Mastering Structure: The Inciting Incident

Handwritten Structure Outline

As a screenwriter the Inciting Incident is the first part of your story that is critical to the success of the overall screenplay. The inciting incident occurs in Act One and is the event that sets your story in motion. It is an event that changes the course of your protagonist’s life and disrupts the Status Quo. This disruption is the catalyst that launches the story’s main conflict and forces your protagonist to take action. Mastering the inciting incident will ensure you grab the audience’s attention and keep them engaged throughout the remainder of the story. In this article, we will explore [number] helpful tips to ensure you craft a strong inciting incident.


Ideally, your inciting incident should take place within the first 10-15 pages of a feature screenplay. This translates to 10-15 minutes of screen time. While this rule can be broken, it’s important to not wait too long because you run the risk of losing your audience. The inciting incident is what draws your viewers (and readers) into the story and makes them want to see the outcome. It’s important to note that in television writing your inciting incident will usually occur within the first few pages to set up the central conflict of the episode.

It Can’t Be Ignored

The inciting incident should be a dramatic event that rocks the protagonist's world to its very core. It should be a moment that cannot be ignored by your characters or easily brushed off. The more dramatic the inciting incident, the more invested the audience will be and the more likely they are to stick around to the end. A strong inciting incident will also create a sense of urgency and help motivate the protagonist's actions. This will eventually make your job easier in Act Two when you attempt to raise the stakes and maintain tension.

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Establish the Stakes

The inciting incident should establish the stakes of your story and show the audience what your protagonist has to lose. This is what hooks your audience. Without stakes (physical, emotional, moral) the story will feel dull and boring because it doesn’t really matter if your character achieves their goal or not. Conversely, if the stakes are high and the consequences of failure are dire, viewers (and readers) will be more eager to see what happens next. Remember, stakes can change as the story progresses, but it’s always good to start strong.

Establish the Goal

By the time your inciting incident ends, the audience should understand the protagonist’s goal for the rest of the story. From this moment forward there is a clear objective. Another way to think about this moment, is that you are raising a question that will be answered by the end of the script. Will the boy get the girl? Will the hero save the day? No matter what goal you create, it should be specific and tangible. A time-bound goal is even better; something that has to be accomplished by a specific deadline. Setting a goal in this way is one of the best ways to keep audiences glued to their seats and it all starts with the inciting incident.

Make it Actionable

The inciting incident should be actionable. This event should force the protagonist to take action and make decisions that move the story forward. Often the inciting incident will feature an external threat or force that upsets the protagonist's average life. Do not give your character an easy out. Remember, this moment is the springboard for the rest of your story. If the inciting incident is passive or doesn't require the protagonist to take action, it will be less engaging for the audience.

Make it Memorable

Finally, the inciting incident should be memorable. Craft a moment that sticks with the audience and makes them want to keep watching. Moreover, a memorable inciting incident sets the tone for the rest of the story and creates anticipation for what's to come. Think back to some of your favorite movies. You likely remember the inciting incident. The best inciting incidents will stick with an audience long after the movie is over.

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The Matrix (1999)

In The Matrix, the inciting incident occurs when computer hacker Neo receives a message on his computer that leads him down a path of self-discovery. This inciting incident sets the stage for Neo's journey to uncover the truth about his world and fulfill his destiny.

Up (2009)

In Up, the inciting incident occurs when elderly widower Carl Fredricksen's house is scheduled for demolition by a construction company. Carl, determined to fulfill his late wife's dream of traveling to South America, inflates thousands of helium balloons and flies his house away. This incident sets up the rest of Carl's ensuing adventure.

The Godfather (1972)

In The Godfather, the inciting incident occurs when the aging patriarch of the Corleone family, Don Vito Corleone, is shot and nearly killed in an assassination attempt. This incident sets in motion a power struggle among rival mafia families and sets up the main conflict of the story, the fall of Michael Corleone into a life of corruption. The inciting incident in The Godfather establishes the stakes and sets the tone for the rest of the franchise, which explores themes of power, loyalty, and family.

Crafting the perfect inciting incident isn’t easy, but if you want to be a screenwriter it’s an essential skill. When you start your next screenplay, refer back to this list. Does your inciting incident check all these boxes? If it does, you are well on your way to creating a top-notch screenplay. Still not sure the inciting incident works? Submit the script to Your Screenplay Guy’s affordable coverage service and get detailed feedback on what works and what doesn’t. You can also check out Your Screenplay Guy’s official Three-Act Structure Template and Guide for a detailed breakdown of each act. Never stress about your script again, you’ve got a guy for that.

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