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Friday, December 11, 2009

The Inciting Incident

The great thing about being a script judge and reader is that you really are being paid to learn screenwriting. Sure, you already know screenwriting, but being a writer is about being a permanent student. You can never know everything about writing, you can only con yourself into thinking you do.

Recently I worked a contest where I had to focus on the script’s inciting incident. Afterwards I looked back at some of my old scripts and was embarrassed to admit that the inciting incident had been a weak spot in my writing.

(As a side note, why can’t we be more like football players or basketball players when it comes to evaluating our “game?” Why do we have to get so personal or worse, conflate “artistic vision” with problems of technique? If a athlete is holding the ball the wrong way or pivoting with the wrong foot, it’s nothing personal, that’s just bad technique and it needs to be corrected. Granted I never coached so maybe football players DO take it personal when you tell them they’re not rotating their hips, but they can’t possibly be as snippy as writers get when you tell them something critical.)

In terms of my “game” I was big on the second and third acts but my firsts were what was killing me. In particular I made the typical mistake and often delayed my inciting incident until the first act break. My first screenwriting teacher was Syd Field. But you can take away the wrong conclusions from even the best teachers. The mistake I made early on was treating the first act like a long introduction. I’d pile on background info and exposition secure in the knowledge that I had until page 30 to really start the fireworks. WRONG! In retrospect it was a miracle that I even made the finals at the Disney Fellowship with that kind of technique in my mind.

Fortunately I’d been picking up the pace of my first acts over the years. I’d been talking with other writers and exchanging screenplays. But it’s only been in recent times that I’ve focused laser-like on the inciting incident, that little nugget that occurs between page 10 and 15. The real start of your story.

Things really shorten up when you consider that you have to place the inciting incident in the first 15 pages. You still have to establish your characters and your setting, but now all that has to be done on the run. Even if you think you started the story at page one, you still need an inciting incident at page 15. Say it’s a murder investigation and it opens with the detective arriving on the scene. That’s the inciting incident, right? Wrong. This is the homicide cop’s routine. He EXPECTS to find a dead body. Something else needs to happen, say around page 15 that changes things, that makes this not your average murder investigation.

It’s real easy to spot the writers who have the inciting incident zeroed in their sites versus those who don’t. There’s an urgency and a quickness to their scripts. A good inciting incident will power the reader through the first act. I’m convinced this is the secret to getting out of the rejection heap. Second and third acts are important but even bad writers know how to deliver those. That’s because we all start out really looking at the middle and ends of movies. We attracted to the big fights or jokes or dramatic scenes that live in the later stages of the story. When we first start writing we have visions of those big scenes. When you set out to write the next Die Hard, you probably aren’t thinking of the first fifteen minutes, you’re thinking of running barefoot across broken glass or jumping off a roof before it explodes. The trick is not writing the big action scene or the big joke. The trick is to write a first act that propels the reader to that big action scene or joke. And proper usage of the inciting incident will set you up for success.


  1. Thank you Michael.
    I was just about to go back and add stuff back in after taking out 20 pages of my first act when I read this blog. I found it through our Linkdin group. According to you I'm right on track.

  2. You're Welcome Connie.

    Writers usually manage to overwrite in their first drafts. Triple redundancy is great for the military or in business but it's death to a screenwriter


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