after he gets to the party does the inciting incident begin, which is when the terrorists start their take over of the skyscraper by shooting and killing the security guard.
In “WALL-E,” we first meet WALL-E, a garbage collecting robot. Only after meeting the hero do we see some solar-powered billboards that reveal the villain as the Buy N Large corporation, which polluted the planet.
In “Alien,” we first meet the crew waking up from hibernation. Only later do we find out why, which is that the ship detected a signal and ordered the crew to wake up and investigate.
If a story introduces the inciting incident at the beginning, it’s usually an action scene that focuses more on the villain than the hero. If the story introduces the hero first, then the inciting incident occurs after we get to know the hero. So the two ways to structure the inciting incident are:
- Introduce the villain (directly or indirectly through the inciting incident), then introduce the hero
- Introduce the hero, then introduce the villain and the inciting incident
The first method creates a fast start that throws us into action right away like Darth Vader attacking Princess Leia’s starship in “Star Wars.” The second method creates a slower start that relies on an interesting hero to grab our attention before introducing us to the inciting incident involving the villain. Think of “WALL-E” or “Die Hard.”
So try both methods for the start for your own screenplay. Then you can see which method will work best.