The Inciting Incident is the second sequence in Act One. Where the “Pre-Existing Life” established the emotional need for change in the protagonist, this next sequence attacks it. The incident has to throw the protagonist off their traditional path and open the doors to a goal to be decided on in the sequence that follows. This moment is the hook to any movie trailer and the reason people showed up to see your movie on the big screen. ScreenCraft previously covered elements of the inciting incident in Anatomy of a Script: This is Where I Leave You.
Here are ten fantastic scripts with strong inciting incidents for writers to study.
Written by Paddy Chayefsky
If you are reading this article and have not seen Network yet you have permission to stop reading and go watch immediately. Paddy Chayefsky is one of the most infamous screenwriters of all time, having been nominated for four Academy Awards for Screenwriting and winning three of them. This movie is considered his best work. In this scene, television program host Howard Beale announces on live television that he is going to kill himself the following week as he has been fired from his job. The film has a large cast and the announcement affects every one of them. Beale’s announcement drives up ratings, thrilling executives, and makes Beale one of the biggest celebrities as it reignites his career. This announcement sets the entire film’s journey in motion in a biting satire of how television and the media operate.
Written by Tina Fey
Cady Heron is a public high school newbie who has spent most of her life traveling in Africa. She has no concept of how her school operates and no friends when she arrives until she meets Janis and Damien. The pair provide Cady with basic guidelines, number one of which is to BEWARE OF REGINA GEORGE. Naturally, the inciting incident hits on Cady’s emotional naiveté and forces her to break this primary rule. Cady is too polite to turn down an invite to lunch and her entrance into the world of The Plastics gives Janis the perfect opportunity to mess with a longtime rival.
Children of Men
Written by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
“Five-minutes-from-now” science fiction may be one of Hollywood’s favorite genres of the moment (think Looper, Ex Machina) but when Children of Men premiered it felt like one-of-a-kind. Former activist Theo lives in a world where babies are not being born and the human race risks extinction. He has no desire to get involved in politics anymore until he meets Kee — a pregnant teenager. If you have a fictional world where the one rule is no one is having babies, then naturally this will have an impact on any character. What makes this an emotionally compelling moment for Theo is his own familial loss and a paternal desire and need to keep Kee safe.
The Wizard of Oz
Written by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf
The classic story of a young girl or boy sent on a journey into another world — with a visually iconic destination glowing off in the distance — is an arc that never feels old and every generation is provided with a new version. Think of Dorothy flying through the cyclone, or Sarah in Labyrinth finding out her baby brother has been kidnapped by goblins, or even more recently in Tomorrowland where a teenage girl discovers a whole new world and becomes obsessed with reaching the fantastical city. In each of these, the inciting incident is a physical move that jars the protagonist. The females have similar personalities, but ultimately a discovery of a new world would shock any emotional core.
What About Bob?
Written by Tom Schulman
Tom Schulman’s script is disarmingly simple. Richard Dreyfuss plays Dr. Leo Marvin, a control freak, egotistical psychiatrist who just wants to have a nice vacation with his family while becoming famous for his newly released book. What throws this character off is the arrival of patient Bob Wiley whom Dr. Marvin believes to be delusional. Bob is the patient from hell for Leo, and while the doctor initially believes he may be able to control Bob, it is quickly apparent that he cannot.
Written by Kevin Williamson
Rewatching this movie was such an amazing throwback. The blatant set up of protagonist Sidney as a virgin — and therefore the girl to survive — feels so clunky now, and yet at the time she came across so endearing. After setting up her cute-but-safe relationship with boyfriend Billy, the inciting incident shocks Sidney by leading her to believe Billy may be the town serial killer. Don’t you just hate when that happens?
Written by Dan Fogelman
Rapunzel has been fed lies her whole life about the outside world, and yet, she is intelligent, self-sufficient, and resourceful. The arrival of a man from the outside naturally shocks her and she has no clue how to handle it. It is the perfect inciting incident for her. What makes the moment even better, is that she immediately knocks him out with a frying pan and pats herself on the back for it. That is some well-deserved self-satisfaction.
Written by Ben Hecht
Cary Grant’s Devlin is an efficient, work-oriented, government agent sent to collect Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia, but finds himself falling in love with her. That alone could have been the inciting incident for a romantic drama, but instead the moment comes later when Devlin receives Alicia’s assignment: begin a romantic relationship with antagonist Sebastian. Devlin cannot reveal that he has begun a relationship with Alicia, and he must also now let the woman he loves believe he feels nothing for her in order for her them both to be able to do their jobs.
Can't Hardly Wait
Written by Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan
The arrival of Amanda in Can't Hardly Wait sets the isolated story into overdrive. It may not seem like the perfect inciting incident for protagonist Preston upon initial observation though, as Preston loves this girl and the decision to tell her and begin their perfect love story should be easy. What makes this moment so jarring is Preston’s instant frozen state as she walks by him. It is not the first time that Preston has let a chance to speak to Amanda slip through his fingers, and it will continue to happen throughout the house party, but climbing over this great fear and chasing his dream is where his emotional arc lies.
Kramer vs. Kramer
Written by Robert Benton
Pulling the rug out from underneath your protagonist is a common inciting incident. Your primary character must be completely oblivious to any problems in their life before losing everything. These characters are also often very egotistical. A comedic example would be Bill Murray’s role in STRIPES, where he loses his job, car, and girlfriend in a five minute span. A great dramatic example is KRAMER VS. KRAMER. Here, protagonist Ted Kramer, is oblivious to his wife’s growing depression at home while he is work obsessed. In his eyes, his wife is happy and fulfilled, and if she is having a bad day it must just be a phase. Her leaving is a shock to his ego while simultaneously putting him in a situation where he has to be a parent when he has never spent any significant time with his only child.
An Inciting Incident can be a new situation, new character, or an entirely new world. So long as it is jarring to your already established protagonist, you have the beginnings of a potentially very good script. What are some of your favorite Inciting Incidents? Let us know in the comments below!
And if you have any great inciting incidents of your own in your scripts, enter them in ScreenCraft’s Genre Contests.
Emily Jermusyk is a screenwriter and story consultant. She got her start in high school writing over 150 episodes of a soap opera parodying Knots Landing. If desired, Emily will talk to you at potentially-annoying-length about topics such as why the CW is her favorite channel, the current amazing state of underground comedy, and how she avoids TV/films about zombies because most of them do not chew with their mouths closed. Follow Emily on Twitter, and check out her website, Ruining Television.