Inciting Incidents

The opening scene of every story immediately lets audience’s know what type of story it is and who the villain is. Oh, and it must also grab the audience’s attention and make them want to watch the rest of your story too.

At the very beginning of every movie, the villain needs to set the story in motion.  Two ways to do this are:

  • Show the villain directly
  • Show the villain indirectly

When you show the villain directly, we see who the villain is right away. This is the method used in “Star Wars” when we see Princess Leia’s spaceship under attack, being boarded, and Darth Vader stepping through to let us see him for the first time.

When you show the villain indirectly, we don’t see the villain. Instead, we see something related to the villain. In “WALL-E,” we see mounds of garbage created by the corporation that will ultimately oppose WALL-E. In “Monsters vs. Aliens,” we see the meteor being spotted and tracked by an observatory. In “Die Hard,” we see that Bruce Willis is afraid of flying. This fear is indirectly related to the villain since it helps foreshadow the real villain later.

Indirect openings often include characters that we never see again, such as the astronomers in “Monsters vs. Aliens” who exist only for that single scene. Direct openings feature characters that will play a major role throughout the rest of the movie, such as Darth Vader stepping into Princess Leia’s starship for the first time.

Whether you use the direct or indirect method, the main purpose of this inciting incident is to start the story moving right away, grab the audience’s attention, and set the tone for the story.

Starting the story right away is crucial. The sooner you get started, the sooner you can tell the rest of your story. There’s no point in delaying your story because if an audience doesn’t know what’s happening, they’ll never stick around to see the rest of your story.

Grabbing the audience’s attention right away is a bit trickier. You must grab the audience’s attention so they’ll want to see the rest of your movie. You can open with physical conflict such as the battle scene in “Star Wars,” or you can open with a mystery that shows somebody doing something interesting such as the WALL-E robot roaming around a world of skyscrapers made out of garbage. The type of opening you use depends on how you want to end your story.

“Star Wars” ends with a battle so it only makes sense to begin with a battle. “Finding Nemo” begins with a happy family life and ends with a happy family life. “Die Hard” begins with an arrival at the airport and ends with a departure from the skyscraper. Endings are almost always a reverse of the beginning.

Setting the tone for the story is important at the beginning so the audience knows if they’re watching a comedy, drama, or artsy film. In “Ghostbusters,” the opening scene shows a ghost haunting a library, but it’s done in a light tone as compared to a scary tone. To further cement the story as a comedy, the next scene shows Bill Murray hitting on an attractive co-ed by lying to her and electrocuting a boy who actually is guessing the cards correctly. That sets up the story as a comedy with paranormal overtones.

One criticism of “The Great Waldo Pepper,” starring Robert Redford, was that audiences thought it was a comedy at the beginning, right up until a woman falls to her death while trying to wing walk. At that moment, the tone of the movie changed and the audience felt cheated. They were expecting a comedy and suddenly found themselves in a drama.

So start your movie off with an inciting incident that reveals your villain directly or the power of your villain indirectly. Then grab the audience’s attention, start the story moving right away, and set the tone for your movie.

Beginnings are crucial because you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The first 15 minutes of your story should contain an inciting incident, introduce the hero and his (or her) goal, show the hero’s dead-end life, and introduce a hint of something new. Do all that in the first 15 minutes of your story and you’ll be off to a great start. Now you’ll just have to worry about putting the rest of your screenplay together.

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