Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Where is your inciting incident?

Out of curiosity, and because I like to know for sure about a script before I start condemning a film, I read Hot Tub Time Machine last night.

Actually that's not true. I tried to read Hot Tub Time Machine. I got to about page 55 before I gave up. The dialogue in the script was great and really well constructed, and the opening scene was delightful. Then it was downhill from there as I became increasingly infuriated with every page.

Here's the main problem I had with the version I read. You'd think if your story is called Hot Tub Time Machine, you would get to the hot tub time machine pretty quickly. I mean, it's the title, right, so it's the one thing we're all waiting for. Yet it was page 29 before anybody finally got in the hot tub.

A half hour. That's how much film you had to get through before you reached the inciting incident. What, you might ask, was so important that we had to wait that long before we got to the hot tub? I don't know. Dialogue. Character development. Certainly not plot.

I had to learn this lesson too not long ago. A helpful reader pointed out that the inciting incident in my story happened on page 18. I moved it up to page 12. Instantly my pacing picked up. Same thing this script. My inciting incident used to be on page 21. As soon as I bumped it to page 10, things picked up considerably.

In The Hangover, the guys wake up in their trashed hotel room on page 14. That means we have the rest of the movie to figure out what happened to Doug and why the dentist is missing a tooth, because that's what this story is about. Where's Doug? It's the adventure we're after, not the back story. Besides, you should be able to dish out back story in bits and pieces throughout the story, not all in long chunks of dialogue and exposition.

We as viewers need to know what our mission is. We need to know what we're waiting to happen, and we can't know that until we see the event that starts the ball rolling. The Crazies did a great job with that - we were probably four minutes in when the first crazy guy came wandering across a baseball field carrying a shotgun. Hell, the movie's called The Crazies. The previews showed a bunch of crazy people destroying shit. Why would I need to wait half an hour to see my first crazy person? Let's get that shit started as soon as possible.

If your movie is called Hot Tub Time Machine, you need to get some hot tub time machine action going somewhere within the first 15 minutes. Otherwise I'm just sitting around waiting for the story to begin.


  1. What do you consider an inciting incident? How about Pitch Black? What page do the monsters take their first victim? (pg27) Or do you consider the inciting incident the ship crash?

    Beware confusing the break into 2nd act (to use a Save the Cat term) and inciting incident. In Hangover, I believe the inciting incident is going to Vegas. The break into 2 is waking up (also the Hangover fucking sucks. All the funny parts are before they wake up.)

    Or look at Up. When does the house rise into the sky for the first time? (pg 24) Is that the inciting incident or the break into 2?

  2. the title is a spoiler in itself, which ruins the "SURPRISE!" factor for me. Oh yeah, the trailer gave away too much.

  3. I believe the inciting incident is whatever event causes the necessary action to follow. So going to Vegas isn't that big a deal. The story starts when they can't find Doug, because their mission throughout the film was to find him.

    In Pitch Black, I would say the crash is the inciting incident, because the rest of the film is about getting off the planet. The monsters are just an added complication.

    As for Up, I'd say his wife's death is the inciting incident, because the rest of the film is about him learning to move on by following the dream they had together.

  4. Wow. Ok, when structuring a scene, we think about the antecedent event, which may be almost the same thing, however, I believe the inciting incident in most cases is what answers the question, "Why is there a movie?" As opposed to any specific page number, however, I do agree that a movie titled Hot Tub Time Machine should indeed show either one or the other, or both :) Sooner than you say.... I also agree about picking up the pace.

  5. I don't think there should be a specific page number, either, but I think if we're 15 minutes in and we're still waiting for the story to start, something's wrong.

    "Why is there a movie" is a pretty good way to put it.

  6. You know, I was in agreement with most everyone here until a few days ago when I picked up an early draft of a script I'd written that I've since rebooted to a director's liking.

    Guess what? I like the early draft best. Granted, the inciting incident happens much later than it does in the reboot, but the story actually has room to BREATHE.

    Sure the reboot is leaner, meaner and faster. On the other hand, the characters aren't as easy to connect with as they were previously.

    It's like having a new neighbor. Sure you may like him, but not as much as you like the neighbor across the street who you've known for ten years now.

    Anyone else have this problem?

  7. "The Golfing Goat Rule" - if your script is about a golfing goat, the audience is waiting for the goat to start golfing. The longer it takes for the goat to start golfing, the more the audience/reader starts to wonder when this damned story is going to *start*!

  8. Inciting incident and call to action...

    strictly opinion here, but genre and story will dictate how soon this takes place. A drama might need more backstory and development vs. a hot tub, lol.

    If a reader is getting antsy and forced to hold breath until page 29 it's going to be difficult to get a "recommend".

  9. In regards to the Hangover;

    I would say the inciting incident is going to vegas and or starting to party. This causes the act break of waking up and missing their buddy.


  10. This thread got me thinking. Thanks Emily.

    My question is; Is it possible for people to see different scenes in the same movie as the inciting incident, act breaks, etc?

    Is it set in stone or do we interpret different moments differently?

    If this is possible does this indicate problems with the script?


  11. Jim, I was just thinking that very thing. I'm still thinking. That's an excellent question.

  12. Usually like to think of inciting incident as whatever action or event causes the change that will propel the story forward. Agree with Emily here.

    P.10-12 usually works great. And in the hangover it's gotta be the waking up. Going to Vegas doesn't start them on their quest, the waking up does.

  13. Script Wilted

    I would argue that going to Vegas starts the adventure. The waking up is the act break since they are in a whole new world at that point. They have all changed in some way.

    If waking up is the inciting, where does the act break hit?


  14. I've got a whole thing about that three-act structure, too. I don't go with the three act thing. I can fake it for meetings, but I think of scripts as a series of turning points. I think if you limit every story to having only three pieces, you limit your creative potential.

  15. Great post. This is a lesson, for whatever reason, that us writers seems to want to resist in the beginning. Like OUR story is so amazing that we can ignore the basic rules of storytelling. ;)

  16. Anonymous1:44 PM

    what then to make of all of the great (produced) scripts with inciting incidents after the 15 min mark? i guess they're all "wrong".

    i'm reminded of this post from ken levine:

    forcibly twisting a story into a generic, pre-formatted beatsheet will result in it sounding forced and predictable.

    at least thats my take. as someone who hasn't sold shit, i'm hardly in a position to give advice and edicts about whats right and wrong.
    i usually leave that up to the pros. you know..people speaking from a place of real experience.
    i'd hate to mislead fellow amateurs by conveying my opinions as rules.

  17. Anonymous1:49 PM

    "..the basic rules of storytelling"

    one of the basic rules of storytelling is that the inciting incident must occur within the 15 minute mark? wow. i must've missed that one as did scores of other professional screenwriters. silly james cameron, what was he thinking having rose not even meet jack until WAY past the 15 minute mark in titanic? someone needs to teach that man the basics of storytelling! perhaps a seasoned vet like emily?

  18. I'm sorry it bothers you so much, Whoever You Are, but I discussing what makes a good film is what makes us all better writers, whether we've sold something or not.

  19. "I think if we're 15 minutes in and we're still waiting for the story to start, something's wrong."

    That's what I said. Do you see that word "think" up there? That's normally a word people use when they want to indicate they are expressing their opinion. I have an opinion, this is my blog, and there you have it. The thing is, I put my name here. I stand by my opinions. Not only do you have nothing to say, but you don't even have the guts to make up a fake name.

  20. Except Jack sees Rose while he's playing poker before they get on the boat, folds his cards, and gets on the boat. That's danged early in the film (which I do not own on DVD or I'd have the exact minute and second).

  21. Anonymous10:19 PM

    For my money, it all depends ultimately, on how long the movie is. A three hour drama might not get to it until, 30 minutes in. I don't see a lot of 3 hour long movies and I tend to agree with the majority of people on this post. You need to get to the point relatively quickly, not only to move forward, but just based on our current ADD, phone checking society. Probably, sometimes, certain genres also have alot to do with it, as well as mood of the story. For example, most comedy moves quickest out of all the genres in my opinion. Unless it is a sub genre of the genre, such as "romantic" comedy.

  22. great story, but you put the wrong tittle to it, I feel a little disappointed at the end.


Please leave a name, even if it's a fake name. And try not to be an asshole.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.