Key Story Elements – Inciting Incident

by Alexandra Sokoloff

As I continue to work my way through the Key Story Elements

Okay, I admit there’s something more than a little OCD about this venture of mine, but it’s also a much more concrete endeavor than writing fiction, especially a first draft, which is where I happen to be in my novel, which makes doing this story elements thing oddly relaxing for me. 

Whether I’m blogging, writing, or teaching, I keep looking for ways to make the point that filmmakers take extra care with certain key scenes of a story. Filmmakers pay particular attention to all the ways they have at their disposal to underscore the significance of these moments – whether it’s delivering the pure visceral experience of the genre, revealing character, conveying theme, externalizing the hero/ine’s ghost – any and sometimes many of the above and more.

And to do that, they usually create those scenes as SETPIECES.

To review – there are multiple definitions of a setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight, that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in – a shower, for instance, in Psycho. Setpieces are the tent poles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.  They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes – and as certain key scenes, like the Inciting Incident.

And I think it’s one of the very best lessons we as authors can take from filmmakers.

So today I want to break down a key scene among key scenes – the INCITING INCIDENT, or INCITING EVENT, and show how a few of my favorite movies handle that scene.

The Inciting Incident is basically the action that starts the story. The corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation, the hero gets his first glimpse of the love interest in a love story, a boy receives an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy.

This beat also often called the CALL TO ADVENTURE (from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, summarized by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey), and that’s the phrase I actually prefer, it’s just more – more.

But I’ve been watching a lot of classic movies lately (God bless TCM!) and the more I look at this story beat, the more I’ve realized that while the Inciting Incident and Call To Adventure are often the same scene – they are just as often two completely different scenes.  And it’s useful to be aware of when and how they’re different, so you can bring out the particular qualities of each scene, and know when to combine them and when to separate them.

In Jaws, the inciting incident is immediate, occurring on the first pages of the book and the first seconds of the movie: the shark swims into the Amityville harbor and attacks and kills a swimmer.   The protagonist, Sheriff Brody, is not present for the inciting incident, he’s not even aware of it.  The next morning he gets a phone call reporting a missing person, possible drowning, and he goes off to investigate, not having any idea what he’s about to get into.  It’s a very small moment, played over the ordinary sounds of a family kitchen in the morning.

But we’ve already seen the big setpiece inciting incident and we know what he’s in for.

However, I don’t think that Inciting Incident is the actual Call To Adventure.  I think that comes at the climax of Act One, when the bereaved mother of a little boy who was killed in the second shark attack walks out on the pier and slaps Sheriff Brody, accusing him of killing her son (because he didn’t close the beaches after the first attack) in front of all the townspeople.   And this is one of the best examples I know of an emotional setpiece: the camera just holds on the mother’s ravaged face as she goes on for what feels like forever, telling Brody that her son would be alive if he’d done the right thing to begin with.  And as she stands there against the sun and sky, the black veil she is wearing whips around her face in the wind… she looks like the Angel of Death, or an ancient Fate, or a Fury. It’s a moment with mythic resonance, in which Brody is called to right this wrong himself, to redeem himself for this unwitting and tragic mistake.   Now that is a real Call – not just to adventure, but to redemption.

It’s one of the most haunting scenes of the movie – and I find it really interesting that Spielberg uses it as his Act Climax instead of another shark attack.

The Inciting Incident of a love story is very often meeting the love interest.  In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant hovers in the aisles of his little bookshop, realizing that the customer who just walked in is the movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts).  In a prolonged moment he watches her as she browses, but he’s not just gawking at a celebrity.  It’s a classic depiction of how time seems to stop when the Beloved walks into our lives, and we get to experience that moment with him.

In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the Inciting Incident and Call To Adventure are the same scene, and a whole lot of other things are going on in the scene as well – it’s one of my favorite Calls To Adventure for all the layers of it.

Professor Indiana Jones is called out of his archeology class by his mentor Marcus, who also serves as a HERALD here, too, summoning Indy to a meeting with a pair of government agents who will deliver the actual Call To Adventure. It’s worth noting as a technique that having this double layer to the Call – first a Herald appearing to say to the hero/ine, “There’s someone here with a job for you”, and then escorting the hero/ine to a different location where another set of messengers delivers the call, builds up the importance of the moment and the mission.

And the location of this next scene, where the government agents (US Army Intelligence) explain the mission, is very significant here. This scene could have been set just in an office. Instead, the filmmakers make it a setpiece all on its own by putting it in a huge, elegant, high-ceilinged auditorium with stained glass windows, creating a cathedral-like ambiance. The setting gives us a feeling of the import of this mission. And since the Call is one of the most exciting and crucial moments of any story, why not give it a setting to create an extra layer of excitement and significance?

We learn from the government guys that a Nazi telegraph has been intercepted and Hitler’s men are looking for Indy’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood. Indy and Marcus interpret the telegraph: The Nazis have discovered an archeological site where supposedly the Lost Ark of the Covenant has been buried for millennia, and they think Ravenwood can help them pinpoint the exact location of the Ark. 

Hitler has been sending teams of Nazis out all over the globe collecting occult artifacts (this is historically true). Ominously, the legend of this particular artifact, the Ark, is that it will make any army who bears it invincible.

These are the really huge STAKES of this story, and our FEAR: If Hitler gets the Ark, it will make the German army invincible. World domination = not good.

So we also get a glimpse of what Indy is up against: his real OPPONENT is the ultimate bad guy: Hitler and the whole German army.

And our HOPE is that Indy finds the Ark before Hitler does.

This is also a good example of an EXPLAINING THE MYTHOLOGY scene – you often see these when the mission is convoluted, or fantastical – such as in horror movies, sci-fi, fantasy – and the scene often includes the hero explaining the rules to an outsider. Here, it’s Indy and Marcus explaining the history of the Ark to the government guys. And they also explain that the Nazis want to find Ravenwood because he has a medallion that can be used to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark (Indy draws all this on a blackboard, a SET UP for when we see him do for real it at the Midpoint).  So we also get the whole PLAN of the movie in this scene.

There is also a big SET UP and FORESHADOWING with the illustrations of the Ark bringing down the wrath of God on a blasphemous army – it’s a sketch of exactly what happens in the final scene.

However, although Indy knows the mythology of the Ark, he quickly adds, “If you believe all that stuff.” – indicating that he himself does not believe it. This is an action-adventure film, there isn’t a huge CHARACTER ARC here, but this is what it is: Indy starts out scoffing at the supernatural and mystical and ends up barely saving his life and Marion’s precisely by believing in the power of the Ark and showing reverence. (The secondary character arc has to do with reconciling romantically with Marion, although in the trilogy that doesn’t last long. There is also even a reference to this GHOST when Indy says, with some shame – that he and Ravenwood had “a sort of falling-out.”)

Also, adding to the THEME of world religions, there are several Judeo-Christian references in the University scene – the auditorium that looks like a church, with the stained glass windows, the leather-bound text that looks like a Bible, the references to the story of Moses and the Israelites and the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the wrath of God. Marcus’s voice echoes in the auditorium like the voice of a priest.

The tag line of the scene is Marcus saying: “An army carrying the Ark before it was said to be invincible”, leaving us a moment to think about that most important point as the scene changes. 

All of that, about a dozen key story elements – in one scene!   It’s really a miracle of compression.

Hmm.  I look at those three examples I just detailed above, all chosen because they were the first Call To Adventure scenes that came immediately to my mind, and I realize that even though they’re very different stories and styles, what those scenes all have in common for me is a sense of mystical, or even mythical, importance.  That’s certainly my preference as a writer and reader, but I also think that there should be something mystical and mythical about any Call To Adventure scene. It’s the scene that summons the hero/ine to the journey, and invites us, the reader or audience, to come along.  Shouldn’t that be magical?

I’ve also just realized that in my own current WIP, and the book I just finished, and also in my last thriller out, Book of Shadows, the protagonist’s Call To Adventure in the crime story is simultaneous with meeting the love interest.  I didn’t do that in previous books, and the Inciting Incidents and Calls To Adventure in my other books are separate scenes.  I wonder if I’m getting more efficient at storytelling – or if possibly my stories are getting more twisted!  But I look at what I’m doing now and I know it’s right that those two story elements occur together; it says something thematically that I definitely wanted to say, although I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time I wrote those scenes.

All of which I think illustrates the point that I’m always trying to make in my blogs and teaching – that taking the time to analyze a particular story element by looking at examples that really do it for you – can take your writing to a whole other level.

So do you have examples for us today of favorite Inciting Incidents and/or Calls To Adventure – from your favorite movies and books or from your own books or WIPs?

And, right – remember that we have Captcha on again and you have to type in the letters to get your comment posted.  Sorry, but it’s the spammers who should die.



19 thoughts on “Key Story Elements – Inciting Incident

  1. Eika

    Hmmmm. I had to really stop and think about it for my own stories. For the one on submission now, the choice is obvious: the chain of events is set off when a plane crashes near the protagonist, leaving behind a survivor and enough clues for the protagonist to realize the survivor's people kill her own people– then saves the survivor anyway. I think– I hope– I did that right.

    For the one I'm editing now, though, I almost wound up calling you out on the mysticism event, then realized I was thinking of the wrong scene. That whole story is about a journey, but the inciting incident isn't K gaining information about the journey; it's when one of K's traveling companions thrusts hundreds of dollars at K and asks to be killed if it looks like she won't complete the journey. I have to go back and make that more amazing now…

  2. Raquel Byrnes

    What a great post. I love that you used the familiar films to help me see where in my WIP I need to concentrate. You explanation of the haunting scene with the grieving mother was excellent.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Eika, honestly, there's no right and wrong, here. It's just about taking that critical moment that locks your protagonist into the action (or makes her decide to lock HERSELF into that action) and giving it the import it deserves.

    They sound like great storylines!

  4. Cornelia Read

    Alex, I think I want to marry you.

    And I'm trying to figure out what my inciting incident/call to action is in the WIP, and am not sure. Which is very helpful in and of itself… thank GOD for second drafts!!

  5. Allison Davis

    Alex, instructional as always, especially on Saturdays when I'm editing and you name what I'm trying to do, giving me "Eureka moments" and goosebumps. Like the opening of the Hurt Locker setting the pace, tone and tension of the movie right off. Not a 30,000 ft view but a 30 foot view,right there — no time for philosophy, just heat, dirt and threat. Going to try for that in the next couple of hours.

  6. Catherine

    Last night when I first read this I had just come home from watching Thor. This movie had obviously the mythology… I mean Thor, Odin and Loki…Asgard. However within the obvious were some tie ins to other images that evoke myth. Now I think of it even using New Mexico probably tied in to a lot of urban myth in terms of where off the grid stuff may happen. I think too that they may of established two calls to adventure from the point of the main female character and male character. I think also that when their stories first intersect it could be the inciting incident for the female character, but for the male it's his inciting incident that brings him to that point.

    I've deliberately tried to be a bit vague with the movie as I think it doesn't come out in the States for another couple of weeks. I will say that a collaboration between Kenneth Branagh and Marvel comics works. Which in itself is interesting.

    Thanks again Alex for getting me to look at something for that extra layer or two of meaning.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    How did you Aussies get Thor before we do? I'm really looking forward to this one – love Branagh and I'm using some of those myths myself right now. Thanks for not giving anything away.

    If the male and female characters are fairly equal it makes sense to do two separate calls, although it could be the same incident, too.

  8. Catherine

    Alex I like to think having the lead be an aussie gave us an in…so to speak.

    As I was driving home last night we discussed how we thought Chris Hemsworth playing Thor did well with Anthony Hopkins as Odin, on the same screen. I imagine that would be a tad daunting for most actors, the possibility of being overshadowed, but for me there was an ease between them.

    Oh and also there is a little teaser scene right at the end of the credits.

    I'll be interested to see what you come up with using some of those myths. I used to read myths(especially nordic) to my children after we did the round of the usual fairy tales.

  9. Reine

    Just wnt to say your notes on writing have been very helpful to me. Always interesting. Thank you.

  10. Ken Bruen

    Alex, you wondrous alchemist
    To every blog you bring a terse analyis that yet is suffuesed witht the soecial warmth you exude.
    A post sprinkled with stardust.
    My own favourite opening scene is harry dean stanton and the opening like of
    Paris texas.
    Like your novels, it grips and haunts in ways that are not easily articulated.
    What is easy to say is, may you and The Rati have an Easter that is full of the sheer magic you guys provide

  11. Grace

    I adore your post, it has everything I love – classic movies and to echo one of the commentators, the heart wrenching scene of the grieving mother gives the heart a direct hit. Your method of teaching by giving examples is brilliant, otherwise I wouldn't have made any sense of it. I'm not sure if I can find examples in my own writing, I'm on a learning curve here but needed to express my thanks to you for such wonderful giving to others.

  12. David Corbett

    Alex: Sorry to be late to the party. I'm doing both Easter weekend Ratis at once.

    I love your distinguishing between the Inciting Event and the Call to Adventure. Clearly, Campbell wasn't concerned with three-act structure, and too often students of Vogler want to shoehorn the two together without the kind of insight you demand.

    A classic case is THE GODFATHER, where the inciting incident is Don Corleone's refusal to get involved in the drug trade — which sets off the gang war that drives the rest of the action. But the call to adventure belongs to the hero, which in this film is Michael. And that doesn't happen until he goes to see his father in the hospital, finds out his father is unprotected, and senses another murder attempt is imminent. Michael, who begins the movie telling Kay, "This is my family, it isn't me," now says: "I'm here, Pop." Michael has accepted his role in the family — and due to Sonny's recklessness and Fredo's incompetence, that means he will ultimately betray his father's wishes and not just join the family business, but lead it.

    But what to make of Chinatown?

    The inciting incident is the appearance of the bogus Mrs. Mulray in Jake's office. Once you're privy to the story, her performance (especially the cigarette holder and Woolworth's fur) is so godawful you wonder how Jake doesn't see through it — but, of course, that's the theme. You never really know what's going on. And Jake has inured himself against that kind of confusion by leaving police work, staying clear of Chinatown, and setting up a PI firm where he handles petty little infidelity cases, where he figures he'll never be "caught with his pants down."

    But, like most mythic heroes — including Michael Corleone — Jake also resists the call. He tells the phony Mrs. Mulray to go home and forget about her husband's infidelity. But she pushes back, she has to know. And so it begins . . .

    But as a "call to adventure" it seems rather slim — even tawdry. And accidental. The call to adventure would seem to be instead when he realizes he's been used — has indeed been caught with his pants down — and dedicates himself to learning who set him up and why.

    When you know the whole story and the theme, you realize the existential peril inherent within the inciting incident. But Jake doesn't, and a call to adventure can't be inadvertent.

    Or can it?

  13. JT Ellison

    Like David, I'm doing my 'Rati as a weekender –

    Alex, this is wonderful. I love reading your posts and looking at my own story – I see my incident incident and my herald already. You've also reminded me that the hero needn't be first on the page – whihc sets my mind at ease on a particular point I was worried about. You're awesome!

  14. pari noskin taichert

    I'm even later to the party. Sorry.
    Your analytic posts are always so astounding to me, and so unfamiliar as an approach. I adore learning from you and trying on the tasks/concepts you ask us to consider. Right now I'm reading Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith. The first inciting incident is pretty obvious with the murdered prostitute and Arkady's boredom/irritation with a mishandled investigation — but I think the call to action is coming up and it's preceded by another inciting incident for a more minor character who is important to the protag.

    With this reading, I'm going to try to keep some of these elements in mind and see how a master writer like Smith handles them.
    Thank you.

  15. PD Martin

    And even later to the party…

    Great post! I'm also teaching at the moment and recently did plot, call to adventure, three-act structure, etc. I'm definitely going to send this post on to my students.


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