A lot of us can recite a story from the beginning, if not the middle because the start of every story is important – by what’s the true start to every story? It’s an incident that pushes the protagonist into the main action of the story – it’s hooking and grips the viewer and at the same time it kind of snowballs down the line. This sets the tone for what’s going to happen to the story. This is known as the inciting incident – important to all types of stories and narratives whether it’s a half an hour sitcom, or a romantic apartment movie/sitcom, or a thrilling action film.
Once again, every inciting incident should have a distinct snowball effect where the story grows from the one thing that goes wrong (or right) like a snowball that picks up the wrong (or right) things as it rolled down the hill. After all, the story ends when the ball comes to a standstill – it’s just not entertaining to watch. So everything starting from the inciting incident is crucial to “get the ball rolling”. One great way to do that is to ask this question when picking an
an inciting incident: What’s the worst thing that could happen to my protagonist?
Doesn’t that just get you thinking? Well, keeping our inciting incident of an intro in mind, let’s get started.
Inciting Incident: 14 Real Examples To Help You Learn
These excellent inciting incident examples will help you understand what it truly means to write. To be honest, learning what to do with an inciting incident or even the explanation isn’t all that straightforward. Sometimes it’s a major, impactful, in-your-face type incident while on the other hand, other incidents are “an occurrence of seemingly minor importance.” And more often than not, movies and shows are trying to tell the audience that this is the key focus. Those who feel it already know this, others need it to be a little bit more obvious so it’s cool to convey it with something that compels your protagonist to do something – very often because of some change or another. The consequences are your snowball. Let’s look at these examples:
The Bicycle Thief (1948)
The inciting incident here is when a man finally gets work putting up posters and billboards on his one and only bicycle, which gets stolen while he’s on the job, creating the incident for the story.
The poor man goes on a desperate search through the city to find his critical bike making him dodge and dive into places he’d never gone all beside the life of his young boy who searches for the bike with him. This comes back to explaining the question we must ask: what do we do when the worst possible thing that can happen, happens.
Gran Torino (2008)
The inciting incident here is the attempted theft of a Gran Torino car. As soon as Walt Kowalski’s (played by the one and only Clint Eastwood) neighbor, Thao, tries to steal his prized car as a gang initiation, things just go wrong. Thao is met with violence from the gang members but the owner of the car Walt comes to his rescue in spite of what he did. This motivates Thao’s mother to inspire him to work under Walt as a sort of penance for his attempted crime. This sets the story of unlikely companions into motion.
The inciting incident here is invisible and lurks underwater. In Jaws Chrissie’s last swim scene is the event that propels the story further into darkness, power, fear and madness. Her death forms this classic need for the tale of man vs. beast. We learn from the beast or we hide from the beast, especially when it comes to death as death is the most powerful and common inciting moment for any story.
In terms of changes that ensure, without this initial attack, the town would have remained the same sleepy beach town the Mayor tried so hard to maintain. The story takes a big turn after our powerful incident.
Rear Window (1954)
The inciting incident here is the moment when Hitchcock masterfully uses a mysterious cry for help as JB hears a woman scream, “Don’t!”. JB also hears the sound of shattering glass.
In the movie, JB is awakened some time past midnight by thunder and sees his neighbor, Thorwald, leaving his apartment. Crucially, he also sees that Thorwald’s wife goes missing which kicks off the downward spiral of solving the mystery with who screamed “Don’t!”, where Thorwald’s wife is, and whether they’re connected.
Monster’s Inc. (2001)
The inciting incident here is the arrival of an adorable little girl.
After big hairy blue but lovable monster Sulley’s arch-rival, Randall, leaves a closet door open on the scream factory floor, Sulley discovers something he shouldn’t have. He sees a little girl whose bedroom it leads to has walked into their world. The inciting incident here is the arrival of an adorable little girl in this Disney-Pixar rendition of Monsters series.
Upon establishing how terrified the monsters are of humans, using the advent of a harmless child is a brilliant way for us to both laugh at the situation but knowing how kids are, we sit back and feel scared for Sulley because kids won’t listen to rhyme or reason most of the time.
The worst possible situation is now a reality for this loveable blue as he must use his friends’ help to get things back to normal before anyone finds out. Who knew that a small happy girl could instill so much fear that it changes the whole narrative of everyone involved.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The inciting incident here is the letter to Mrs. Bixby which explains the death of three Ryan brothers for General George Marshall. The events are all places in the grand scope of the war, one man’s death may not seem that important, but the death of three out of four brothers is making it so heartbreaking and gorgeous. Saving Private Ryan has one of the best inciting moments in the film because of the inspirational aspect to save yourself for your duty, family, and love during times of war, all of which play a heavy hand in the context surrounding it.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The inciting incident here is the talk with Army intelligence. At the beginning of World War II, archaeologist and professor, Indiana Jones, gets questioned by the United States Army about the Staff of Ra. When the army assigns Indiana Jones with the task of retrieving the staff from his former boss and, then, the Ark of the Covenant itself before the Nazis do, it sets forth an inciting incident.
Indy’s legendary tale changes when the Army intelligence agents tell him to do what he does best, almost precisely following Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to withstand the amount of change the protagonist goes through.
North by Northwest (1959)
The inciting incident here is the waiter causing two groups to collide in a confusing, misunderstood, and slightly fatal manner.
Two gangster thugs come to a hotel bar in New York City to look for someone called Kaplan.
The scene cuts to a waiter calling out for a man named George Kaplan. Simultaneously, Roger Thornhill, an unassuming advertising executive, calls for the same waiter to take his request. The two criminals sent to find Kaplan immediately think Thornhill is him which creates a change of plans based on a mistaken identity for the protagonist. This kicks off Thornhill’s wild ride in another Hitchcock classic which states that only Cary Grant and Hitchcock could ever give so much suspense in so many directions – a true fact!
The inciting incident here is when a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray hires Jake Gittes to surveil her husband, Hollis Mulwray — a high profile, respected public figure and the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Considered one of the greatest scripts ever written, Surveiler Jake Gittes photographs Mulwray with a younger broad and the images get published. The man finds out that he was set up when the real Mrs. Mulwray threatens to sue him. That initial recruitment of Jake Gittes set into motion the events that lead Jake the surveiler from a small-time personal detective job, to solving the murder of Hollis Mulwray and uncovering the scheme he was roped into. The downward path which Jake takes leads him right back into a type of position he was trying to avoid; getting emotionally involved in a place where nothing makes sense and there are no consequences… Chinatown.
My Name is Earl (2005-2009)
The inciting incident here is when Carson Daly is in the hospital and learns first hand about karma. Most people think that it is when Earl wins the lottery, or when he gets hit by a car and then immediately loses the ticket, which makes it tricky as someone who’s studying inciting incidents. But the viewer would enjoy all the twists and turns that lead up to the true event where he has to make the list of 259 bad things he’s done and find a way to make up for them.
Considered one of the greatest scripts ever written, this is a story where a man learns more about himself and his capacity for good than he ever thought possible.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
The inciting incident here is for Glengarry Glen Ross during one of the most recognized speeches of all time. During his speech, Alec Baldwin’s character gives a meaningful incident that is brilliantly framed and executed. His presence at a real estate firm’s field office may be short, but he leaves a long-lasting impact to improve sales, starting a contest explaining the steep stakes that come with it. The dialogue “Sell or be fired. Always Be Closing” gets us interested in all the changes that are going to happen now to the daily lives of these characters and sets into motion a fantastic story.
Die Hard (1988)
The inciting incident here is the arrival of the villain — Hans Gruber. A Christmas classic, the protagonist John McClane is flying into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to reconcile with his estranged wife. He goes to change clothes in the bathroom of the office building where her office holiday party is being held without knowing that a fantastic villain Gruber and his henchmen are holding everyone inside as hostages except for McClane, of course. The inciting incident here is the moment we see the villain fully knowing what’s at risk and what it means to our hero.
The inciting incident here is when protagonist Howard Beale learns about his upcoming termination. For the Paddy Chayevsky’s Network, this is a major change as the face behind the camera begins to unravel live and the ratings begin to skyrocket. A major life event — like being fired — on live tv means that a movement is born, the journey and traction of change are some of the best examples of using an inciting incident.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
The inciting incident here is two people at the wrong place at the wrong time. The story isn’t about the police raiding the speakeasy (an establishment that illegally sells alcoholic beverages), but about two characters Joe and Jerry as they bear witness to the murder of “Toothpick” Charlie. That’s what propels the two men to get out of town. Speakeasies as they are illegal were raided all the time in the 1920s. The two characters Joe and Jerry would have found other work and their lives continued as normal all except for being witness to the killing they knew they saw. As the two had to get out of town before they got put on the chopping block themselves, it snowballs into their zany, gender-bending story in the canonical comedy.
So those were 14 awesome examples of inciting incidents being used to propel a story forward. As you would’ve surely understood by now, an inciting incident is a critical aspect of storytelling. If you are a story writer or a screenplay writer, you should definitely try to use it for your stories. It’s bound to work wonders. Happy Writing!