A few years back I was an inventory manager for a company that repaired specialized equipment. It was a family owned company, but they’d been in business for decades and they had deep pockets. By my estimation, I was in charge of like three million dollars worth of inventory, and I could easily rack up $10,000 on my company AMEX in a day’s worth of purchasing.
I liked this job, but after a while, I chose to move on. I wanted to teach, so I went back to school, got my certificate, and now I teach. I made a decision, and I changed. That’s how things work in reality, but not in fiction. In fiction, a character won’t just change on their own volition. Something has to make them change, an event: an Inciting Incident. So, because Reality is boring, I’ve rewritten this part of my life to include an inciting incident. The following events are fiction, and only the names remain the same:
Once upon a time, I worked as an inventory manager. It was a boring job, but it paid the bills. The only way I could pass the time was by playing the crossword puzzle on my phone. One day, the boss came by my office. A guy by the name of Brett. Unfortunately, for me, I had dozed off at my desk. Not the best way to make a first impression, I admit.
Brett was not a man to forget that kind of thing, either. After that, I had a target on my back, I knew it, but I had worked in retail management. I knew Brett couldn’t fire me without cause, or he’d be stuck paying unemployment. He’d have to build a case against me first.
So henceforth, I became a model employee. I counted product every day, kept a running tab of every piece of equipment that went in or out of my office. I ran that place with military precision. But one morning, as I was doing my inventory I noticed something. My counts were off, and not just by a little bit. Thousands of dollars worth of equipment had vanished overnight.
As I counted and recounted my heart pounded faster and faster. Sweat rolled down the back of my neck, my stomach began to knot. There was no mistaking it. Something was missing, something was off.
I opened the calculator on my computer and ran the numbers for the missing items. As I hit the enter key my heart skipped. Thirty-two thousand dollars worth of inventory was missing. This was impossible!
I turned around. It was Brett, the owner. One thing I forgot to mention about Brett was that he was born with money- his father built the company- and though he owned the place he didn’t work there. He worked part time for the state police. He was standing at my office door, a brick shithouse, something like 6’ 5” wrapped in a Kevlar vest with a gun on his hip.
“Can I see you in my office?”
“Sure,” I said.
I looked out the window. There were three police cruisers parked outside the office, engines running. Suddenly, it all clicked into place. Only two people had a key to the inventory room, myself, and Brett. Holy shit, I thought. This guy doesn’t want to fire me. This guy holds a grudge. I slept on the clock. I stole his time, his money. He was going to take me down. Make an example out of me. By now, the missing equipment was probably stashed in the back of my truck!
“Give me a second,” I said.
I wasn’t going down like this. I picked up my chair, mostly plastic but heavy enough that it smashed the window easily. I leaped through the open window. Honest to God, like Spider-man, or something. Brett fired a few shots in my direction. One bullet cut through the air right above my shoulder. I felt the adrenaline surge outward from my chest and web its way through my torso, and down my legs. I ran for blocks and blocks before I stopped to breathe.
I got out my phone. It was a cheap cab ride to the airport where I cleaned myself up in a terminal restroom and maxed out a credit card on a ticket to the coast. Once I boarded that plane I never looked back.
Anyway, I tell you that story because I want to talk about inciting incidents. I would have never left that job had not the threat of false imprisonment incited me to bail. I had no choice in the matter!
An inciting incident is often, but not always, the first major plot point of a story. In his book, Story Engineering, Larry Brooks breaks down story structure into four major “boxes.” The first box involves setup and character development. Who is our hero and what is their circumstance in life? In other words, the writer needs to set up the stakes. So when the conflict hits the reader knows what the hero can lose or gain, and it better be big. When that conflict does come it’s in the form of the inciting incident.
Take for example the opening scene of 1983s Octopussy: A man, dressed as a clown, burst through the window of an elegant soiree. He’s bleeding from a fatal gunshot wound. As he collapses to the floor, dead, a beautiful Faberge egg falls from his hand. Watching that sequence as a kid, I remember thinking-
What the hell? Who is this guy? Why is he dead? Why the egg? Why the hell is he a clown? And what does any of this have to do with James Bond?
So many mysteries to hook my interest.
A good inciting incident won’t just set off conflict, and raise story-questions. It will totally disrupt the life of the hero. Before this event, the hero’s life is in balance, but the inciting incident upsets that balance.
Another thing to remember is that an inciting incident is an event. I couldn’t just choose to leave my boring inventory job. I had to be forced out by the threat of violence. Or, in another world, maybe I won a lottery or came into an inheritance. An inciting incident can be negative or positive.
To end this post, I thought I’d leave you with a few examples of inciting incidents from some of my favorite movies. But hey, did I get anything wrong? Or, do you have a favorite inciting incident from a movie, show, or novel? Let me know down in the comments. Thanks for reading!
This is a good example of an inciting incident that happens away from the point-of-view of the protagonist. Apollo, the Heavyweight Champion boxer/ brilliant marketer, has a problem- he needs a contender to sell an upcoming match. Rocky is a low-level boxer and enforcer for a local bookie. Little does he know he’s about to get the chance of a lifetime.
Woody has always been Andy’s favorite toy, but then the event that all toys dread came- the birthday party. Now, Woody’s coveted position on Andy’s bed has been taken by a strange, possibly delusional, new toy that goes by the name Buzz Lightyear.
The Dude abides- until you break into his house, and pee on his rug.
Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler are busy digging up raptors in Utah when John Hammond swoops down in a helicopter with an offer they can’t refuse.
Marty is living your ordinary teenage life until his friend, Doc Brown, calls him down to the Twin Pines Mall, late one night, to see “some serious shit.”
And finally, the scene that every jerk who’s ever sold you a car has probably watched a thousand times. Screenwriter David Mamet brings you the ABC’s of sales…