Inciting Incident, Plot Progression, Signposts, and Story Driver
Plot points can sometimes be difficult to pick out, especially when there is confusion as to the purpose of such a device in a story. If one accepts the idea that stories are about solving problems, the reason for Inciting Incidents and Act Turns becomes all too clear.
Every problem has its own genesis, a moment at which the balance is tipped and the previous sense of oneness is lost. With separation comes the awareness of an inequity, and a desire to return back to a state of parity. Every problem has a solution, and a story explores that process of trying to attain resolution.
In a story, this Opening Event—or beginning of a story—is commonly referred to as the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident (or “exciting incident” as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem. Everything up and until that moment is Backstory; everything after is “the story.” Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to. This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things. Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.
Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes they are solved, as is the case with Star Wars, Casablanca or Inception. Other times, as with stories like Hamlet, Amadeus or Se7en, they aren’t. Regardless of outcome, this Inciting Incident gets the ball rolling by introducing an inequity into the lives of the characters that inhabit the story. The Protagonist seeks the solution, the Antagonist seeks to prevent it.
Every story works this way.
The two central objective characters, Protagonist and Antagonist, battle it out until approximately one-quarter of a way into a story, some other event or decision occurs that spins the story into a brand new direction. This second plot point is referred to as the First Act Turn as it turns the story from the First Act into the Second. This is a further development of the problem, not the beginning of a problem.
Other plot points—the Mid-Point and Second Act Turn—continue to escalate the issues surrounding the efforts to resolve the problem until finally, the Concluding Event, or Final Plot Point, ends the story. As mentioned above, this does not necessarily mean the problem has been solved. It simply means that the efforts that were undertaken by the Protagonist have come to their natural end as every resource has been exhausted.
These plot points naturally split a story into four parts. For fans of Aristotle, the first part is the Beginning, the second two are the Middle and the third is the Ending. There is a meaningful reason why there are four parts. In short, for every problem there are four basic contexts from which you can explore the way to solve a problem. Once you have explored all four contexts, the story is over. Any continuation would simply be a rehash of something that has already been investigated.
The most important thing to take away from all of this is that the First Act Turn is NOT the Inciting Incident. This is a common mistake by many first time writers, and is generally caused by a lack of understanding exactly why these plot points exist in the first place. One plot point starts the problems, the other furthers the complications of said problem.
The following is a list of great stories with their corresponding Inciting Incidents and First Act Turning Points. The numbers provided are either based on page numbers, Kindle percentages or minutes depending on what source material was easily accessible.
For those who don’t know, the general idea is that one page of a screenplay generally lines up with one minute of screen time. A 120 page screenplay often lasts two hours on screen. or 120 minutes. Thus, the Inciting Incident would occur on or near page 0, while the First Act Turn would happen somewhere near page 30 (out of 120).1 If we’re talking percentages, that would be about one-quarter of the way into a story.
The Inciting Incident of Star Wars is Darth Vader’s attack on Princess Leia’s ship (1/120). While there was a civil war going on prior to this event, it isn’t until the Empire shows its true colors by illegally boarding a ship purported to be on a “diplomatic mission” that the real problems of the story begin. The Empire has grown ruthless in its efforts to contain any rebellion, this inciting event is only the beginning of many more to come.
The First Act Turn begins with the Empire’s sinister agents attack on peaceful Jawas and ends with their barbeque of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru (30-31/120). Suddenly, what began as a simple conflict over jurisdiction has now turned into an all-out rampage that affects even the most remote and more importantly, innocent, members of the galaxy. The problem has grown in its potential for even greater conflict.
The Inciting Incident of The Matrix is Morpheus’ decision that Mr. Andersen is the One they have been looking for (2/130). This one decision drives the entire rest of the story, for if he hadn’t picked Tom the rest of the world would have stayed comfortably numb in their battery pods. Without the Inciting Incident, there would be no story.
The First Act Turn begins with Neo’s decision to come in off the ledge (21/130). It isn’t until this true sign of character that Morpheus is forced into taking even greater strides to break poor Mr. Andersen out of the Matrix. These deliberations by Neo—continuing with his “giving the finger” scene, choosing whether or not to stay in the car, and culminating with his decision to take the red pill—all create resistance to Morpheus’ initial selection. It isn’t until Neo finally decides that he is the One (121/130) that the problems in the story come to a successful resolution.
The Inciting Incident of Unforgiven is Little Bill’s leniency towards Quick Mike (5/120). Little Bill is known for dealing with criminals in his own special way, why the sudden change of heart? His refusal to respond in kind creates a rift within the story at large, and forces the whores to seek out their own justice. The first Act Turning Point only makes matters worse with the arrival of English Bob and his refusal to surrender his sidearms to “proper authority”(33/120).
The Inciting Incident of The Sixth Sense is Vincent’s attack on Malcom (8/109). Without this gunshot, there would be no story and no compulsion for Malcom to meet with Cole. The First Act Turning Point comes with Cole’s revelation that he might suffer from the same violent tendencies that Vincent did. His steps back and his conclusion that Malcom can’t help him only furthers the problems caused by the perception that Cole is merely a “disturbed” child (22/109).
The Inciting Incident of Casablanca is Ugarte’s decision to give Rick the letters of transit (15/127). While the murder of the two couriers seems to get things rolling, problems don’t really start until Ugarte decides to give them to Rick. After all, people get murdered in Casablanca all the time. But give them to someone whose allegiances are in question? Now we’ve got a problem.
More than just a “Macguffin”, these papers and the efforts to retrieve become the major source of conflict for everyone involved in the story. This is why Rick’s deliberations over what to do with them, including his refusal to help out Ugarte (“I stick my neck out for nobody”), propel the First Act into the Second (30-45/127). With Rick in charge of who gets them and when, Laszlo’s mission becomes that much more difficult.
The Inciting Incident of The Lives of Others is Minister’s Hempf’s decision to have Georg Dreyman “watched.” (10/135). Without this bigwig’s desire for Dreyman’s girlfriend, Wiesler would have continued his life as he always had, and quite possibly would never have crossed paths with this writer and his friends.
Like Casablanca, the First Act Turn comes more as a wave than an actual singular event. This time it is Dreyman’s best friend, the director Albert Jerska, and his constant ruminations over the purpose of his life that progressively complicate a simple spy operation into something far more reaching and grander in scope. Jerska’s dark contemplations of suicide inspire Dreyman to write and give reason for Wiesler to better understand the kind of struggles and torment these artists go through as a result of the state’s actions.
And finally, the Inciting Incident of The Incredibles occurs with the overwhelming flood of lawsuits stemming from Mr. Incredible’s loss in court against Oliver Sansweet, the man he rescued from suicide (14/127). This rush to sue forces the Supers into hiding, promising “to never again resume hero work.” These previously costumed guys (and girls) now can’t be who they want to be, and thus yet another story inequity has been created. If it had just been Sansweet, then perhaps things would have simmered down. The flood of lawsuits tipped the scales.
Problems escalate when Bob and Frozone almost get caught during the fire in the apartment building sequence (32/127). Before, Bob had found a way to deal with the initial problem by moonlighting with his best friend. This event, and their near apprehension by local authorities, forces Frozone to decide that this night was the last one. What was once a manageable problem has now become an even bigger one, and eventually provides the motivation for Bob to accept the mysterious invitation from Mirage.
Plot points drive a story towards the resolution of its problem.
But what about other forms of narrative fiction? Surely this is just a “formula” for Hollywood-wannabes to follow…
Story is story regardless of the delivery device.
The Inciting Incident of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the death of Hamlet’s father. As with The Matrix, where the actual inciting event happens “off-screen”, the story immediately opens up with the characters plagued by the problem’s effects:
Let me not think on’t! Frailty, thy name is woman—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body
Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she —
O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn’d longer—
Quick tranlsation: Hamlet has been thrown into great despair because of his mother’s impulsive move to quickly marry his father’s brother, Claudius (10%). The fact that she couldn’t even wait a month drives Hamlet mad, thus creating a problem in Elsinore that calls for some sort of resolution. This problem grows in importance when the Ghost of Hamlet’s father informs his son of what really happened:
GHOST: A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
HAMLET: O my prophetic soul! My uncle!
No longer an inequity that must be suffered, the death of Hamlet’s father now becomes something that must be avenged (20%). The dramatic energy produced by the news of his father’s passing has waned to the point where something new must come along and drive the story further towards its inevitable conclusion. This revelation of a “murder most foul” is that event, and can be considered the First Act Turning Point of the play.
Determining the events or decisions that escalate a story’s problem should be Job One for the working dramatist. It is one thing to create an opening scene that wreaks havoc on the characters in the film and forces them to deal with this new problem, quite another to ensure that the inequity persists until the closing curtain.
Eventually, as with Hamlet, the potential for dramatic conflict will decline throughout the course of an Act. It is the same drop in potential that one feels as the pain from a pinch or slap in the face subsides over time. In order for the problem of a story to continue to drive the characters towards an eventual solution, a new potential must be introduced. These new dramatic forces, escalating the problem beyond that initial blast, drive the story forward in such a way that the characters themselves could never return to who they were or what they did during that first initial response. There can be no turning back.
Act turns exist to re-energize the potential of a story’s problem, not to satisfy page-counting readers or paradigm-happy script gurus. Connecting the two first plot points to this problem, and making sure that they aren’t simply the same event, will give an audience something to engage in and something to become invested in. The fact of the matter is that no audience member can resist the draw of the problem solving process as it unfolds on the big screen; it’s human nature to see what greater meaning can be gained from how the resolution plays out.
Structurally, Dramatica calls for four Acts, or Signposts, in every complete story. Experientially (from the audience’s viewpoint), the Journeys between these Signposts are the Three Acts that most people (Aristotle included) feel when they watch or read a story. The Inciting Incident and First Act Turn surround that First Signpost on either side. Dramatica smartly calls these plot points Story Drivers.
The problem with forcing the Inciting Incident closer to the 20 or 25 percent mark is that, from a dramatic perspective, there is little energy being spent during that first act. Typically, stories without a strong Inciting Incident also, by matter of definition, have no definable problem in place for the characters to deal with. Thus, no conflict and little for the audience to be concerned with. Waiting until the quarter mark to get things going is a surefire way towards creating a storytelling disaster.
The Inciting Incident exists, not because McKee calls for it, but because it creates that inequity in the lives of the characters within a story. There has to be some impetus for all that follows, some problem that needs to be solved. The Story Driver manufactures this problem.
And yes, I do mean page ZERO. In a perfect, computer generated world the Inciting Incident of a story would happen on page 0, with the following Act Turns happening every 25%. Thankfully, we don’t live in such a world. ↩︎