The Inciting Incident — Opening Your Movie with a Bang

The beginning of every movie starts off with an inciting incident that either gets the movie going or summarizes what the movie is about (or does both).

Act I is crucial because it’s the first thing anyone sees of your screenplay. If you have a weak Act I but a killer Act III, nobody will have the patience to wait for Act III because they’ll give up on your movie long before Act I can even finish. While you should work to make every Act as perfect as possible, you must especially focus on Act I to grab the viewer right from the start and never let him (or her) go until your screenplay finally ends.

The first part of Act I is the opening or inciting incident, which serves a dual purpose. First, it has to be an exciting or interesting scene that makes viewers want to watch to see what happens next. Second, it needs to set the tone for what the rest of your screenplay is about. Often times, the inciting incident may not even include any of the main characters of your movie.\r\n\r\nIn the 1984 movie “War Games,” the inciting incident occurs when two Air Force men are ordered to launch nuclear missiles, but one of them says he can’t so the other points a gun at him and orders him to turn the key to launch the missile. In “Jaws,” the inciting incident occurs when a couple runs along the beach to party and the girl goes skinny dipping in the ocean, only to be eaten by the shark

In both of these examples, the inciting incident gives you a taste of what the movie’s going to be about. In “War Games,” the movie is about annihilation through nuclear war. In “Jaws,” the movie is about a man-eating shark.

In these two examples, the inciting incident hints at the main story but without any of the main characters involved. Inciting incidents that include a main character often begin with a mystery that makes you want to figure out what’s going on.

In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” we see three explorers in a mysterious jungle. We don’t know what they’re looking for or who they are, so we keep watching to see what happens next simply because the situation looks interesting and unusual.

In “Kung Fu Panda,” a fierce warrior is battling an army of enemies single-handedly using his incredible kung fu skills, which turns out to be just a dream of the main character.\r\n\r\nWhen an inciting incident includes a main character, it provides us with a problem (Exposition), lets us see the conflict (Rising Action), and gives us the final result (Climax) to create the first 15 minute segment of the movie.

When an inciting incident does not include a main character, it’s usually much shorter and ends abruptly, but it also includes its own Exposition, Rising Action, and Climax. Then the next scene introduces the main characters.

The main reason to use an inciting incident that does not include a main character is simply to grab our attention right from the start. Take out this inciting incident and “War Games” and “Jaws” would start off flat and boring, and that would be the end of the movie as far as audience interest is concerned. However, by starting with an exciting inciting incident, the movie can start off with a bang.

So think about how you want your script to open. Start off with a short inciting incident that summarizes your movie (like “War Games” or “Jaws”), or get right into introducing your main characters in an unusual situation (like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Kung Fu Panda”).

However you want to introduce an audience to your movie, the number one rule is that you have to show something interesting right from the start because if you don’t, you’ll lose them and it doesn’t matter how wonderful the rest of your movie might be if the beginning doesn’t grab their attention by the throat right from the start.

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