Most stories open with an attention-getting beat that reveals something likeable about the main character or the evil of the uber bad guy that he’ll face. This is followed by a series of scenes that demonstrate what the main character’s normal life is like. But audiences won’t hang on too long when it comes to emotionally flat experiences, so within a short time the storyteller must launch the main story using an inciting incident.
The inciting incident is a dynamic event or fully developed moment that radically upsets the main character’s status quo. The clear and obvious trigger throws the main character’s life out of balance. This action-based circumstance can either happen to the main character or be an unexpected ramification of a decision he makes.
The inciting incident can be simple like receiving a letter, diagnosis, pink slip, or phone call. In Star Wars, the inciting incident was a hologram of Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. Luke Skywalker was intrigued by her plea and decided that he was going to help her.
A successful inciting incident, not one that is stagnant or vague, drives the main character to make a decision that will change his life forever. The specific event places him on a story path of obstacles that turns his weakness into a strength. The event also raises the central question of the movie for the first time. In the case of Star Wars, the question is, “Will Luke help or save the princess?”
The single event must also cause the main character to clearly see that his life is now out of balance for better or worse. He must not only react to this positive or negative change, but he must respond as well. In other words, the incident must arouse a desire in him to restore the balance in his life, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—or all three.
The main character is therefore compelled to pursue his new goal of rebalancing his life. This stimulation becomes both a conscious and a subconscious desire. The subconscious driving force comes naturally for a complex character and shows up in the form of him suffering from an intense internal battle, especially if his conscious desire is in direct opposition or conflict with his subconscious desire.
Some writers refer to this internal battle as reflecting the character’s wants versus his needs. Many times the human condition causes us to chase after our wants, only to learn that we got what we needed instead. This righting of the unbalanced internal desire presents itself in a plot twist on screen—allowing for a realistic ending, while still pleasing the audience.
The key to developing an inciting incident is to make sure it launches a compelling character goal that will hold the audience’s attention and drive the story. The goal must be something that the main character can’t discard, because if he does, lots of innocent people will suffer—developing empathy within the hearts of the audience.
The trigger must do more than make the main character care. He must take action. If he merely cares, the story will fail to cause the audience to care, hindering the film’s box office results. This makes the inciting incident an important factor in developing a feature length story. Unfortunately many independent filmmakers treat inciting incidents as an insignificant piece of the story and wonder why their film doesn’t keep the audience’s attention for its duration.