Kicking your protagonist in the pants: The inciting incident and your point of attack

Have you ever had that moment where you went to see a play or movie, to hear a lecture, to have a talk with someone you know, or even just spent time working on a project where you left thinking, “Gee. There’s an hour (or insert your own time parameters here) of my life I will never get back” ? It’s a awful feeling to know that you’ve wasted your time on something that wasn’t worth your while.  As a playwright, you are putting your audience in this position, and you’re essentially asking them to give you some of their time in exchange for you entertaining them.  For this reason, making sure that you set up your play in such a way that your audience can’t wait to find out what happens is your first priority, and you do this with your inciting incident.

The inciting incident (sometimes called the inciting event)of your play has to be compelling, wrought with tension, and put the audience in a place where they need to satisfy their curiosity about whether everything will turn out all right in the end of your play.  It must keep the audience involved and foreshadow that there is trouble ahead.  If you get the inciting incident right, you not only establish the major dramatic question of the play, but you effectively create a point of attack that “lights the fuse,” setting in motion a chain of cause and effect, conflict and opposing interests–all driving toward the play’s one big event–your protagonists’ crisis moment, followed immediately by the climax.  It’s Hamlet’s father revealing who murdered him and asking for vengeance.  It’s the witches’ prophesy to Macbeth. It’s Dorothy waking up in Oz and longing to return home. In your play, it’s whichever event knocks your protagonist’s life out of whack so that he will have to spend the rest of the play trying to restore balance. The inciting incident/event provides and sets up the play’s problematic circumstances, followed closely by the point of attack–the first action (by the protagonist) that changes everything.

You have two options regarding where to put your inciting event (The moment when “poop happens,” if you’ll pardon the crude expression).  Most of the time, the inciting event is reported rather than shown on stage because it occurred  before the play actually begins. For example, imagine a play about a wife whose husband has been murdered and she must now find a way to support her kids. Rather than show her husband’s murder, the trial, and the outcome, the play’s action is likely to begin with us hearing about the murder.  When the curtain opens, we meet the wife as she is trying to figure out what she needs to do to support her kids.

Your other choice is to actually depict your inciting event onstage. If you decide to go this route, it is advantageous to place it close to the beginning of the play, shortly before the play’s point of attack (The point in the play where “the poop hits the fan.” ) and allow it to be the springboard for your rising action.  In this scenario, imagine a man on an elevator. The doors open, and in walks an extremely pregnant woman. Then, bump, bump, ka-KLUNK.  The elevator stops (inciting incident). The woman goes into labor and needs a doctor, but the elevator is stuck and their phones don’t work, and the woman starts to panic. Now the man has to figure out how to help her deliver the baby (point of attack).

Either way, your inciting event needs to be

  • an event that radically upsets the balance of the forces in the protagonist’s life causing him to want to bring his life back into balance.
  • an event that incites or provokes a desire in the protagonist that he must satisfy.
  • an event that forces a character to take action in pursuit of a goal.

Once your protagonist makes the choice to respond to that event, you have a point of attack, and your play has begun.




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