All stories start from somewhere and that somewhere is your inciting incident. Think of the inciting incident as the big bang of your story. It catapults your characters into the plot, introducing new characters, worlds, and conflict. Every story must have an effective inciting incident, so if you're wondering if yours is getting the job done, let's take a look at some inciting incidents of current stories that send their characters into a world full of conflict, drama, and change.
Let's look at a few places where you can put your inciting incident before we look at some examples.
First we have an off screen inciting incident which takes place before we are introduced to the characters and the story. Next is the inciting incident that takes place in the opening pages of a story. These often occur in teasers of your favorite TV show. Then there is the traditional inciting incident that takes place around 10-17 minutes into the viewing. And finally the inciting incident that takes place at the end of a television episode, introducing a new problem to thrusts us into the series.
Below are examples of each being used effectively:
1. Off Screen
The perfect example of an off screen inciting incident comes from PEAKY BLINDERS.
In this series, we follow the Peaky Blinders, a close knit gangster family with Tommy Shelby, an ambitious, stubborn, and smart leader at the helm. Due to Tommy’s ambition there are TWO inciting incidents that take place within the pilot setting off two storylines that affect the family. The biggest inciting incident takes place off screen when Tommy’s men accidentally steal a crate of guns from the British government instead of stealing a crate of motorcycles. Now, Tommy could have given the crate of guns back to the government and avoided all the hell that will rain upon them, but he sees this as an opportunity to move up in the world by gaining the attention of Winston Churchill in an attempt to get the gang on his payroll. This incident introduces two vital characters. The first one is Inspector Cambell, a determined and ruthless cop, hellbent on getting the guns back, and Grace, an undercover cop who works with Inspector Cambell and eventually turns into Tommy’s love interest. This inciting incident is the biggest because these two characters are with the gang for multiple seasons, adding lots of conflict and layers to the series. The second inciting incident takes place in the opening as Tommy gets a young girl to perform a “magic spell” on a horse in public to get people to lay a bet on it in the race. So, he gets the attention of Billy Kimber, the biggest gangster in Birmingham, in an attempt to work with him on providing protection for money and get in on his horse racing empire. This inciting incident is the smaller of the two due to the structure of the series where the Shelby family faces a new villain every season as they rise up the ranks in the criminal world eventually defeating the villain as the season comes to a close.
2. In the opening
A perfect example of having the inciting incident take place as soon as we open is in SCHITTS CREEK. In the first scene we get a sky view of a beautiful mansion, then we quickly cut inside as a butler answers a doorbell. To our surprise, the Revenue Agency greets the butler, making the butler yell out to the Rose family that there are people from the government at their doorstep. In the next scene, the Agency runs through the house, taking everything in sight as the Rose family scrambles to grab what they can after learning their business manager frauded them out of their finances leaving them broke with only one remaining asset, a town called Schitt's Creek that they brought their son for his birthday as a joke. Within the first two minutes, we are introduced to the Rose family and the life they used to live before sh*t hits the fan, while the remaining 19 minutes of the show introduces us to our new world (Schitt's Creek), the people who populate it, and the goals of each member of the family as they aim to regain their wealth and get back to their old lives.
A perfect example of a traditional inciting incident comes from HIS HOUSE.
In the film, a refugee couple aims to make a new life in London after escaping from a civil war in their home country, but losing their daughter in the process. In the opening, the couple gets called to a meeting with a board of immigration officers with news that they have found a house for them to move into, but they must live under strict restrictions or they will be deported back to their home country. Agreeing to the terms, they get on a bus and arrive at their new home. This inciting incident sends them on their goal of integrating into their new life despite the strange occurrences they face throughout the film. This inciting incident may be simple compared to others, but some stories don’t need a major event to ignite the journey.
4. End of the episode
The perfect example of an end of episode inciting incident comes from DARK.
This type of inciting incident is the most difficult to pull off. For this to work you MUST captivate the reader with the world, characters, and current conflict that's going on. In DARK, we are introduced to the townspeople and their current life conflicts, but the biggest conflict that they are introduced to is that the town is currently dealing with a missing persons case that has the town on edge. Throughout the pilot, we spend time with the children of the town who get word that the boy who went missing stashes his drugs near a cave in the woods. (This is a small inciting incident that sets us up for the larger one at the end of the episode.) In the fifth act, the kids go to the cave and find the drugs, but out of nowhere they hear a hair raising sound come from the cave. As they take off into different groups, we come to find out that one of the kids didn’t come out of the woods and is now the second child missing in the town. This inciting incident puts even more pressure on the police, introduces new characters, upends the lives of each family, and unearths the town's secrets as everyone becomes more determined to stop people from going missing.
Now that we’ve looked at a few inciting incidents and learned how they sent their characters and plot in motion, how will we know if ours is just as strong as theirs? All you need to do is answer a two question survey:
All four of these examples are a no and a yes to those questions, recursively, which is what you want. In SCHITT'S CREEK, the Rose family can’t return to a home they don’t own and their past life full of wealth is one they want to return to which sends them on a new journey to regaining their wealth. In PEAKY BLINDERS, Thomas Shelby’s ambitious decisions aren’t taken lightly by the people who live in his world, and his goal of taking his family from rags to riches will send him on a new path as he runs into bigger and badder people who want him to lose it all. In HIS HOUSE the couple are determined to integrate into this new and safer life despite the evilness that plagues the house. And in DARK, the townspeople want to do everything in their power to find the two boys and prevent the disappearances from happening again which forces them to take new measures, and SPOILER ALERT, literal time travel in order to get people back who continuously disappear without a trace.
We don’t want our characters to be able to return to their normal lives because that would mean that our inciting incident is weak, and if the incident doesn’t send them on a new path, then the characters won’t be able to go on their respective arcs, giving our stories and characters layers. So if your inciting incident answers with a no to the first question and a yes to the second, you (potentially) have the perfect inciting incident for your story setting your plot and character off to the races of new discovery and change.
If you would like more information on how to make your inciting incident work, watch this video by Shannan E. Johnson, where she breaks down this vital story element in less than two minutes!
-Written by Collin Shaw