What is an Inciting Incident?
For a feature film it is one of those things that must happen within the first 10 to 12 pages. If it happens before then the audience doesn’t know enough about your hero to care. If it happens any later the audience will lose interest. For a television show, whether it’s a half-hour comedy or an hour drama, it should happen within the first act, preferably in the cold open. What’s a cold open? That’s the first few minutes of the show before the first commercial or the title card.
Let’s start with film. The inciting incident is a catalyst that launches the hero into a new world. What do I mean by new world? Your story should start off with a typical day in your hero’s life. This is known as the “ordinary world.” This gives the audience time to understand, relate to, and/or like the hero. The hero is in a rut. Something has to change or bad things will happen (death, loss of job, end of marriage, etc.). Then, somewhere around page 10 or 12, something happens. A change your hero really wasn’t anticipating or looking forward to happens which forces them into unfamiliar surroundings. This is the “new world.” The event I mentioned that pushes the hero there. That’s the inciting incident. In Gravity it’s the moment satellite debris blasts past Ryan and severs her tether. In We’re The Millers it’s the moment when Brad (the drug dealer) asks David to pick up a drug shipment in Mexico.
In television the inciting incident can also be referred to as the “springboard.” You may notice that in film often times it’s pretty easy to spot the inciting incident. It can be in television, too. Especially in a procedural show like Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, or The Black List. It may be a little more difficult to notice in a family drama or a comedy. Usually it will be some sort of conflict between characters. It’s the thing that sets the plot of the show in motion. In Castle it most often a dead body. In The Big Bang Theory it’s usually some conflict between Leonard and Penny. Whatever it is, it’s what sets the whole episode in motion.
To put it simplistically, the inciting incident or the springboard is the moment where everything changes. The ordinary world gets a wrench thrown in the works and shakes up the protagonist’s life. It is the element that shifts the momentum of the film/episode and launches the hero into the plot. It both cases (film and television) the inciting incident should be the meat of your logline. It’s the premise of your story. Until next week, happy writing.