15 Genius Inciting Incidents by Screenwriters
You’ve created a fully developed character or series of characters and are now pondering their motivation through the narrative you’ve started to develop.
Inciting incidents come in all shapes and sizes, so you should try to think of something clever, inspirational or at least interesting so your narrative fires into action effectively and hooks the reader from the get-go…
Some classic examples:
- What would Dorothy have done without her inciting incident tornado? Just mope around Auntie Em’s farm all day arguing with Miss Gulch about her dog?
- What would Sam and Frodo have done without the inciting incident discovery of the One Ring and subsequent fellowship? They probably would both have stellar gardens in The Shire and 12 kids each.
- What would have happened to baby Kal-El if his parents didn’t have the inciting incident impending doom of Krypton to deal with and never sent him to Earth? He may have perished with the rest of his planet’s population.
- The inciting incident death of Charles Foster Kane forces those left around him to investigate his final word, “Rosebud”.
Without an inciting incident, your characters may just sit around talking to each other without direction and your story would lack focus.
We’ve compiled a list of 15 examples where the setting and characters in the first act have been slightly established. Then, something happens to motivate them into their quest or problem and claw their way to a solution.
1.Sales Contest from GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS
Screenplay by David Mamet based on his play
The real estate firm of Premier Properties, in a quest to increase their sales numbers, have brought in a guest speaker and a new “sales contest” to incite results in its salesmen.
This motivation comes in the form of a belligerent and verbally abusive Blake (the best role of Alec Baldwin’s career), who informs everyone the details of the contest:
- 1st prize is a Cadillac El Dorado
- 2nd prize is a set of steak knives
- 3rd prize is YOU’RE FIRED!
The dialogue, delivery and entire scene are genius.
The speech is meant to incite the entire sales staff (except for missing Al Pacino) and make them understand the extremely high stakes at play, and the uncompromising lengths they may have to go in order to achieve results.
The salesman have to either band together, put in the long hours or come up with their own strategies to succeed. They will either get a new car or keep their jobs by month’s end.
2.Man’s best friend from THE THING (1982)
Story by John W. Campbell Jr. screenplay by Bill Lancaster
An American research station and its employees get an unwanted visitor in the form of a large Malamute dog. The mutt is chased and shot at across the frozen wasteland by a Norwegian helicopter.
After the Norwegians are killed, the Americans are left to take the mysterious dog in with them and try to figure out the events which have just transpired.
Events quickly unravel as the “dog” is discovered to be an otherworldly alien guest who can quickly assimilate living organisms and mimic their appearance perfectly in order to survive.
Distrust and paranoia ensue as several members of the station become infected and transform once discovered.
Lancaster’s screenplay keeps everyone guessing as to the alien’s next moves and the suspense is successfully ratcheted up throughout the film’s 3rd act.
The remote location and extreme weather conditions are also key factors into making this story work.
3.Daddy gets fired from MR. MOM
Written by John Hughes
If you are automotive engineer, Jack Butler (Michael Keaton), your day starts out like any other.
Unfortunately, you have just found out you have been laid off.
This incident incites role reversal within the Butler household and forces Jack’s wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), to procure her own employment. She must start winning some bread of her own to keep the household supported.
Jack is now stuck in the role of housewife.
He struggles to learn the everyday duties of grocery shopping, taking the kids to school, running the household and fending off advances from family friend, Joan (Ann Jillian).
Unfortunately, writer/director John Hughes was taken from us way too soon.
The subtle nuances of everyday life are very apparent in his script. This story of a “house-husband” who is such a novice at navigating them still makes us laugh to this day.
You, as the viewer, empathize with Jack’s predicament and hope he figures it all out before his marriage dissolves or he loses himself.
‘Yeah, 220, 221. Whatever it takes.’
4.The death of Charlie’s father from RAIN MAN
Story by Barry Morrow screenplay by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass
Luxury vehicle importer, Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), has just learned of the passing of his father and travels to Cincinnati, Ohio, for the purposes of the will.
He discovers much more than he realized when his inciting incident reveals he has a brother named Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). Raymond lives in an assisted-living facility and suffers from autism. He has also been named trustee of his father’s estate.
Since Raymond will not travel by plane, the two men travel across the country together in a convertible.
Charlie discovers Raymond has special abilities including remembering numbers and performing complex calculations in his head.
He can even count toothpicks!
Through their time together, Charlie forms a brotherly bond with Raymond and wants to remain with him the rest of his life.
The film is poignant, funny and touching simultaneously which undoubtedly helped it win its screenwriters an Academy Award in 1988.
The screenplay was able to take the inciting incident, combined with complex characters, and create this unforgettable, two brother journey.
‘I’m gonna let ya’ in on a little secret, Ray. K-Mart sucks.’
5.Attempted car theft from GRAN TORINO
Story by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk screenplay by Nick Schenk
Grumpy old man, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), is mulling around his home without direction after the recent loss of his wife.
His family wants him to move into a retirement community for several reasons including his advanced age. His neighborhood has also changed over the years and is now predominantly Asian immigrants.
One day, Walt catches one of his teenage neighbors attempting to steal his pride and joy, his 1972 Ford Gran Torino.
‘Get off my lawn!’
Thao (Bee Vang) is not successful in procuring the vehicle. The two men form a reluctant respect after Thao is forced to work for Walt as punishment from his mother.
Walt’s life is changed by their eventual friendship. He wants to intercede in Thao’s life and inject his advice.
How far will Walt go to protect Thao?
‘Take these three items, some WD-40, a vise grip, and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone.’
6.Enter The Dominion from STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE
Created by Michael Piller and Rick Berman
No STAR TREK series before or after created serialized story arcs throughout its run like STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE.
Life on DS9 had its share of problems, mostly due to the recent departure of the Cardassians from planet Bajor. The usage and passage of the newly discovered wormhole from the Alpha Quadrant to the Gamma Quadrant is also a frequent plot device.
Season two find’s everyone’s favorite Ferengi, Quark (Armin Shimerman), headed to the Gamma Quadrant in his never-ending pursuit of profit.
He first hears of the Dominion in the inciting events of episode, “Rules of Acquisition.”
Although not flushed out until the ending of season 2, the Dominion would become the most impressive enemy the United Federation of Planets had ever faced. The arc would come and go throughout subsequent seasons and basically dominate second half of the show’s entire run.
The layers and complexity the writers and producers created for the show were riveting, compelling and unmatched not only in science-fiction writing but in serialized television in general.
Characters including Gul Dukat (Marc Alaimo) , Elim Garak (Andrew Robinson) and Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) were written with so many levels they were completely interesting and multi faceted.
They could switch sides, change opinions and keep the other characters on the show guessing as to their next moves.
7.Baby in the water from WILLOW
Story by George Lucas screenplay by Bob Dolman
Amateur magician, husband, father and farmer, Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis), is getting along well living in his village with his family.
In a twist of fate, an inciting incident featuring a human baby washes up on the shores of his village. Willow is given the task foraging on a long journey and returning the child to the humans.
Leaving his family behind, he trudges forward to the unknown.
He encounters the caged, scoundrel barbarian, Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who offers to take the child in exchange for his freedom.
Willow and Madmartigan eventually go up against the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) to quell her quest to rule the kingdom.
Dolman’s screenplay features a mixture of comedy and fantasy with some cool characters encountered along the way.
The story proves anyone is capable of accomplishing any task if given the chance.
8.”No one will hire you!” from TOOTSIE
Story by Don McGuire and Larry Gelbart screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal
Actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) has a problem, a BIG problem.
He has acquired a reputation of being one of the most difficult actors to work with on both coasts.
In the pivotal inciting incident scene, Michael’s agent, George Fields (TOOTSIE director, the great Sydney Pollack), explains the harsh reality to the actor he can’t set him up for any acting jobs anywhere due to his cantankerous Lindsay Lohan-like demands on set.
The desperate nature of the situation leaves Michael little choice than to explore the only cross-dressing option he can think of. He decides to audition for a female role on a daytime soap opera.
As luck would have it, Michael lands the role which eventually becomes too good to be true when he later wants out.
The reveal scene where he finally comes clean is immensely rewarding on many levels. It pays off many of the relationships Michael has formed throughout the film simultaneously.
‘I was a better man with you, as a woman… than I ever was with a woman, as a man. You know what I mean?’
9.Centauri arrives from THE LAST STARFIGHTER
Written by Jonathan Betuel
Not much ever happens in the life of high school student, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest).
He lives with his mom and little brother in the “Starlite, Starbright” trailer park and performs odd jobs as the local handyman for its residents in between playing his favorite video game, “Starfighter”.
One night while playing, he gets further than he ever has before and eventually wins the game.
Some time later, the games creator, Centauri (Robert Preston), arrives to claim and recruit Alex to participate in an intergalactic war.
Alex accidentally becomes the lone savior option for the galaxy after the other “Starfighters” are killed.
Will Alex be up to the challenge?
In addition to being one of the first feature-length films to use CGI , the film’s screenplay is also thoroughly entertaining and engulfs the audience into the story immediately.
The dialogue between Alex and alien copilot, Grig (Dan O’Herlihy) is especially inspired.
According to Indiewire.com, “Starfighter” might be coming back as a TV show sometime soon.
‘Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.’
10.Uncle Rupert dies from BREWSTER’S MILLIONS (1985)
Screenplay by Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris based on the novel by George Barr McCutcheon
Montgomery Brewster (Richard Pryor) is a pitcher for the minor league baseball team, the Hackensack Bulls.
Monty not only learns of the death of his Uncle Rupert (the perfect Hume Cronyn), but also his inciting incident challenge.
He must spend $30 million in 30 days, but not have anything to show for it in the end. He must be completely penniless. If he does so, he will receive $300 million!
There are conditions:
- He can hire employees, but must get value from their services.
- He can give 5% to charity.
- He can gamble 5% of it away.
- He cannot give any away.
- He cannot tell anyone else he is participating in this wager, so he does not get their help.
Monty accepts the challenge and embarks on a month-long spending spree adventure.
He comes up with several great ideas along the way including an ingenious scheme of self-financing a run for mayor of New York City. He declares he wants everyone to vote for “None of the above” seeing as both other candidates are tarnished.
There have been multiple screen adaptations of the original novel which was first published in 1902.
The 1985 version is funny and ingenious.
It continually challenges Monty by not being able to reveal his quest to anyone. The accounting firm also attempts to thwart him so they can keep the fortune for themselves.
11.Mistaken identity from BEING THERE
Screenplay by Jerzy Kosinski based on his novel
Chance (Peter Sellers) is a simple-minded man living a simple life.
Unfortunately, he is put out on the street when his employer dies. He is struck by a limousine owned by an important businessman (Melvyn Douglas) and is brought back to his home.
His wife, Eve (Shirley MacLaine), mis-hears his name. Instead of “Chance” the gardener, she hears “Chauncey Gardner”. The inciting incident is complete.
Instead of being an unemployed gardener, Chance is now a leading logical voice during waning political times.
His simple thoughts and wisdom impress everyone including his new friends.
Chance has a bright future in politics, it seems, if only he had any interest.
Sellers gives the performance of his career. He is funny, sympathetic and so subtle against some of his better-known characters.
The story and dialogue are also on point. The film gives the audience laughs and smiles through this case of mistaken identity.
‘Life is a state of mind.’
12.Heard about the dead kid from STAND BY ME
In 1959 Oregon, Gordie Lachance (Wil Wheaton) likes spending time with his buddies doing things young kids do.
All this changes when he overhears his brother telling the story of Ray Brower, a classmate of his who was recently killed after being struck by a train.
Gordie persuades his three best friends to accompany him on the long journey ahead in a quest to view the body.
Along the way, they exchange life lessons, humorous anecdotes, and even discuss whether Disney’s “Goofy” is actually a dog.
Around the campfire one night, Gordie tells the best story about this pie-eating contest!
A pivotal scene has the boys crossing a long train-track bridge. They dodge an oncoming train within the slightest of margins.
The body is eventually located. The boys have a final confrontation with some older teens, but agree to report the body later.
The “coming-of-age” nature of the story combines with the nostalgic pop culture references and soundtrack make for a memorable, entertaining journey.
Since the story is told in flashback, one can almost think of author Stephen King actually telling the story himself.
‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?’
13.Finding a treasure map from THE GOONIES
Screenplay by Chris Columbus story by Steven Spielberg
Mikey (Sean Astin) and his friends, THE GOONIES, are facing the unfortunate circumstance of having to move away from each other if their parents can’t come up with enough money to keep their homes from foreclosure in Astoria, Oregon.
While rummaging through their parents attic, the kids stumble upon their inciting event in the form of a treasure map.
The kids decide to take a chance, team up and forge ahead.
They come in contact with a low-level, bungling crime family who chases them in their own pursuit of the loot.
Director Richard Donner (SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, the LETHAL WEAPON franchise , THE OMEN) is able to visualize Spielberg’s story and Columbus’s screenplay and take the audience on a classic family adventure filled with chills, thrills and Sloth (John Matuszak).
The individual challenges the kids have to field are entertaining as well as thought-provoking. The screenplay keeps you interested to see how they unlock the solutions.
There have been many sequel rumors for GOONIES 2 over the years; however, none have come to fruition as of yet. A lot of the cast has expressed interest, but only with Donner in the director’s chair once again.
This is becoming increasingly unlikely he Donner is now 86.
14.Your new neighbor is a vampire from FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)
Written by Tom Holland
Horror director, Tom Holland, tried his hand at writing and created a memorable screenplay in the comedy/horror genre.
Gullible teenager, Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), is a mega-fan of midnight television horror movie marathons. He is especially loves those featuring his B-movie icon, Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall).
One night, Charley sees someone new moving in next door. Is that a coffin that is being moved in as well?
After several suspicious incidents, Charley is convinced his new neighbor, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a creature of the night.
Unfortunately, no one believes Charley.
After becoming unemployed, Peter is convinced to enter Jerry’s house and perform a “vampire” test on him. Jerry is not happy about being disturbed.
‘Do you realize how much trouble you’ve caused me, Charley? Spying on me. Almost disturbing my sleep this afternoon. Telling policemen about me! You deserve to die, boy. Of course… I can give you something I don’t have. It’s a choice. Forget about me, Charley. Forget about me, and I’ll forget about you. What do you say, Charley?’
The entire film is campy 1980’s horror fun if not taken seriously. The eventual team of Charley and Peter do battle with Jerry in Jerry’s home. You are entertained throughout with Holland’s snappy dialogue.
It is too bad this could not have become a horror franchise in itself. FRIGHT NIGHT PART II was released in 1988, but at a much-reduced budget.
Carolco Pictures chairman, Jose Menendez, seemed interested in future installments. Unfortunately, he and his wife were famously murdered by their sons, Lyle and Erik Menendez, in 1989.
15.Hole in the ground from CHRONICLE
Story by Max Landis and Josh Trank screenplay by Max Landis
Teenager, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), is having a tough time with life.
His mother has cancer and his father doesn’t give a darn about anyone but himself. He has low self-esteem and is not popular in school.
After an incident at a party, Andrew and his two best friends discover an underground chamber in a forest. They are exposed to a strange crystal which exhibits bright lights and sounds. Inciting incident!
Soon after, the friends discover they have telekinetic abilities and are able to move objects with their minds and fly.
While initially amusing, the three boys have a very hard time controlling the use of their new abilities and become increasingly intense and violent.
The found-footage style of film-making suits this film well as it is explained as Andrew documenting his life.
The character arcs beginning with the shy, reserved friends to those much more robust versions who eventually manifest after being exposed to the crystal are profound.
Their relationships continue to seem grounded even in this new hyper-realized life they now have for themselves.
‘Andrew, you’re not alone up here. I’m here with you! I should’ve been with you all along, but I’m here now. We can stop this right now, you and me. Andrew, we can just fly away, we can get out of here. We can be family! Andrew? Andrew, look at yourself. This isn’t who you are!’
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