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Screenwriting - Why The Inciting Incident It Critical To Your Screenplay

By Author: Russell Foster
Total Articles: 39

The screenwriting term for the moment that really gets a story going is the inciting incident. Up until this moment, we see the protagonist in their normal world. The inciting incident is something that shakes up that world and causes the main character to take action to achieve a specific goal.
It establishes the stakes of the film: Will the boy get the girl? Will the suburban couple that gets lost in gang territory make it out alive? Will the prom queen escape being murdered by the serial killer?
The inciting incident also establishes who or what stands in the way of the hero reaching her goal. It is the beginning of the real conflict of the story.
In addition, the inciting incident is the first plot point of the story. A plot point is an event that spins the story in yet another direction. A good screenplay has plot points that increase in intensity until the final plot point - the climax.
Here are some examples of plot points in classic films: Scarlet O'Hara meets Rhett Butler. Gone with the Wind. Luke Skywalker's home is destroyed. Star Wars. A lost love suddenly appears in the saloon of a cynical man during World War II. Casablanca. The respected head of a Mafia family is the victim of a botched murder attempt. The Godfather. Dorothy lands in Oz. The Wizard of Oz.
So how did the inciting incidents in the movies above affect the story?
Spoiled, beautiful Scarlet O'Hara, who is used to having men faun over her meets her match. It is the beginning of a tempestuous cat and mouse relationship against the background of the Civil War.
Luke Skywalker dreamed of becoming a cadet and flying fighter jets but he always had a reason not to. Once his Uncle's farm was destroyed, he had no more excuses. He sets off on his adventure.
Rick in Casablanca sticks his neck out for nobody, until Ilsa rocks his world and makes him join the war effort to defeat the Nazis.
When Vito Corleone is gunned down, War Hero and Good Citizen Michael chooses to protect his father by joining the "family business."
When discontented Dorothy lands in Oz, it is the beginning of a journey back home, both physically and emotionally to recognize "There's no place like home."
Do you understand how the inciting incidents set the story in motion? One of the keys to successful screenwriting is to have an effective inciting incident that will set your main character onto a new path, giving both them and the audience a reason to get involved and stay involved - right up to the closing credits.

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