Keeping the audience interested throughout the ‘setup’ is a major challenge as professional readers won’t last until the Inciting Incident if the first ten or twelve pages don’t deliver.
The ‘setup’ is often a complete sequence in which we see the ‘Ordinary World’, the protagonist’s ‘normal life’, an area of the story that by its name and nature risks to be a dull stretch. We see the life of the main character before the overwhelming event that marks the real start of story.
For the solution, we go back to a lesson from Alfred Hitchcock.
Remember the difference between surprise and suspense? Surprise is when a bomb suddenly explodes. Suspense is when we know there is a bomb, and it can explode any moment.
The Inciting Incident is our first story explosion.
How do we make our audience hang in there until it explodes? By foreshadowing the Inciting Incident. By creating anticipation.
Create strong anticipation during the story setup by foreshadowing the Inciting Incident.
DIE HARD: While John McClane argues with his ex, we see bad guy Gruber et al. preparing their actions. Worse is yet to come for John.
JAWS: Swimmer Chrissie is crab meat by the time we meet with hero Chief Brody. We know the reported ‘missing person’ won’t be seen again.
TOUCH OF EVIL: In the classic opening shot we see a bomb planted on a car, it ends on the explosion. This marks Vargas’ (Heston) call to action.
OMAGH: Terrorists from the Real IRA plant the bomb that will later cause carnage in the Northern Irish town, and kill the hero’s son.
E.T.: In the opening scene, an alien is left behind on earth, 12mins later it will disturb the life of little Elliott.
THE UNTOUCHABLES: Capone’s hitmen bomb a pub and kill a girl. In the I.I., her mother calls on Eliot Ness to stop the violence.
BLADE RUNNER: At the end of the Voigt-Kampf test and before we meet with Deckard, we see replicant Leon shoot his interviewer.
Note that these examples show the foreshadowing of an Inciting Incident of such a magnitude that it would not just disturb the hero’s life, but anyone’s under the circumstances. In other words, we don’t really need a lot of exposition or setup to understand that this Inciting Incident will stir the pot.
This approach may not work with just any story.
Most stories will still need you to first set up the protagonist’s character before introducing the Inciting Incident, just because the impact of the Inciting Incident is specific to that particular character.
First we are fully immersed in the life and world of Truman Burbank in The Truman Show before the appearance of his father on the street will be seen as a major event.
We need to know the character – and flaw – of Stu Sheppard in Phonebooth before we fully get how important it is when some stranger seems to know all those secrets he has been carefully hiding.
Even in most of the seven examples above, between the foreshadowing near the opening of the movie and the actual Inciting Incident, the screenwriters make sure they build on the gravity of the I.I.’s impact:
– in Jaws, Chief Brody is relatively new in Amity so he may only have limited authority when he asks to close the beaches.
– in Touch of Evil we learn that Mr. and Mrs. Vargas are still honeymooning, so Mike is not really prepared to take on a case.
– in Omagh we see how close father and son Gallagher really are, before the son dies in the bomb attack.
– In The Untouchables, the domestic scene at the Ness home shows a dedicated father Eliot, so he is the right person to respond to the distraught mother later on.
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.