When talking about story structure, many people talk about where exactly in the story the structural element needs to happen. Often this is expressed in terms of a page number, or even a percentage of the film’s total duration.
I would prefer to leave such quantification aside for a moment and rather look into what these structural elements need to achieve.
For the inciting incident, here is my most important conclusion:
The inciting incident is a major event happening to the protagonist, never an action or decision by the protagonist.
When before I stated that the inciting incident must be a ‘deus ex machina’, I was wrong. Although it may seem so for our hero, it can but doesn’t need to be an act of God. But in any case it must be beyond the control of the protagonist.
To demonstrate that an action by the protagonist cannot work as an inciting incident, let’s look at two films that had a lot going for them but still failed to break out at the box office.
The following logline of Somersault, from a document published by the Australian Film Commission, claims to contain the film’s starting event. It says:
- A teenage girl runs away from home, hoping to find herself through love, but the people she meets are as lost as she is.
If the girl running away from home is the starting event, (i.e. the inciting incident), this is not a strong enough trigger for the story. But are we missing something? Why does she run from home? This is what we find on iMDB:
Heidi, 15, runs away from home after her mom sees her kissing mom’s boyfriend.
That, to me, reads like a pretty powerful inciting incident to the mother’s character. Not to the girl, because she started it in the first place.
McKee is absolutely right when he says the inciting incident should force the protagonist to act.
If the cause of the girl’s running away is not important enough to mention in the logline, it is probably not big enough to kick off the story. And the audience wouldn’t get the point that the story has effectively started. Such a ‘soft launch’ of a film should be avoided at all cost.
Similarly, in what I believe to be the inciting incident of LUCKY YOU, Eric Bana’s character decides to bet all he has (i.e. the pawn ticket of his mother’s wedding ring) in a game of poker against his dad. When he loses, I feel it was his own mistake and he could have avoided it. It is not strong enough to start the movie.
Both films performed relatively poorly, given the exposure they had at the time of release. It certainly was not just because their weak inciting incidents, but I do believe it might have had something to do with that.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.