“The inciting incident raises this question of the Protagonist’s journey: ‘Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?’”

Question from @SB_Boxing:

hi Scott. Should a protagonist always initiate the inciting incident or can they be reactive to it?

Let me approach this question with two considerations in mind.

First, with a few caveats [see note at end of post], almost every story by definition is going to have this dynamic in place: The Protagonist(s) will begin in the Old World / Ordinary World. That is, we meet the Protagonist in the context of the life they have been living up to the point of FADE IN. This is only natural. We need to get to know this key character in their ‘natural habitat’ in order to have a baseline against which to measure everything else that happens. Their personal metamorphosis, changes in key relationships, the contrast in events that transpire in the New World, and so forth.

To that point of the New World, inevitably something happens in the first act / movement / stage of the story that propels the Protagonist out of their Old World.

This brings us to the second consideration: That ‘something happens’ event has a lot of names. Joseph Campbell calls it the Call To Adventure. Screenwriting gurus call it Inciting Incident. I even have a name for it: The Hook because this event both hooks into the plot and gives it a twist, and hooks the reader’s attention. Ah, that’s interesting. What’s going to happen now?

It doesn’t matter what you call it, just that you understand something has to happen. An external force that intrudes in the Protagonist’s life. A Herald who arrives with an invitation. A sudden realization the Protagonist makes to leave their Old Life behind.

Something. Happens. In my view, that is the essence of an inciting incident.

As to the specifics of your question, @SB_Boxing, frankly I think more often than not, the Protagonist does not initiate this event, rather it happens to them, it comes at them. Some examples:

  • Casablanca: Rick is given the letters of transit by Ugarte.
  • The Matrix: First Trinity, then Morpheus reach out to Neo about him being in danger.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark: Two Army Intelligence officers seeks Indy’s help with some messages they have intercepted from the Nazis about possibly locating the Ark of the Covenant.
  • Bridesmaids: Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor.
  • The Silence of the Lambs: At the end of Clarice’s startling initial interaction with Lecter, set into motion by her FBI chief Crawford, Lecter gives her a clue bound up in a riddle.

Each of these Calls requires a response: In Casablanca after Ugarte is shot, Rick keeps the letters for future use. In Matrix, Neo refuses to heed Trinity and Morpheus, ending up being taken captive by Agent Smith and his cronies. In Lambs, Clarice unravels the riddle Lecter gave her which sets her onto the case. In Raiders, Indy enthusiastically agrees to pursue finding the Ark of the Covenant. In Bridesmaids, Annie agrees to be the Maid of Honor.

This dynamic, whereby Fate intervenes in the ordinary life of the Protagonist, is a common one in movies. As demonstrated with these examples, we see that responses can vary. Campbell talks about the Reluctant Hero, and as with Neo in The Matrix, this is a familiar theme, and understandably so from a writing standpoint as this take gives the Protagonist more room to grow. On the other hand, some Protagonists are ready to rock and roll, whether they are conscious of their innate desire to change or not, and that can bring its own unique energy to a story’s setup.

Sometimes, however, the Protagonist helps to create the circumstances of the inciting incident:

  • The Wizard of Oz: After Miss Gulch takes Toto, who then escapes, Dorothy and her dog run away from home.
  • The Apartment: Busted by Sheldrake, Baxter agrees to give the key to his apartment to his boss for Sheldrake’s illicit trysts.
  • Up: Carl’s unfortunate interaction with the construction crew leads to him being evicted from his house.
  • Her: Unhappy over his impending divorce, Theodore purchases a talking operating system with artificial intelligence named Samantha.

In each of these cases, the Protagonist either initiates or is at least implicated in the unfolding of the inciting incident.

So the direct answer to your question, @SB_Boxing, is this: There is no “always”. Not to the issue of the inciting incident. Not to anything involved with crafting a story. As writers, we should feel completely free to follow our stories wherever they take us. Screenwriting gurus who say things like “Never” or “Always” are more than likely armed with some sort of formula they want to sell you. And formulas almost inevitably lead to formulaic writing. And formulaic writing leads to virtual slush piles.

Forms, on the other hand, are different. For decades, movie narratives have had patterns, tropes, memes, themes, dynamics. Three act structure. The Hero’s Journey. Metamorphosis. Archetypes.

However these are tools, not rules.

They should inform our creative process, not inhibit it so that we feel like we are engaged in little more than paint-by-numbers storytelling.

Beyond that, the much more interesting question for a writer to ask is this:

Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?

Consider your Protagonist. Their state of Disunity at the beginning of the story. They need to change. The Story Universe recognizes this. And it’s the Story Universe which makes that critical something happen event occur in the middle of what we call Act One.

Ponder the idea that your Protagonist has a Destiny, what I call their Narrative Imperative. Their Disunity state implies a Unity state, something 90% of mainstream Hollywood movies have in place as part of the resolution to the Protagonist’s journey.

Bottom line: Go into the story and find the animals. And those animals ought not be constrained by “Always” and “Never”. Stories are organic. Formulas kill 99% of scripts that funnel into Hollywood before they get past the first script reader’s iPad.

Your Protagonist may initiate the inciting incident. They may inadvertently set it into motion. The call may tumble upon them out of the blue. They may be forced into their journey. They may go willingly. They may leap into it.

Any of these options — and many, many more — is possible.

Immerse yourself in your Protagonist and your Story Universe, keep asking questions and see where they lead you.

Find the heart and soul of your story…

And for heaven’s sake, stay away from formulas.

Caveats: Stories do not need to proceed in a linear fashion, going from Beginning to Middle to End. Granted, most mainstream movies do, but filmmakers can:

  • Tell the story backward (see Memento)
  • Craft the story in a nonlinear fashion (see Pulp Fiction)
  • Omit the middle (see Blue Valentine)

However, even if you tell a story with a nontraditional narrative structure, let’s say, you start at the end, in what constitutes the first 10–15 minutes of your movie, something will happen. It may not technically be the Call To Adventure — that may emerge later in the story when the narrative gets around to the beginning — but it will function as a hook that twists the plot and incites a reader’s interest in the plot — hopefully.

Readers, what thoughts do you have? Please head to comments to share them.

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What is the connection between the Protagonist and the inciting incident? was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Scott Myers