Screenwriters Beginners,  Story Structure

How To Find The Inciting Incident In A Story

Remember those fairy tales we used to tell (or read to us) when we were little? They all started with “Once upon a time, there was… this… and there was that… and everything was like this. Until one day…” Well, that “one day” is the Inciting Incident (or Catalyst) of the story.

If you prefer watching videos instead of reading you can learn about the Inciting Incident here:

For the rest of you, who prefer reading, please, go on, be my guest!

So… that “one day” is the Inciting Incident (or Catalyst). Everything that it is said before that, is the Backstory.

According to Joseph Campbell the Hero’s Journey always starts in the “Ordinary world”. See it this way; when the story starts, we learn about the world (the world of the story). Even if it’s the strangest world to us, we always suppose that this is how “ordinary world” is in that place, in this particular story.

And then, something happens, sometimes really serious or other times something that seems trivial, something that you don’t even notice, but it’s there!

The Inciting Incident of Little Red Riding Hood

What's the Inciting Incident in the Little Red Riding Hood?
What’s the Inciting Incident in the Little Red Riding Hood?

You know that little girl who wore the red riding cloak, so everyone called her Little Red Riding Hood. In her world, by the way, animals could talk and people didn’t find this strange. Well, one day her grandma got sick and she was asked to bring some food to her. And that’s the inciting incident. If grandma hadn’t been sick, there would be no story.

I like to think those first plot points as a door. Maybe there’s a bell ringing on this door, maybe it’s a knock, maybe it’s just the wind. But the moment this happens is the moment you have the Inciting Incident. Now, the heroine/hero sometimes hears this knock immediately and other times learns about it later. The moment the heroine/hero knows that there’s something outside that door is what Joseph Campbell names: the “Call to Adventure”.

Inciting Incident vs. Turning Point 1

The inciting incident is always in the first part of the story, in the ordinary world.
The inciting incident is always in the first part of the story, in the ordinary world.

Be careful, not to confuse the Inciting Incident with the first plot point (or turning point) of the story, which is the event that leads to the actual beginning of the adventure.

Let’s think of it as the story of a heroine/hero between two worlds.

The heroine/hero lives in the “ordinary world” when something happens that eventually leads her/him to travel to a different world, to the new world.

The inciting incident is that thing that triggers the following changes.

It always happens when the heroine/hero is still in the ordinary world.

It’s the ringing of the heroine/hero’s doorbell, so the heroine/hero makes a choice whether she/he would open the door or not. The moment she/he opens the door is first turning point and when she/he steps out to this “different world” is the moment where the Act 2 starts.

When we are in the inciting incident, the heroine/hero still has a choice; to answer to that knock or not; to accept or deny the adventure. This is the “call to adventure” and she/he could still refuse the call and keep living its life in the “ordinary world”… if nothing else happens then, we won’t have a story to tell. It ends here. That’s why, later, we have the first turning point, where, usually, the situation is more difficult and there is not much of a choice. The heroine/hero cannot go back.

Their basic difference is this:

What’s the difference?

a) Inciting Incident –>  Starts the story

b) Turning Point I  –>  Starts the actual adventure

Method to find the Inciting Incident:

Sometimes, when you find it confusing to find out what is the inciting incident of a film/story, maybe it will help you take the following steps.


  1. Think about in a few words what is the summary of the story that this film tells you. (Always, do this AFTER having seen the entire movie).
  2. Spot the first turning point. That is, the event or incident that leads the story towards the Second Act.

Explaining Steps

  1. Think about, in a few words, what is the story that this film tells you. (Always, do this after having seen the entire movie or play).
    Try to make a summary of the story. Try to use words like this: “There was (a man, a girl etc.) who did this and that… and everyday (she/he did this)…. One day/When (something happened)… (and) she/he had to/was forced to… act, so he/she (went there/did that) etc.”
    When you come across to this “one day”, think of it. It is very very possible that this is the inciting incident you’re looking for.
    However, don’t get confused and start telling the story from the backstory. If the film or play you’ve seen starts with an orphan, don’t go back to how the orphan lost his parents, even if you have all these information. If the writer wanted to start the story from back there, she/he would. Start your summary from the same point as the story starts!
  2. Spot the first turning point. That is, the event or incident that takes the story from the First Act to the Second Act.
    The two easiest plot points to find, in my opinion, are the first turning point and the point where Act 2 begins, you just can’t miss them. They are usually closely connected, sometimes they’re so close that they become just one event. So, if you spot the first turning point and the beginning of Act 2, then you can search better for the Inciting incident (Catalyst), because this is always before the first turning point, and of course before the Act 2 starts. It is ALWAYS somewhere inside the Act 1.

General Tip

Sometimes when a film seems quite complicated it helps if you focus on the basics, on “what’s the story”. This thinking helps not only in finding the Inciting incident, but many times it also helps to find other plot points as well, such as the midpoint. So keep that in mind and use it whenever things get complicated. It’ll simplify the procedure, it’ll help you to see the “big picture” and it will also prove useful when writing your own stories and scripts to decide as well what goes in the beginning or in the middle etc.

Let’s see some examples from films:

Jurassic Park

The inciting incident in Jurassic Park is in the very first scene!
The inciting incident in Jurassic Park is in the very first scene!

In Jurassic Park, a worker is killed by a velociraptor and because of that the park’s investors demand that experts visit the park and certify it’s safety.

Note: As you see, this inciting incident doesn’t happen to the protagonist himself, but eventually it’s going to affect him.

Back to the future

The inciting incident in Back to the Future is the testing of the time travel machine.
The inciting incident in Back to the Future is the testing of the time travel machine.

Well, in a time travel movie, what else can one expect for the Inciting Incident but the invention itself? Marty meets the Doc at Twin Pines in 1:15 am and the Doc shows him that he has turned the Delorean into a time travel machine. However, now he’s going to check if it works. As we’ve seen, many of his inventions don’t work properly. So, the moment we find out that his time machine really works, with his dog inside, Einstein, is the inciting incident. Marty also learns now about the invention. If the machine didn’t work, Marty wouldn’t time travel to the past, and there wouldn’t be a story.

The Matrix

The inciting incident in Matrix is... the white rabbit.
The inciting incident in Matrix is… the white rabbit.

The Inciting Incident here is when Neo receives a message on his computer screen to “follow the white rabbit”. When the girl with the white rabbit tattoo visits his apartment, he decides to follow her in the club and see what happens. Neo could refuse this “call” but his curiosity about the Matrix is quite big to let it pass.

Myths, Confusions…

After a web search I found so many different explanations of what the Inciting Incident is, that my head is spinning. I don’t understand why we make things so complicated. So, I’d like to answer some of these myths and/or confusions.

  1. There are many kinds of inciting incidents.
  2. The inciting incident is always in page X in your script or in X minute of a film.
  3. Sometimes the inciting incident occurs before the beginning of the story.
  4. The inciting incident always happens to the protagonist.

…and Answers

  1. No, there aren’t many inciting incidents. I’ve read somewhere that there are three different kinds of inciting incidents. No, there aren’t. In a story, there are, of course, MANY incidents that occur. That’s fine. That’s how stories go. One thing leads to another. But there is only one Inciting Incident, one event that sets the story in motion. One.
  2. No, there is no rule in which page or in which minute you should put or you can search for the inciting incident. I’m sorry, but every story has it’s own rhythm, every story is different. No rules about that. The only rule is that the inciting incident is ALWAYS in the first Act and always occurs BEFORE the First Plot Point (or Turning Point). Usually, it’s something that occurs during the first 10 minutes of the film. Usually, but it’s NOT a rule. Sometimes, the inciting incident occurs in the 12th minute or in the 15th minute in a movie, and that’s fine, because the particular story probably needs it there.
  3. No, the inciting incident is NOT something that occurs before the story begins. Many people say this, but it’s wrong. The story starts in the moment that the movie starts. Everything that happened before, is BACKSTORY. There may be many important incidents that happened back there but it’s not what you’re looking for. You don’t search for the inciting incident there. If it is, then there’s something completely wrong with the story. You have to remember that no matter how strange things are in the beginning of a story, we’re still in the “ordinary world”. We’re still learning the backstory. You have to be able to find the inciting incident inside the story, not somewhere before the story starts.
  4. The inciting incident DOES NOT necessarily happen to the protagonist, but it definitely affects her/him somehow. In hunger games, the inciting incident happens to Katniss’ sister, so indirectly affects her as well. In Jurassic Park the inciting incident happens to a handler of one of the dinosaurs but indirectly affects Dr. Alan, because he is invited to certify the safety of the park.
    e.g. When Hamlet starts we already start with a world that Hamlet’s father, the King, is dead and Hamlet’s mother has remarried to the new king, his uncle. No matter, how strange all these sound to us, these are “the ordinary world” of the story, because this is how it starts. It’s easy for someone to think that “oh the death of his father is the inciting incident”. But it’s not. That is only backstory. After the story begins, very very soon Hamlet hears that the ghost of his dead father appears during the night and he decides to stay up late and see if this is true. This fact is the inciting incident, because appearing ghosts is not a usual thing to happen, even in Hamlet’s world. If Hamlet hadn’t heard from his friends that there was a ghost that looked like his father, he wouldn’t wait to talk to it and he wouldn’t find out the truth for his father’s death.

Besides, the word “inciting” means “to encourage or urge (someone) to act“. If the inciting incident happened before the story begins, then the story has already begun before it starts and we meet the protagonist in the middle of acting, of doing things and taking actions to resolve her/his problem.

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