The Inciting Incident

Many screenplays take too long to get started. What the beginning of your screenplay needs is a sudden jolt out of the ordinary. One way to create this inciting incident is to jolt your hero out of his or her ordinary life. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero moves to a new neighborhood, which gets the story going.

Sometimes your inciting incident isn’t anything new to the hero but new to the audience. In “WALL-E,” WALL-E has been living alone on Earth for a long time, but to us, this situation starts off the story because we’re immediately intrigued to figure out what happened. As the story progresses, we get gradual clues that the human race had polluted the Earth too much and left the robots to clean it up. Then the robots failed and that’s how WALL-E got stuck all by himself.

The inciting incident doesn’t just jolt the story into action, but also pushes the hero towards the villain. In “The Karate Kid,” the hero’s move to the new neighborhood puts him into conflict with the villain. In “WALL-E,” the pollution of the Earth will eventually push WALL-E towards the villain.

So your inciting incident serves two purposes:

  • Jump start the story
  • Start pushing the hero towards inevitable conflict with the villain

The inciting incident may be created by the villain. Darth Vader in “Star Wars” starts the story going when he captures Princess Leia. Yet in “The Karate Kid,” the villain has no role in making the hero move to the new neighborhood.

In “Wargames,” the inciting incident occurs when the U.S. military runs a test to see how many men would actually launch nuclear missiles, and discovers that many of them would not. That causes them to turn control of their nuclear missiles to a computer, which starts pushing the hero towards confrontation with the villain.

The inciting incident needs to start pushing the hero towards the villain. In “Die Hard,” the hero arrives in Los Angeles to get back with his wife. The villain has nothing to do with the hero’s flight to Los Angeles from New York, but this event starts pushing the hero towards the villain.

In “The Hunger Games,” the lottery to choose tributes starts pushing the hero gradually towards the villain.

If your inciting incident doesn’t start pushing the hero towards the villain in some way, then you probably need to modify your inciting incident.

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