The light of the last trailer fades and the theater gets dark. On the screen an iPhone alarm goes off and we see a hand reach through the dark to a table beside the bed. Our main character turns the phone off, sits up in bed, and rubs her eyes. She gets up and starts her day. In the next shot, she’s out the door, walking down the sidewalk of her Brooklyn neighborhood. She’s tired, but it’s a beautiful day. She enters the bagel shop on the corner, and it’s clear they all know her. A second later, we see her leave the shop and turn the corner and cross the street. She crosses the plaza in front of the courthouse. It’s full of people starting their Tuesdays.
Suddenly there is a large whooshing noise, and hovering in front of our main character—in jet boots—is a man in an armored suit. “Well, well, well. We found you,” he says.
She glares at him. “It won’t matter. You can’t take me,” she says with cool venom. Her eyes burn bright red. She raises her hands, they start to glow, and she…
Now stop. What do you feel? What are you thinking?
This moment, when the day goes from a regular Tuesday morning to the start of a superhero movie, what does it feel like?
While reactions will vary to this particular story, they will almost all be some variation of, What just happened? Here was this woman starting her normal day, and then some sort of super villain—or hero?—drops out of the sky after a long hunt to find her. And the way she responds? With powers of her own. Whatever this day was going to be, it’s going to be different now. And that’s where the story starts.
In a story this moment is called the inciting incident. It is the event that changes everything. It is a moment that the protagonist (the main character, the one who changes over the course of the story) cannot ignore. They must respond to it. Before the inciting incident, our main character was going about their day just like any other day. And then something happens that alters the course of their day. It could be a technological supervillain dropping out of the sky, or a positive pregnancy test. Any event or change can be an inciting incident, as long as it’s a moment that changes everything. And that change should pose a question.
In Finding Nemo (a story about fish), the inciting incident is Marlin’s son Nemo being taken by a scuba diver. It was Nemo’s first day at school, and he took the chance to rebel against his overprotective father. Nemo’s choices put him in a situation where he could be taken, but it was the outside intervention of the diver that kicked off the story. The moment his son was gone, Marlin could not ignore the situation. He had to do something. And here we see the question that the rest of the movie will answer: how far will Marlin go to save his son? Can he overcome his fears?
The power of the inciting incident lies in its dramatic reshaping of the protagonist’s life, and the high-stakes question that its change poses. Whether the change is emotional and internal, or physical and external, it cannot be ignored. It must be dealt with. The question must be answered. And that moment is what launches the story—and the protagonist’s quest. It’s what kicks off the story.