On the one hand there are the followers of Syd Field who speak of ‘Inciting Incident’. Then there are the believers in mythology who speak the language of Joseph Campbell and prefer ‘The Call to Adventure’.
To make matters worse, others speak of ‘Opportunity’ or ‘Disturbance’, Catalyst etc.
Chances are this post is not going to make you a better screenwriter. Possibly a less confused one.
So is this just another case of babylonian speech confusion in the screenwriting world? Do they all refer to the same thing? I would say they don’t.
Let’s distinguish the ‘Call to Adventure’ from the other thing (whatever it’s called).
You’ll find that many movies have some sort of major incident early on: shark attack in Jaws, mega-break-in in Die Hard, bomb planted in Touch of Evil etc. (don’t mistake this for the ‘hook’, which may be unrelated to the actual story as often happens in Bond movies). These early events signal that the story has started, yet the Heroes are still going their ordinary little life. Their journey only really kicks off once the Hero finds out about this event. In this sense, Syd Field is really NOT talking about the Inciting Incident when he says:
“the point in the story when the Protagonist encounters
the problem that will change their life.”
That’ll be the Call to Adventure.
The main reason why it makes sense to distinguish both terms: they each occur at different points in most movies. You’ll find that the Inciting Incident usually sits somewhere early in Act One and the Call to Adventure happens remarkably often around the 10-12 mins mark (or 10% in).
The Screenwriting Wiki is confusing when it defines the Inciting Incident as
An event near the beginning of the story
that initiates the protagonist on his or her journey.
and then goes on to give the example of Star Wars as “R2D2 ends up in the hands of Luke Skywalker.” I would rather say that the Inciting Incident is earlier, when Leia entrusts the plans to R2D2.
The Call to Adventure happens when Luke gets the message.
I’m losing the plot when Kall Bashir says:
The inciting incident could also be the Unbearable Antagonism.
(Luke sees that his uncle and aunt have been murdered)
Isn’t that the scene that marks the end of Act One? Luke has to act now and decides to accept his mission and Cross the Threshold by traveling with Obi Wan to Mos Eisley.
On the message boards of Done Deal Pro I found the following for Star Wars:
– Catalyst = Leia puts plans in R2D2
– Inciting Incident = Luke discovers plans
Interestingly they identify the exact right two moments but label them wrong.
But doesn’t ‘catalyst’ literally mean ‘inciting incident’??
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting defines the Inciting Incident as follows:
The event that irrevocably propels the main character
into the flow of the main story.
That makes sense. But what follows does not:
Think of it as the character stepping into a whole new world.
Their example from Star Wars names the Inciting Incident as
The point when Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle get massacred
by the overwhelming force of the Galactic Empire.
Hmmm… The Complete Idiot’s Guide, right?
But you know what? Who cares…
…as long as your story has these two important, very different stages.
To keep things simple and to clearly separate the meaning of these two stages, I’d put it this way:
Shit Happens (Inciting Incident)
The Shit Hits the Fan (Call to Adventure)
You’ll find that in stories that are told uniquely from a single point of view – without dramatic irony or shifting POV – the two often coincide.
One of the reasons why they are mostly two different stages: the Inciting Incident gives the audience the advantage, which creates tension. It puts the Hero on a ‘collision course’ with the consequences of the Inciting Incident – and ultimately with the Antagonist.
Let’s have a look at a few of my favorites and see if it works for you:
I.I.: The shark kills the swimmer
CTA: Brody receives a phone call
I.I.: Pizza delivery to phone booth
CTA: Stu Sheppard closes the booth (he’s in trouble and he knows it)
I.I.: Bomb kills little girl.
CTA: Mother of girl comes to Ness with a plea.
I.I.: Truck backs into post box.
CTA: Men come to pick up Carl.
I.I. & CTA: Message from Mirage
I.I.: Radio plays same song (we get it)
CTA: Bill Murray character realises
I.I.: Criminals enter the Nakatomi building
CTA: McClane hears shots, sees the criminals
I.I.: Princess Leia records message
CTA: Luke sees the message
I.I.: The Terminator arrives in the present day
CTA: Sarah Connor realises she’s being hunted
THELMA & LOUISE
I.I.: Harlan tries to rape Thelma
CTA: Louise shoots Harlan
I would love to hear your comments.
Let the fun begin!
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.