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The inciting-incident shows the audience or hints at what is to come later: the protagonist’s quest.

If your movie is about a serial-killer, the first scene might be the killer murdering an unsuspecting nubile young female (like Drew Barrymore in Scream).

If your movie is about an Earth-killing asteroid, the inciting-incident is the discovery of the demon rock hurtling towards us.

If your movie’s about a love-story aboard the Titanic, the inciting incident is actually showing the audience the real Titanic as it sits today, at the bottom of the ocean, via submarine - before you jump back in time to introduce us to Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters.

If your movie is about Scottish heroin addicts (Trainspotting), the inciting-incident is them stealing stuff and shooting-up in front of the baby.

But, it can be more complicated than that too. Take Back to the Future, for instance. The inciting-incident is Doc Brown’s Rube Goldberg machine that dumps a can of dog-food into a bowl filled with about a week’s worth of festering muck. It shows that technology, while supremely cool and appearing to solve a problem - might actually do more harm than good. It might not be all it’s cracked up to be. And, of course, at the first turning point, Marty jumps into the time-machine and gets stuck in the past.

The inciting-incident should foreshadow the protagonist’s upcoming quest. Take the movies mentioned above. The quest in Armageddon is to stop the asteroid, so the inciting-incident is discovering that the asteroid is coming. In Scream, the quest is to stop the serial-killer, so the inciting-incident is the serial-killer killing someone. Etc…

You don’t have to be as on-the-nose as those two examples above. Take the movie Hostel for instance. Normally, with a horror movie such as this, the inciting incident would be for the torturers/killers to torture/kill someone. But, instead, the screenwriter gives us something slightly different: an opening montage of scenes of the main-characters doing bad touristy things (drugs, alcohol, sex, etc...).

The inciting-incident is often the first scene in your screenplay. Not always, but often. Sometimes there’s a cold-open - and then the inciting-incident comes later. Or maybe there are introductions first and no cold-open. Or some other variation. Screenplays come in a million different flavors. But, for the sake of brevity, let’s just assume that your inciting incident is the first scene in your script or somewhere thereabouts.

Apocalypse Now opens with ‘The End’ (the song by the Doors) and the napalming of Vietnam! The whole mission is doomed from the get-go. Just one giant cluster-f**k. What the protagonist is searching for - is actually death. The inciting-incident tells us this isn’t going to be a pleasant journey (of course, this inciting-incident works best with the alternate-ending, where Martin Sheen calls in an air-strike on Kurtz’s compound and kills everyone once and for all).

Writing Your Screenplay’s Inciting Incident: The Inciting Incident!

In Inception, the inciting-incident is a dream.

In Goodfellas, it’s a noise in the trunk - which they go to investigate, find the victim still alive, and gruesomely kill him with a mixture of guns and knives.

In the Player, it’s a long tracking-shot that pays homage to Hollywood history and includes numerous film-pitches.

In Fight Club, we open in Ed Norton’s head! It’s all in his head! The twist was given up in the inciting-incident! Yet no one noticed!

In Children of Men, the protagonist walks into a dystopian cafe and sees a news report about the youngest person alive getting stabbed for refusing to sign an autograph - he walks outside and and the building explodes! The inciting-incident tells the audience that the world is infertile - and, not coincidentally, that’s what the main-character’s quest is, to save the human race from global infertility.

In Reservoir Dogs, the inciting-incident is again something you wouldn’t expect. You would normally expect a movie about bank-robbers to open with a bank-robbery or something like that. But, instead it opens at a diner with a bunch of crooks having breakfast - and Mr. Pink doesn’t tip! The inciting-incident does in fact show them doing something immoral, not tipping! And, it sets up their immorality for later.

In Citizen Kane, the inciting-incident is Rosebud. In Jaws it’s a shark-attack.

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HOW LONG SHOULD EACH ACT BE?

THREE ACT STRUCTURE

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PROTAGONIST’S CHARACTER-ARC

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I should take a moment here and clarify the difference between a cold-open and an inciting incident. They are occasionally the same thing, so it can get kind of confusing.

A cold-open, is as the name suggests, an opening where you go in ‘cold.’ That just means ‘without any lead-up.’ So, a cold-opening is, by definition, the first scene in your script. There can’t be a scene preceding it, otherwise it would no longer be cold.

Bang! You are hitting the audience in the face with your cold opening. You are immediately coming in with some action. You are getting the story started with a BANG!!!

Or, of course, in comedies, the cold-open is usually one of the funniest jokes and may not have anything to do with the main-story.

An inciting-incident, on the other hand, is the scene which starts your story off. It’s the first time you tell the audience what the movie’s really about. It’s the scene which sets your story in motion.

Almost every serial-killer movie starts off with an inciting-incident where the killer murders someone. That’s the scene where the audience finds out that the movie’s going to be about a serial-killer. The protagonist may not have been introduced yet, so they’ll have no idea what the story’s about, but they’ll know it’s going to be a crime-thriller about a crazed killer.

If your inciting-incident is the first scene in your screenplay, it’s also likely a cold-opening. So, that’s where it gets a bit tricky. An inciting-incident can be a cold-opening -  and a cold-opening can be an inciting-incident. But, they aren’t quite the same things.

An inciting-incident doesn’t necessarily have to come extremely early in your script. Sometimes inciting-incidents don’t happen until 15 minutes in. But, they usually are pretty close to the front. Whereas, a cold-opening has to be first.

A cold-open can have nothing to do with your protagonist or story, but an inciting-incident has everything to do with your story, it literally starts your story off.

You can have either - or both - or neither in your screenplay.

If you have a cold-open, it should come as scene #1.

If you have an inciting-incident, it should come within the first 15 pages or so.

Cold-Opening or Inciting Incident: