When To Start Your Story: When Should the Inciting Incident Happen in a Screenplay?
Usually, movies start with a little getting to know you with the main character. We learn what her issue is, her personality flaw, the thing on the inside of her that is the main obstacle to a more perfect life. It’s the thing that establishes the need for change. We also learn about the central character’s milieu: her working life, her home life, her social life. Generally, there’s a problem with it, but we don’t, nor does the character, see the compelling need for change until the inciting incident.
The inciting incident is when the story starts. The rest is prelude to the story. So when should the story start?
Again, as in most screenwriting, there is no hard and fast rule. But there is a soft and slow rule. Don’t do it that way. Get to the story as soon as reasonably possible. On the other hand, we want to care about the protagonist, and, to do that, we need to know her before the shit hits the fan.
So that leaves us with nothing firm to shoot at. Most movies place their inciting incident at around fifteen minutes, give or take a few. The tendency in screenwriting courses it to get to it by page 10-12. I disagree with that, though I tell my students anywhere from 13-18 is okay. Why so much time? Because we want to be fully invested in the character before we run her up a tree and start throwing stones at her.
Would we care about Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Twelve Years a Slave if we hadn’t seen his life before his abduction? Would we care about Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity if we hadn’t seen her joking around with the George Clooney character before the disaster? Would we care about what happened to Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine if we didn’t know her before bad things happened to her? Okay, bad example, because I still didn’t care about her. But you get the idea. Some time must be taken to learn about our characters. To either get to like them or be fascinated by them as we were with Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) in Dallas Buyers Club takes time.
Again. How much time? That’s up to you, but in my mind, the better we know the characters – liking them or not – the more interested we will be in their journey.
There are exceptions, of course. There always are. The easiest one to cite is the James Bond franchise, where the first five to ten minutes really has nothing to do with the story, tells us nothing new about the character, reveals no major personality issues (unless you consider killing for a living a personality issue). The opening scenes of a James Bond movie are strictly to pull the audience into that crazy world where the only thing that counts is action. Laws, human life, sometimes even gravity, are ignored in a villain’s pursuit of Bond or in his pursuit of a villain. I’m sure you could cite other examples, but let’s just agree that there is no law in this, just conventions.
Paul Chitlik’s feature directing debut “The Wedding Dress” from his own script, is in post-production. For more information on script writing, read his book, Rewrite: A Step-by-Step to Strengthen Structure, Character, and Conflict in Your Screenplay, second edition published by Michael Wiese Productions.