An inciting incident is an unforeseen event that takes away the equilibrium that the protagonist has in his life. It’s the earthquake that destroys his house, the winning lottery ticket that makes him rich or the love interest that locks eyes with him at a party.
Everything starts with a character living in a “normal world”, a place or a state of mind where nothing changes. He might be happy in it, or he might suffer, but he cannot leave this world just yet.
When the inciting incident happens things start to change. No matter what it is, where or when it happens, the inciting incident is the first domino falling. It will start something that the protagonist cannot stop, he can only confront it.
The inciting incident can be either positive or negative and sometimes it appears to be one way but it reveals to be something else.
A few examples of positive inciting incidents are:
- Romeo meets Juliet and falls in love
- Harry learns about Hogwarts
- Tarzan is adopted by Kala
A few examples of a negative inciting incident are:
- Vito Corleone gets shot
- Katniss has to volunteer as tribute
- Scar kills Mufasa
According to Syd Field, there are two distinctive elements that kick start the story:
- the inciting incident, a particular event that sets in motion the chain of events that will bring the protagonist’s world out of balance
- the key incident, is the particular scene where the protagonist realizes that his life is taking an unforeseen turn and reacts to this event.
In the first season of Jessica Jones the inciting incident occurs when Jessica starts working on the case of a missing girl, while the key incident is the scene where she realizes that the girl has been kidnapped by Kilgrave.
In any case the inciting incident must create a reaction in the protagonist, negative or positive: refuse to act or decide to act immediately. Either way, he has to make a choice.
The choice is a crucial factor because in any story the hero will be forced to choose (usually more than once) and the decisions he makes help us understand his personality.
This is the third element that makes an inciting incident perfect: the defining characteristic, the first choice, the first glimpse that we get of the character’s personality. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that will make him sympathetic, but it must be something that defines his most prominent characteristic.
When Jessica realizes that Kilgrave is back, she has to decide what she’s going to do: save herself and run away or get involved and face her greatest fear. She chooses to stay, and this way we get to know her defining characteristic: an unbreakable will.
The big Lebowski
We experience the movie from the perspective of the Dude. First, we see the Dude’s normal world for the first time in the scene inside a store: he is broke, lazy, terribly dressed but relaxed, without a care in the world. When he gets back home his calm and problem free world is turned upside down by two men who break into his house and beat him up.
His reaction to this event tells us everything we need to know about him: he explains that he is the wrong man without getting too mad, since he is a pacifist he doesn’t insult them or pick a fight, he doesn’t panic but actually makes jokes.
The line that one of the men says “Wasn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire?” highlights the fact that, in a rush to get the money, the two thugs made a huge mistake. Similar episodes will keep happening during the movie. Again and again, the people around the Dude make fools of themselves trying to appear better people or to prove something:
- Walter pointed a gun in the face of a guy and destroyed a car because of his obsession with masculinity.
- The big Lebowski has spent his whole life trying to be successful only to end up without money, without his daughter and with a wife he doesn’t care about.
- Jesus takes pride in being good at bowling and nags the other players, but everyone knows that outside the bowling alley his life as a convicted sexual predator is horrible.
In the eyes of the audience the Dude comes out on top just by being passive, because compared to his cool, relaxed attitude the rest of the world seems crazy or stupid for even trying.
This is the theme of the movie: a man like the dude always gets out of trouble because he goes through life without putting stress on himself to be masculine, successful, heroic or anything else. He’s just a man who takes it easy.
The first active action that the Dude takes is to go to the “real” big Lebowski and ask him to reimburse him for the rug. This meeting shows just how wildly different the two men are despite sharing the same name.
The big Lebowski is obsessed with “achievements” and his status, he doesn’t waste time and starts rubbing his success in the face of the Dude hoping to arouse envy or anger. But nothing happens. Like before, the Dude is calm and relaxed which is what makes Lebowski snap and yell at him.
This is the inciting incident because, by meeting the Dude, Lebowski decides to use him as a scapegoat in his plan to steal money from the charity; and that’s how the Dude gets himself involved in the kidnapping case.
All the trouble he will have to go through from this point on are linked to his meeting with Lebowski. Despite the fact that the Dude doesn’t want anything to do with the fake millionaire’s life, he’ll be brought back and forced to take part in the case because Lebowski chose him to carry the money.
The inciting incident is a crucial part of the story and it’s often debated when it should happen or how it should happen. But the most important thing has nothing to do with when or how, rather it concerns the protagonist and what impression it will leave on the audience.