The term ‘inciting incident’ or ‘story catalyst’ has been defined by scholars and enthusiasts alike, and often they define the term with regard to the opening or starting of a film.
The “catalyst” is the event that takes place that causes the protagonist to take action – it motivates the character or hero to begin his journey.
by Jonathan Lim
Luke Skywalker is only able to join the rebellion when he finds that his foster parents have been killed in a droid attack. He had first decided to join the academy but was unable due in large part to the wishes of his foster parents. The catalyst is the event that sparks Luke’s motives to join the rebellion and engage with their struggle against the empire.
It is next to impossible for the inciting incident to occur in the first scene. The inciting incident,
usually 15 pages or 15 minutes into the film can clearly be defined as the first major turning
point for the protagonist.
It is hard for us to have a turning point until after we know where the
character is from what he wants and where he is going.
Most enthusiasts have the notion that the catalyst must be the most exciting scene in the movie.
In most cases it is the most stand-out scene or moment/event in the film but usually is only exciting on an emotional level. We are engaged in the character’s struggle and end up liking the hero for his endearing qualities and need for justice. It is the scene where we learn that the character has a deep desire for change.
The argument that the inciting incident has to be an event has also drawn comparisons from various movies. In the film Phone Booth , the event still begins with a phone call and a very specific line, but there is still a gunshot that informs the protagonist that the requisitioner on the other end of the line means business. The main character’s motivation then becomes to find out what the sniper wants and also how he is to survive this unholy predicament.
Using a line may also act as a specific moment when the protagonist becomes motivated to overcome his new struggle.
Trapped inside a bank, armed men use the people inside as hostages.
One of the bank robbers may point a gun at a woman and say that if she doesn’t keep quiet a
hostage will die. This might “incite” the protagonist’s new agenda. My personal opinion is that if
the plot does not thicken on account of an actual event, then audiences may miss the very crucial
moment where the hero begins his journey. They lose the plot, from there.
Every good story has an inciting incident that occurs somewhere in the first 15 minutes of
It is this incident that moves us from the opening sequence toward another set of
occurrences. Usually, it is something that is outside the protagonist’s control and he must
respond in some way. He considers the problem and then he chooses to take action.
– Jonathan Lim
Jonathan aka Jay Lim has been writing since 2002, when he first picked up the craft at film school, in the United Kingdom.
The name Lim is part of the Ang Kui Province in China where his ancestors were shipped from old Colonial China to Colonial Malaya in the early 1900’s.
Datuk Lim Kim Hong, his grandfather, was later knighted for his contribution to the Steel and Scrap Metal Industry in a newly formed Malaysia, 1974.