Incite means to encourage or stir up, so the inciting incident is the incident that encourages the story. It is the thing that makes the story possible, usually by altering the circumstances of the protagonist’s life.
That alteration can happen significantly externally, such as the fairytale creatures coming to live in Shrek’s swamp, or perhaps something that shifts them internally, such as Rudy’s best friend perishing in a mill accident.
What is crucial to understand is that it is something that happens to the protagonist. It is not simply the first cause of events.
A simple way to understand the inciting incident is to look at the moment it affects the main protagonist. So while there may be a simple event that starts a domino effect, it is the moment it affects the protagonist that the story we’re about to see is kickstarted. E.T. being left on Earth is the first thing that happens in the film, but it is not E.T.’s story as much as it is Elliot’s, so the discovery of an alien in the backyard is the inciting incident in this film.
In Jurassic Park there is an accident on Isla Nublar. This is actually the first cause. This, in turn, sparks some investors of the park to request an expert opinion before the park opens. These investors ask for certain experts to be involved, namely Dr. Alan Grant. And it is when John Hammond arrives on the dig site and invites Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler to the park that the inciting incident actually occurs. It is this invitation because Dr. Grant is the protagonist of this story.
As the inciting incident is not simply the first cause of events, it is the thing that alter’s the protagonist’s world in a profound way. It isn’t a minor inconvenience that they can ignore.
Something has shifted, and either they must make that thing shift back, or they must shift themselves. More often, it is the character that shifts, and so this inciting incident also points to their character arc. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Ted Kramer’s wife leaves him and his world is now occupied with balancing his career with the son he must now take care of. This directly points to how he must grow as a father. The inciting incident of his wife leaving him directly connects to what he needs.
In other cases, however, the world changes, and it is up to the protagonist to change it back. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers learns that SHIELD isn’t what he thought it was (through the inciting incident of Nick Fury’s assassination) and he refuses to change, instead bringing SHIELD down.
Returning to Jurassic Park, let’s look at how the inciting incident affects Dr. Grant.
This invitation will bring him face-to-face with living, breathing dinosaurs These scientific discoveries place him directly at odds with the thing he loves doing: digging. It’s mentioned twice explicitly before Hammond arrives.
You’ll never get him out of Montana.
Because Grant’s like me. He’s a digger.
A few more years development we won’t even have to dig anymore.
Where’s the fun in that?
Obviously, there’s more here than the simple task of digging, but what is being established is that Dr. Grant is comfortable with the way the world is. Dinosaurs as bones. Him putting together pieces of the past that he’s dug up. And this inciting incident (invitation to an island with living dinosaurs) will force him to confront the fact that the world as he knew it is no longer.
While there is no exhaustive list of how an inciting incident can occur, here are some common ones:
– An invitation: Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark
– An intrusion: A Streetcar Named Desire, Monster-In-Law, Independence Day
– An internal awakening: Rudy, Macbeth
– A physical accident: Iron Man, The Diving Bell & The Butterfly
Whereas features contain an inciting incident that usually sets up the arc of a protagonist, the inciting incident of a television show is one that sets up an ongoing conflict to be explored in the show. Generally, it creates a new status quo that will constantly be examined.
In Lost, the inciting incident isn’t so much the plane going down, but the fact that these people survived and are now on this island where they have a chance to reinvent themselves.
In Friday Night Lights, the inciting incident happens generally late in the pilot, when the star quarterback breaks his neck, and this whole town that is centered around football must figure out how they will move forward together.
In something like Friends, an inciting incident is only needed as much as it establishes the context of the show. Rachel leaving her fiance is used insofar as it helps establish the relationships (and living situation) of these six people, which is what we’ll be exploring the rest of the series.
To go further: 3 Steps of Writing a TV Pilot
When it comes to understanding inciting incidents in your own work, it is most important to remember that it is the thing that happens to your protagonist, and that thing must affect them in a profound way. Otherwise, it may just be a plot point on the way to, or from, a real inciting incident.