Intensive Materials: Inciting Incident
Today we look at the first Commandment of Storytelling: the inciting incident. This is an event that upsets the balance in life or the status quo and is a catalyst for everything that follows within the scene or other unit of story.
To get a clear sense of this, consider the basic story structure former Pixar story artist Emma Coats, has shared.
Within the bones of this fill-in-the-blank story, the sentences that start “Once upon a time” and “Every day” describe the status quo. “One day” is the inciting incident when things begin to change.
You can also think about the inciting incident as the call to adventure within the hero’s journey. The purpose is to kick things off.
What are the elements of an inciting incident?
The inciting incident upsets the status quo, but it must do more than that. If the event happens and the protagonist or POV character shrugs his shoulders, the story or scene won’t go anywhere. The event must cause the character(s) to react. We can see the inciting incident as four different elements:
- The event throws the character or their life out of balance.
- The desire to reset the balance arises within the character.
- This desire becomes a goal the character believes will reset the balance. The goal could be an attitude or belief, the acquisition of some object, or a change in circumstances.
- The character takes action in pursuit of the goal.
These elements won’t always be explicit, but the reader should be able to see them within the subtext of the story.
What are the qualities of an inciting incident?
Inciting incidents can be
- positive (a character receives a financial windfall or a teacher encourages students to seize the day) or
- negative (a man is shot and killed in the middle of town or an enemy ship fires on a frigate)
- causal or an active choice (a character sets out on a journey or decides to leave their spouse) or
- coincidental (a shark attacks swimmers or two men of great fortune move into the neighborhood)
Check out this article from The Story Grid site about Inciting Incidents:Commandment Number One.
Watch this scene from Master and Commander and identify the inciting incident. Are the four elements apparent from the context even though they're compressed and implied. (You can find an excerpt from the screenplay for this scene here.)
It’s not too early to be thinking about which scenes you want to work on during the intensive. Your first scene submission is due Saturday, February 3, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. Pacific time. Don’t worry, we’ll remind you again before then. In the meantime, and as you work through the pre-course materials, think about how these topics might apply to the scenes you want to submit. Remember, you’re free to write fresh scenes if you want, but you can also use scenes from a work in progress.
Think about a story you’ve read or watched lately. What event kicked things off? Can you identify the four elements?
In the context of your own life, consider the inciting incidents you’ve experienced. Look at small and large events, causal and coincidental, positive and negative. How did you feel when you were in the middle of the event and afterward? Remember that you can use your reactions and emotions to inform what your characters say and do in similar circumstances.