What is the inciting incident and how can learning to efficiently develop it improve your story? Let’s see what lessons can be learned from The Martian’s excellent screenplay.
The inciting incident is one of two huge moments in act one of any screenplay or novel, and how it plays on the page will either force your reader to continue reading or throw it through the window. So what is the inciting incident in The Martian and how does it play out?
The story opens with the crew of Ares 3 during its eighteenth day on the surface of Mars, and botanist Mark Watney is taking soil samples and flipping playful mocking banter back and forth between the crew, which introduces us to each member in an entertaining way. This lasts for three and half minutes (or screenplay pages) before the start of the inciting incident begins.
The crew receive a storm warning mission update, and although they knew about the storm, the update warns them that it is going to be far worse than originally forecast. Then we get an image of this grotesque storm surging over the mountains towards them. The crew congregates to discuss its choices, but with the high winds threatening to blow over the MAV (Mars Accent Vehicle), which is their only escape from the planet, the commander gives the order to abort the mission and head back to Earth.
We’re now four and a half minutes into the story.
The storm reaches the base as the four crew members prepare to leave the habitat module on the short journey to the MAV. Visibility is poor, but that’s okay as each crew member has technology in their suits that relays their vital signs and positions to everybody else, so finding each other is no problem. But as they try to get to the MAV before the wind tips it over, a piece of debris swipes away our hero Watney, tearing into his suit and damaging its technology.
The crew immediately loses Watney’s signal and the computer informs them that a breach has been detected in his suit. They search, but know he can’t survive for longer than a minute without the oxygen and pressure in his suit, and with the MAV about to tip, they have no choice but to accept that he’s dead and blast off from Mars without him.
Back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) gives a press conference to announce to the world that astronaut Mark Watney is dead.
But Watney isn’t dead, and he wakes up half buried in Martian sand, marooned, with no way to get home. So the story has changed direction, and the audience now knows what it’s going to be about – for Watney to survive and find his way home. That’s the inciting incident. And we’re approximately ten minutes into the film.
The first thing you should notice about this inciting incident is that it wastes no time in getting the story started. There was a period when writers could spend more time setting up a story and its characters before the inciting incident occurred. For example, in Die Hard (1988) the inciting incident occurs when the terrorists enter the Nakatomi Building, take the people inside hostage, and force John McClane (Bruce Willis) to run and hide in the building in order to escape them. This all starts at seventeen minutes into the film. The writers didn’t start the main story until seventeen minutes into the film!
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; we happen to be of the opinion that Die Hard is the greatest action film ever made, but here it serves to contrast and highlight the immediacy present in modern films. Today’s audiences are younger and they’ve grown up reading shallow soundbites on the internet. This has inadvertently translated into film – audiences want the story to begin instantly… they want that immediacy.
The second thing you’ll notice about the inciting incident is that it is not simply a single scene or moment in a screenplay or novel. Very often, screenwriting books and so-called gurus will present structural diagrams, like the one below, that indicate where certain plot points should fall during the course of the story. The problem here is that these diagrams inaccurately portray these plot points to look like one brief moment in the storyline, and that’s how those uninitiated in story structure will understand them to be.
Of course, you can dilute the inciting incident, and any other plot point, to a one-sentence description that immediately tells you what that plot point is about, for example, Mark Watney is marooned alone on Mars. That’s the turning point in the story we need to get to, but as writers we have to craft an entertaining and exciting build up to that moment. From that viewpoint, the inciting incident is a sequence of scenes with a climax that turns the story in a different direction, and not just one brief point on a line in a diagram.
What to take away from all of this:
- Ensure you immediately break into the story and that the climax of the inciting incident happens no later than ten minutes in (ten pages of screenplay)
- Ensure your inciting incident is not just a point on a storyline – make it the climax of an entertaining and dramatic sequence