An FBI trainee is assigned to interview a dangerous cannibal inmate. A farm boy on a remote planet accidentally discovers a message from a princess while fixing a droid. Goons break into the wrong man’s house and pee on his rug. These outlandish scenarios come from Hollywood cinema, but what do they have in common?
They are the events that throw the protagonist’s life out of balance and kick off the story. They are the big hook, an essential tool in your story craft toolbox, that captures and sustains the audience’s curiosity. They are the inciting incidents.
An inciting incident must:
In the Coen brothers’ classic, The Big Lebowski, the protagonist Jeff Lebowski, aka “the Dude,” is assaulted by goons in a case of mistaken identity. To add insult to injury, one of them pees on his prized rug. This upsets the Dude, and so begins his quest to replace it. Imagine that, instead of peeing on the rug that “really tied the room together,” the goon peed on the floor. The Dude would have mopped it up. An anecdote perhaps, but hardly a story. Why? Because that would not radically upset the balance of forces in the Dude’s life. In his own words, “all the Dude ever wanted…was his rug back.”
It’s also imperative that the protagonist is aware that life has been thrown out of balance. There has been debate about what constitutes the inciting incident in Star Wars. Some argue it is the moment the Imperial troops board Leia’s diplomatic ship. I disagree. Luke Skywalker is the hero and his story begins the moment he discovers Leia’s message while fixing R2-D2. He is visibly intrigued by Leia’s beauty and her message. Who is she? Does she mean Ben Kenobi? In other words, there’s a reaction.
A reaction, however small, to the inciting incident is necessary. In Hyundai’s tongue-in-cheek commercial, First Date, the inciting incident seems trivial but it provokes the necessary reaction. A young woman’s date arrives to pick her up from her house. The girl’s father, our protagonist, says “So, you’re the guy taking my little girl out, huh?” The young man’s cocky, overconfident “Yep” is the trigger. That’s all we need. We see the reaction, a close-up of the protective father’s unimpressed face. He offers the young man the keys to his Hyundai. Using the car finder app on his smart watch, he follows and spies on the young couple in a series of hilarious episodes. The story works because the inciting incident causes a reaction.
Because the protagonist naturally wants to restore balance, to set things right, he or she conceives of the Object of Desire. Pinocchio wishes to be a real boy. Dorothy wants to go home. King Arthur seeks the Holy Grail. the Dude wants his rug back. The conception of the Object of Desire propels the active pursuit of it—the Quest. This Quest to restore balance is the spine of a story. It’s worth noting that there may be an unconscious desire as well as a conscious one; and when both are present, it is the unconscious desire that is the spine. Frodo, ostensibly, wants to destroy the Ring of Power to save Middle-earth. But perhaps his unconscious desire is to keep the ring for as long as possible, perhaps permanently. After all, doesn’t Frodo volunteer to take the ring to Mount Doom?
Not all inciting incidents throw the protagonist’s life into the negative. In 2013, Thai mobile operator TrueMove released a commercial called “Giving.” It starts with a young boy being chastised by a shopkeeper for stealing painkillers for his mother. A food vendor overhears and purchases the painkillers. He offers these to the boy, along with a veggie soup. That’s the inciting incident: an act of kindness.
Slowly and silently the boy looks up to the man, with curiosity, awe, and gratitude in his eyes. That’s the reaction. He takes the bag and runs off. Cut to 30 years later. The kind food vendor has a heart attack. The daughter is hit with a massive medical bill. But one day she wakes up, at her father’s bedside in hospital, to find the balance on the medical bill is zero. There’s a message, too. “All expenses paid 30 years ago with 3 packs of painkillers and a bag of veggie soup.”
The inciting incident is important for story craft. However, it is also important for the audience to see it take place on screen or on the page. When the audience sees the inciting incident, it captures their interest and curiosity. In addition, it foreshadows the Obligatory Scene (aka Crisis): an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end. It creates the expectation that must be satisfied.
In the case of Star Wars, Luke discovers Leia’s message: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” How does this foreshadow the Crisis, the moment when Luke finally let’s go and trusts in the force? First, it turns out that Luke is the only hope, and second, the voice/spirit of Obi-wan does help Luke, and hence Leia and the Rebellion.
The inciting incident may be the first significant event in a story, but not the first thing. Young children familiar with fairy tales know this. The setting is indicated by the cliche “Once upon a time, there was…” The next part — “but then one day…”—is the inciting incident, but you don’t start with that. You need some setting, some life in balance. But how much? How soon should you place the inciting incident? The short answer is as soon as it is ripe, but no earlier. If it is too soon, you’ll confuse the audience. If it’s too late, you’ll bore them. Use your judgment to strike that balance.
Sometimes the inciting incident comes right at the beginning. In the first sentence of Kafka’s short story, Metamorphosis, we read that “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Here, such an early inciting incident works because it is so radical that we don’t need setting to feel it’s effect.
Sometimes it comes later. In a three-minute commercial for a Chipotle’s app-based game, called The Scarecrow, the inciting incident takes place in the last quarter. The Scarecrow works in a dismal, dystopian city for Crow Foods Incorporated. He witnesses animals kept in cramped conditions, injected with hormones. When the Scarecrow gets home, he notices one of his plants has produced a real, fresh chili. That’s when the story begins. The Scarecrow, using his own produce, begins his quest to bring real food back to the people.
Such a late inciting incident is rare, but it is justified here since the commercial works as an introduction to the app-based game where presumably the Scarecrow’s adventure continues.
If you aspire to improve your content creation and capture and sustain your audience’s interest, you need to master the inciting incident. Doing so will improve your story craft and content creation abilities in two ways.
First, an inciting incident sets up a story, which, if well told, will in itself capture and sustain interest.
Second, whether it’s “how to tie a tie” or “alternatives to bread,” it is important to understand what’s behind what your audience is searching for. The search terms that lead your protagonists (audience) to your content perhaps reveal an inciting incident that has thrown their lives out of balance. If you can guess what that might be, then you know their object of desire. More than tying a tie and finding a bread alternative, it might be nailing that job interview or feeling healthier and energetic. If your audience feels that your content helps them overcome the forces of antagonism that stand in the way of their goals, then you’ll earn their trust. Your content will be their Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Want to learn more about the power of story for business? Join us at an upcoming Storynomics workshop to learn from the world’s foremost educator on brand storytelling, Robert McKee.