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4 Examples of Inciting Incidents in Screenplays

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

3 Examples of Great Scenes and How to Write Them

There are many variations of the screenwriter’s Beatsheet, from Robert McKee to Save the Cat, and even Young Screenwriters’ own Tentpole. Beatsheets are a tool used by writers to outline the elements of story before drafting the screenplay. For more, check out this article from NoFilmSchool about the Best Writing Systems for Screenplays.

One of the most important Beatsheet elements is the Inciting Incident. The Inciting Incident is the moment that sets the narrative in motion. It is generally a major change to the protagonist’s life where they can never return to the way things were before, and is the start of their emotional journey.

Let’s take a look at some Inciting Incidents from a few different screenplays, and examine how they set the story in motion. Looking for screenplays to read? The Young Screenwriters Script Vault is stuffed with features and pilots to learn from! You can also check out Professor John Warren’s Classic Film List for some old-school inspiration.

Diablo Cody’s coming-of-age comedy Juno balances great writing with a core concept that was novel and exciting when it was released in 2007, and subsequently won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Juno begins with a normal world in flux: teenager Juno MacGuff discovers she is pregnant, and must decide what to do about it.  Initially, she wants to get an abortion, but at her appointment, she has a change of heart and decides she doesn’t want to go through with it.

This triggers the Inciting Incident of the film: Juno is going through with the pregnancy, and needs to find the right  family to adopt her baby. It may seem that the pregnancy is the Inciting Incident, but because the film opens with this as Juno’s normal world, the real change that sparks the rest of the story is the moment she decides not to go through with the abortion.

It’s a great moment of change, because it leads Juno onto a very clear path with a specific objective, which is finding the right adoptive family for her baby. Every obstacle from this point forward is tied to this objective, and results in a tight narrative with a strong story.

What screenwriters can learn from this: When the Inciting Incident creates a clear path to the objective, the story can draw conflict and stakes from this moment of change. 

Whiplash – Coffee Class | Screenplay

Damien Chazelle’s 2014 psychological drama Whiplash began as a short film, which drew enough attention and acclaim to propel Chazelle to write and direct the feature version of the story. It’s clear from this screenplay that Chazelle is a talented writer who understands his craft.

Whiplash follows jazz drummer Andrew Neiman as he navigates the competitive world of the Schaffer Conservatory, and specifically his relationship with his complicated and volatile conductor Fletcher.

The film begins with an excellent scene showcasing the themes of the story and introducing the dynamic between these two characters. The Inciting Incident is the moment Fletcher chooses Andrew to be in the Studio Band as an alternate drummer.

This distinction is important for this story: even though Andrew has “made” the studio band, he is at risk of losing it at any moment if his rival drummer is better. This throws Andrew into an obsessive and dangerous journey of trying to achieve “perfection” and the approval of the abusive Fletcher. The built-in stakes of this moment of change add a layer of danger and thrill to the story, and keep the audience on their toes.

What screenwriters can learn from this: Layering in constant stakes will add conflict and drama to every moment of the story. 

Parasite – Coffee Class | Screenplay

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite took the world by storm in 2019, winning tons of awards, including being the first non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Parasite follows the impoverished Kim family as they infiltrate the rich Park family’s service, trying to bring their entire family out of poverty and into a new and better life. The film is masterfully structured, and is filled with layers of symbols and subtext.

The Inciting Incident sparks change when Ki-woo’s friend from university Min-hyuk visits and bestows him with a suseok, a special rock meant to bring fortune to the family. Min-hyuk is leaving to study abroad, and offers to recommend Ki-woo as a replacement tutor for the wealthy Park family, so long as Ki-woo pretends to be a university student.

This moment catapults the story forward, as Ki-woo and his family work together to infiltrate the Park household, coming up with various schemes to ensure each member of the family obtains a job in service of the Parks. The suseok acts as a magical talisman for Ki-woo, giving him the courage to believe he can help his family transcend their current station in life.

What screenwriters can learn from this: When characters must be all-in to achieve their objective, the conflict that arises can cause deeper tension and greater overall meaning to the story.

Inception – Coffee Class | Screenplay

Christopher Nolan’s 2010 science fiction thriller Inception is an excellent example of tight storytelling. Even though the plot appears complicated, the focus on a clear emotional journey for protagonist Cobb roots the audience so they don’t get lost in the spectacle.

The Inciting Incident in Inception is appears as a job offer for Cobb from mega CEO Saito, except it isn’t any job offer, it’s the nearly impossible task of the inception of an idea through dream technology, and the dangling carrot for Cobb is being able to see his estranged children again.

The stakes are clear: this mission is dangerous for everyone involved, and there’s no guarantee it’s even going to work. Despite this, Cobb so desperately wants to see his children again that he assembles a team of the best dream infiltrators, and conducts a plan to see the inception through. There is a deep emotional component to this job, not only in the result, but in Cobb’s devastating past that has led to this moment. Going through with the heist will mean confronting his demons.

What screenwriters can learn from this: Rooting the Inciting Incident in the protagonist’s emotional journey creates a deeper connection to the plot and the stakes. The audience will feel the protagonist’s need to meet their objective on both a physical and emotional level, which creates a more compelling story.

Whether your screenplay is a character-driven drama or a big-budget sci-fi heist, focusing on finding the best Inciting Incident for the story will help ensure the script is as strong as possible. Digging into both the emotional and physical stakes for your protagonist, and making sure those stakes are all-encompassing will add more layers to the story and hook readers needing to know how it all turns out in the end.

Take a look at some of your favorite films. What are their Inciting Incidents, and how did they draw you into the story?

Hungry for more screenwriting education? Young Screenwriters has a range of courses for every writer on each step of their journey! Get started with our FREE Writing the Short and Writing the Scene courses to learn the basics. 

When you’re ready to take the next step, sign up for Writing the Feature and learn NYU Professor John Warren’s complete writing process, including generating powerful film ideas, forming dynamic character arcs, creating beat sheets and outlines, and finishing that screenplay with proper formatting and a plan for what’s next. Writing the Feature is the perfect way to work on that screenplay from start to finish, and our Discord community will lift you up every step of the way!



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