Every screenplay needs to start off with an Inciting Incident, every Act begins with an Inciting Incident, and even every scene begins with an Inciting Incident. Now the next question is how do you create an Inciting Incident?
Think back to your favorite movie and how it begins. Nearly all James Bond films begin with a harrowing escape by James Bond as he manages to outwit his pursuers. Other movies have also adapted this action sequence opening such as all the Indiana Jones movies. So one way to create a compelling Inciting Incident is to open with a literal bang.
In the “Sixth Sense,” that literal bang is when Bruce Willis gets shot by a former patient of his, who he couldn’t help. In “Star Wars,” the big bang at the beginning is the capture and boarding of Princess Leia’s starship.
Of course, not all movies can start off with an action sequence. Sometimes it’s best to start off with a mystery. In “Saving Private Ryan,” that opening sequence is a quiet trip to the cemetery. We know something has happened, but we aren’t quite sure what. This mystery makes us want to know more.
In “A Clockwork Orange,” the opening scene is a strange sight of all the gang seemingly frozen in a bizarre bar, where the hero calmly drinks a glass of milk while looking menacing at the camera. This opening grabs our attention from the start.
Sometimes a movie starts off with a problem right away. In “The Karate Kid,” the mother is moving with her son to a strange neighborhood, and the boy is worried. Starting with a problem right away grabs our attention because we want to know how the hero will solve his problem.
Another way to grab the audience from the start is to show a seemingly normal scene, and then reveal that it’s not quite what you thought originally. In “Pulp Fiction,” we see a nice couple in a restaurant, seemingly in love. Then suddenly they jump up and announce they’re robbing the place. In “The Truman Show,” Jim Carey appears, talking to himself in a mirror, announcing all the wonderful plans he has for exploring the world, and then we find out he’s just daydreaming and is really an ordinary guy getting ready to go to work.
Every Inciting Incident has two purposes. First, it must grab the audience’s attention. Second, it must set the stage for conflict that’s to come. Sometimes this conflict might not seem obvious at first, but there should always be a hint of the conflict right from the beginning.
In “A Clockwork Orange,” we see a strange street gang. We don’t know what the conflict might be, but their less than friendly appearance suggests some trouble lies ahead.
So here are three ways to create an Inciting Incident:
- Start off with a bang, which sets the tone for the rest of the movie (usually action)
- Start with a mystery
- Start with a problem
- Start with something normal that’s not what it seems
There are probably other variations you can use, but this should give you a good start in creating an Inciting Incident to grab an audience’s attention. Now from this point on, you have to satisfy that audience’s expectations.