One of the key lessons to learn with an inciting incident is that it is out of the main character’s control. It is never an action or decision taken by the hero; it is an involuntary event which is irreversible and forces the protagonist to act. It is the event that kicks everything off. Without this, you are simply watching the character live their “normal” life, and this is not a story. The story comes from the abnormal. Synonyms for the word “incite” are things like “stir up”, “urge”, and “encourage”. This is precisely what you’re doing to the main character – you’re mixing up their life.
I have two ways I like to consider the inciting incident:
- As the event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s life and sets up the goal of correcting this imbalance.
- As a question that the hero tries to answer. Their answer is their goal.
Note how, in both methods, the inciting incident sets up the goal. They HAVE to be related to each other and the journey between the two is where you have your story. If they are not connected, either your goal is wrong, or your inciting incident is wrong.
Method 1 restricts itself slightly to a story where the protagonist believes his life is fine. They are proactively trying to return to their “normal life” without realising that they will change. Sometimes, however, the protagonist is actively trying to get somewhere new.
For this reason, I favour method 2 as I think it can apply to every scenario. The important bit in method 2 is “their answer”. It’s not your answer, it’s not necessarily the right answer, but it’s what you think the character would do to answer that question. This feeds into your character and their characteristic.
I find the inciting incident the hardest part of a logline! There can be so much information that you have to try and cram into 20 or so words that it just seems really daunting to whittle it down to the essential elements. Here are the things which are worth thinking about in an inciting incident:
This time it’s personal
A question that I see frequently in logline feedback is “why this guy?”. Why does he/she/they have to be our protagonist over any other character within this world? Consider the following:
“When terrorists take over an office building (on Christmas Eve)…”
This could be the inciting incident to 1988’s Die Hard (a Christmas classic – don’t @ me). The problem with this is it doesn’t give us any reason why John McClane must be our hero.
Compare that to:
“When terrorists take over his wife’s office building (on Christmas Eve)…”
Suddenly, we understand why John McClane must be our protagonist. Do we need to know they are separated? Not really because what does it add? A bit of history but that’s it. It doesn’t change the fact John McClane wants to save his wife from terrorists.
I prefer to frame my inciting incidents around a main character for the simple reason that this is their story. It gets a little trickier in ensemble films where a group of characters have a shared goal, however, usually one character is the “leader”. Independence Day (1996), for example, follows a small group of characters trying to save the world from an alien invasion but one character is the guy who calls the shots: President Whitmore, played by Bill Pullman. He’s the president of the United States, so we immediately understand why this guy is our central protagonist. Framing the logline around his character gives the reader a very clear sense of what sort of film will be about. It gives us a personal story within a huge global event, and this lets the reader/audience into the story. It connects emotion to a premise.
Other ensemble films aren’t so easy but considering the themes within the story can help pinpoint a character who embodies the message you are trying to convey. Another option is to choose the character who has the biggest capacity for change, either internally or externally. If you go with the character with the biggest internal arc, the reader can immediately see that this is a more personal story, whereas if you go with the character who can affect external change, it feels more plot driven.
This gets more complicated if your story is an exploration of a theme. The best example of this is Love Actually (2003). There is no central character, it has a multi-stranded narrative, and it takes an exceptionally talented writer, such as Richard Curtis, to pull this off! I’ll discuss how to logline for multi-stranded narratives in a future post.
Keep it simple
This one can be tricky. Some stories have a lot going on in the first act and it’s difficult not to get bogged down with expositional events that influence the story. The inciting incident is precisely that though. One incident. Singular. It is usually a remarkably small moment within one scene – Rocky is challenged by Apollo Creed to a fight; Capt. John Miller is ordered to save Private Ryan after all his brothers are killed in action; Sulley accidentally lets Boo into Monstropolis. Such simple events, but the consequences sustain the 90+ minute runtime.
If you find your inciting incident becoming long and unwieldy, with a chain of events and lots of world building and exposition, try thinking about that one scene which provides the question leading to the rest of the story. Write that one moment down and see if it makes sense on its own. The Lord of the Rings is set in a huge world with a vast history, mythical creatures, fantastical ideas, magic, hobbits, elves, orcs, etc. and if you wanted to write a logline for the whole thing, it could easily become complicated. So… let’s start with the inciting incident for the complete story (without any exposition or world building):
“After discovering his uncle’s old ring is the lost all-powerful magic ring and the dark lord is coming for it.”
That’s it in 20 words. If this one simple event didn’t happen, Frodo would never leave the Shire. The important bit is underlined. Without this, as Frodo himself suggests in the film, they could put it away, keep it hidden, and never speak of it again. If we took that bit out, there’s no reason for Frodo to do anything. There’s no urgency; no question that needs answering. With that, we suddenly understand why it must be now! Including the exposition about the ring being his uncle’s also goes someway to explain why it must be Frodo – there’s a sense of familial responsibility and suggests a backstory far greater than we could ever get in this logline… that creates interest whilst still maintaining everything a logline needs to do.
The other great thing about this inciting incident is, whilst it seems simple, it does so much! It immediately confirms the genre you’ve selected (Fantasy), you get that it’s a good vs evil story, we get a glimpse of the protagonist, we get the antagonist and what his goal is, we get a hint of the stakes (if the dark lord gets hold of the all-powerful ring, it ain’t gonna be good!), and we get the magical MacGuffin that is central to the whole story.
A couple of things to note in this inciting incident:
- It’s THE lost all-powerful magic ring, not A lost all-powerful… This makes the ring seem important, not just to the plot but within the world.
- It’s THE dark lord, not A dark lord. Make the bad guy sound like the biggest bad guy ever and, similarly to the ring, makes him significant within the world.
I haven’t mentioned hobbits, or Middle-Earth, or anything a reader wouldn’t understand, and it sets up everything that happens next without reams of world-building and exposition that could bury the plot.
If a reader doesn’t understand what’s happening in the inciting incident and why this leads to the plot, you’ve lost before you’ve left the gate. So, as much as you can, keep it simple, relatable, and understandable.
Don’t confuse an exciting incident as an inciting incident
All too often, people mistake a really exciting moment which has massive significance to the story as the inciting incident. The best example is the moment an ordinary teenager gets bitten by a radioactive spider and wakes up the following day as Spider-Man. Yes, this is absolutely fundamental to the story BUT what is the question that this poses to the hero? What do you do when you develop superpowers? Based on everything suggested so far, if he wants to return to his “normal” life, his goal is to get rid of these superpowers. This doesn’t sound like any superhero film I know of. Ok, so let’s say his goal isn’t to go back to normal, it’s to move forward as a superhero. Well then, he becomes his friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. That’s about it. Helping those in need in his community… for 120 minutes. This also doesn’t sound like any superhero film I know of. So, what is the inciting incident? A superhero is nothing without a supervillain and THAT’S the one event that really asks a question of the protagonist. What do you do when a big bad guy with their own superpowers tries to take over the city? You try and stop him because you’re the only one who can. Simple.
In ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, it’s not when the freak weather events happen, it’s when Dennis Quaid realises his son is stuck in the New York Library and will freeze to death. In ‘Jumanji’, it’s not the discovery of the game, it’s not even when Alan Parrish is sucked into the jungle; it’s when he’s spat back out again in the future and has the chance to end the game… at last! Why? Because they ask a question of the protagonist. Dennis Quaid can’t stop a force of nature, but he can rescue his son. Alan Parrish can’t escape a magical game until someone rolls 5 or 8… it’s out of his hands, so our PROtagonist can’t be PROactive. When he finally does get out though, he does whatever it takes to end the game!
The inciting incident may not be the most exciting incident within your first act, but it’s the one that carries the weight of the rest of the film on its shoulders and sets up a clear goal for the protagonist. If it doesn’t pose a question to the main character, it’s probably not the inciting incident.
A quick checklist which may help when it comes to crafting your inciting incident in a logline:
- Is it one singular event happening to the protagonist which is out of their control?
- Is it as short and succinct as you can make it?
- Does it mix up the protagonist’s life in some way?
- Does it ask a question of the protagonist and set up a clear goal?
If your answer is “no” to any of these, my recommendation is to think a little more about your inciting incident – not so you necessarily answer “yes” to all the above – but simply so you can understand whether your inciting incident is doing everything it needs to. The most important thing is that it is relevant to the story you’re trying to tell.