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The Incident versus The Call

On the one hand there are the followers of Syd Field who speak of ‘Inciting Incident’.  Then there are the believers in mythology who speak the language of Joseph Campbell and prefer ‘The Call to Adventure’.

To make matters worse, others speak of ‘Opportunity’ or ‘Disturbance’, Catalyst etc.

Chances are this post is not going to make you a better screenwriter. Possibly a less confused one.

So is this just another case of babylonian speech confusion in the screenwriting world? Do they all refer to the same thing? I would say they don’t.

Let’s distinguish the ‘Call to Adventure’ from the other thing (whatever it’s called).

You’ll find that many movies have some sort of major incident early on: shark attack in Jaws, mega-break-in in Die Hard, bomb planted in Touch of Evil etc. (don’t mistake this for the ‘hook’, which may be unrelated to the actual story as often happens in Bond movies). These early events signal that the story has started, yet the Heroes are still going their ordinary little life. Their journey only really kicks off once the Hero finds out about this event. In this sense, Syd Field is really NOT talking about the Inciting Incident when he says:

“the point in the story when the Protagonist encounters
the problem that will change their life.”

That’ll be the Call to Adventure.

The main reason why it makes sense to distinguish both terms: they each occur at different points in most movies. You’ll find that the Inciting Incident usually sits somewhere early in Act One and the Call to Adventure happens remarkably often around the 10-12 mins mark (or 10% in).

The Screenwriting Wiki is confusing when it defines the Inciting Incident as

An event near the beginning of the story
that initiates the protagonist on his or her journey.

and then goes on to give the example of Star Wars as “R2D2 ends up in the hands of Luke Skywalker.” I would rather say that the Inciting Incident is earlier, when Leia entrusts the plans to R2D2.

The Call to Adventure happens when Luke gets the message.

I’m losing the plot when Kall Bashir says:

The inciting incident could also be the Unbearable Antagonism.
(Luke sees that his uncle and aunt have been murdered)

Isn’t that the scene that marks the end of Act One? Luke has to act now and decides to accept his mission and Cross the Threshold by traveling with Obi Wan to Mos Eisley.

On the message boards of Done Deal Pro I found the following for Star Wars:

– Catalyst = Leia puts plans in R2D2
– Inciting Incident = Luke discovers plans

Interestingly they identify the exact right two moments but label them wrong.

But doesn’t ‘catalyst’ literally mean ‘inciting incident’??

Anyhow…

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting defines the Inciting Incident as follows:

The event that irrevocably propels the main character
into the flow of the main story.

That makes sense. But what follows does not:

Think of it as the character stepping into a whole new world.

Their example from Star Wars names the Inciting Incident as

The point when Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle get massacred
by the overwhelming force of the Galactic Empire.

Hmmm… The Complete Idiot’s Guide, right?

But you know what? Who cares…

…as long as your story has these two important, very different stages.

To keep things simple and to clearly separate the meaning of these two stages, I’d put it this way:

    • Shit Happens (Inciting Incident)

    • The Shit Hits the Fan (Call to Adventure)

You’ll find that in stories that are told uniquely from a single point of view – without dramatic irony or shifting POV – the two often coincide.

One of the reasons why they are mostly two different stages: the Inciting Incident gives the audience the advantage, which creates tension. It puts the Hero on a ‘collision course’ with the consequences of the Inciting Incident – and ultimately with the Antagonist.

Let’s have a look at a few of my favorites and see if it works for you:

JAWS

I.I.: The shark kills the swimmer
CTA: Brody receives a phone call

PHONEBOOTH

I.I.: Pizza delivery to phone booth
CTA: Stu Sheppard closes the booth (he’s in trouble and he knows it)

THE UNTOUCHABLES

I.I.: Bomb kills little girl.
CTA: Mother of girl comes to Ness with a plea.

UP

I.I.: Truck backs into post box.
CTA: Men come to pick up Carl.

THE INCREDIBLES

I.I. & CTA: Message from Mirage

GROUNDHOG DAY

I.I.: Radio plays same song (we get it)
CTA: Bill Murray character realises

DIE HARD

I.I.: Criminals enter the Nakatomi building
CTA: McClane hears shots, sees the criminals

STAR WARS

I.I.: Princess Leia records message
CTA: Luke sees the message

TERMINATOR

I.I.: The Terminator arrives in the present day
CTA: Sarah Connor realises she’s being hunted

THELMA & LOUISE

I.I.: Harlan tries to rape Thelma
CTA: Louise shoots Harlan

I would love to hear your comments.

Let the fun begin!

Karel

About the Author

Karel Segers

Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in international movie rights acquisition, script development and production. He has trained and consulted to filmmakers all over the world, including award-winning screenwriters, and Academy Award nominees. Karel founded this website, as well as Logline.it!, ranks among the most influential people for screenwriting on social media, and speaks more than a handful of European languages (which should come in handy in his present hometown of Sydney, Australia).

Comments 26

    1. Post
      Author

      Ha! Had a quick look at your home page and your site design made me smile. I had ‘Artemia’ for months as the #1 candidate for the new blog layout before settling for this one.

      Thanks for the comment, Andy.

    1. I agree with Lynden.

      I think Syd Field IS really talking about the Inciting Incident when he says: “the point in the story when the Protagonist encounters the problem that will change their life.” — And it’s a synonym for the Call to Adventure.

      Karel, I think you’ve hit on something really cool though. There’s needs to be a name for that “Shit Happens” moment before the the protagonist is aware of the event. Trying to hijack existing terms that have long been synonyms for each other is a tough one though.

      So I propose calling it the “Pivotal Setup Moment.” Kinda catchy right? 🙂

      What do you guys think?

    2. Post
      Author

      I had expected the discussion to go in a different direction, but I like this too.

      Thank you for the comment Lynden, but I disagree for the following reason: ‘inciting incident’ had been used as a term in literary analysis for a long time before Field appeared on the horizon. In literature, I believe the Inciting Incident doesn’t necessarily have to relate to any particular protagonist. The single protagonist (or strongly focused POV) is less popular in literature than it is in film, therefore I believe the literary ‘inciting incident’ refers to the story rather than the Protagonist (See for the word’s etymology: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=incite&searchmode=none). It is the event that kicks the STORY in motion, not necessarily the protagonist.

      Of course we can adopt and adapt this meaning to apply to film, but I don’t find it accurate. “Call to Adventure” is clear. It refers undeniably to the Hero.

      I’m all for separating them out as I hope the examples above prove there often are indeed two dramatically very different moments that kickstart the story each in their own way: one creates anticipation in the audience, the other in the Protagonist. Sometimes, yes, they coincide.

      Trevor, some people already make the distinction. As a matter of fact, I was made aware of it by the people of the British Script Factory during a workshop last year.

      “Pivotal Setup Moment.”?? Hmmm… Waiting for your 2nd Draft. 😉

    3. Great distinction! I’d sort of been wondering over this myself.

      One small point: Wouldn’t the inciting incident of Groundhog’s Day rather be Bill Murray being assigned the story in the first place? It seems to me that this is what puts him on the “‘collision course’ with the consequences of the Inciting Incident.”

      1. Actually, since the movie is basically about making Bill Murray someone worthy of being loved by Andy McDowell, you could argue the inciting incident is when he sees her goofing off in front of the blue screen and falls in love.

        Either that, or Punxsutawney Phil predicting a long winter. Yes, I went and looked up how to spell Punxsutawney.

      2. I always also look at i.i. as that the audience will think ‘omg, how will this turn out/end’? In the case of Groundhog Day, going to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day is Bill’s character’s ordinary, normal life. As an audience, I don’t think when he goes there to cover or even when he is doing his little report ‘omg, how will this turn out’, especially because it is made clear he does this every year. We as the audience don’t expect this year will be any different by the beginning of it, apart from the title that this will be probably about Groundhog Day, but titles can be misleading and we still don’t know what is going to happen.

    4. The Inciting Incident is where the Greater Antagonism makes its presence felt in the Hero’s world. The Call to Adventure is where the Hero becomes aware of the Greater Antagonism and must respond to its threat. So in Star Wars, the capture of Princess Leia by Darth Vader is the inciting incident – this is the equivalent of the shark attack in Jaws. The message that leia sends to Obiwan Kenobi is part of the Herald process where the herald is R2D2 who carries the message to Obiwan (the Mentor) and Luke (the Hero). Luke refuses the Call initially when the message is played, citing his responsibilities to his uncle. Later when he and Ben find the dead Jawas, he flies home and finds his uncle and aunt dead. This is when he accepts the call. Their deaths are where he sees the Greater Antagonism at work for himself.

    5. I tend to call the first event the catalyst – it’s what changes the story, sets off the dominoes.
      The second I call the call to adventure – it’s what gets the plot rolling.

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  2. My kids adore The Incredibles… as so do their parents. Interesting that it’s your only example where the II and CTA are the same thing. 🙂

  3. Great article. I would hesitate to suggest it can be broken down even further. I believe 3 events that must happen. They can happen together or separate.

    1) After establishing the Ordinary world of the story, there is a DISTURBANCE to this world. The disturbance must have long term repercussions, it must be out of balance and will not return or repair itself.
    Example: Darth Vader kidnaps Leia.

    2) The disturbance reaches the protagonist. Changes their course of events or world.
    Example: Luke discovers the message in R2D2.

    3) A goal/journey/adventure to fix the imbalance is proposed. If it is not implied from the disturbance to the protagonist, then it is usually explained by some sort of herald or mentor figure.
    Example: Obi Wan explains to Luke what has happened and that she must be rescued.

    Then Luke (as all good heroes do) refuses the call.

    More often than not, steps 2 and 3 occur as one.
    Example: The sheriff is called and told about the shark. His role is implied as it is his job to protect the people. He doesn’t need to have that spelled out for him.

    Also note, step 3 is different to a mentor convincing a refusing hero to embark on his/her journey.

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  5. “When shit happens and when shit hits the fan” sums it up perfectly for me.very nicely. Just as in life there is a usually a big difference between when we become involved and when we become engaged.
    In “Moon” and “Groundhog Day” (Which I still say is a brilliant movie btw) this is more obvious because we as the audience are aware of the inciting incident before the protagonist is aware of any call to adventure.

    Very helpful, thanks.

    1. In “Jaws,” wouldn’t the CTA be Sheriff Brody being slapped by the mother of the little boy killed in the second shark attack? Brody didn’t close the beaches after the first attack and so here he’s accused of being responsible for her son’s death, in front of the townspeople. This is his call to take steps to kill the shark and redeem himself.

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  8. There is only 2 mandatory steps (3 with the refusal stage),
    explicit inciting incidents are only used in poorly written 1st acts (aka succession of events to get the story to the hero, because those events permits easy exposition time for the writer).
    But Discreet inciting event are used and mandatory in stories “with a twist”.

    Follows a table with Journey/Shit Metaphors/Pixar slang

    Inciting Incident———-“Piece of Shit”———————-Clouds on the horizon
    Call To Adventure——–“Shit Happens”———————Hero hurt /Passion taken away
    [Refusal of Adventure—“Not give a shit”/”Full of Shit”—–Hero makes the bad choice to refuse reality
    Catalyst——————–“Shit hits the Fan”——————Bad Choice creates Crisis/Problem

    Between CTA and Catalyst, you have the Refusal of Adventures or Refusal of the Loss (denial stage) where the Hero makes the bad choice to refuse reality.
    The main thing is that the Catalyst event must, as much as possible, be a consequence of this choice

    Examples :

    JAWS
    CTA: The shark kills the swimmer + Brody is told about over the phone(Brody should have been in the kill scene)
    Denial : Beaches not closed
    Catalyst : Boy killed for negligence

    THE INCREDIBLES
    Discreet I.I : Robert sent Buddy packing
    CTA: Hero’s are illegals
    Denial : Robert plays undercover do-gooder/hero at work and afterworks
    Catalyst : Robert get busted in jewel store (+ then by his wife) and at job
    Mirage offer is no catalyst because it happens after Robert ACCEPTS his new boring life (and would kill the story doing so)

    GROUNDHOG DAY
    CTA: Radio plays same song (we get it)
    Denial : Bill walks through his first cloned day without a clue
    Catalyst : Bill Murray character realises

    STAR WARS

    Bad I.I.: Princess Leia records message + droids got of the ship + droids get caught + droids get sold to luke’s uncle and finally…
    Bad CTA: Luke sees the message and does nothing (should have rushed his way to Ben to get the end of the message, being sure he would have found a way to remove the security plug by the time he got there)
    CTA that should’nt have existed : R2-D2 does Luke’s protagonist job and so Luke has lost one of his droids
    Denial that shouldn’t have existed : has to retrieve it so he could lie to his uncle by not telling him
    Denial again : don’t want to go get the girl with Obi wan
    Bad Catalyst : Uncle and Aunt deep fried, Luke doesn’t have anything to do with it, doesn’t even care (ok except for the 5-step-of grief-in-one-shot looking in the suns dawn/set with Williams huge music)

    THELMA & LOUISE
    CTA: Harlan tries to rape Thelma
    Catalyst : Louise shoots Harlan

    KICK-ASS
    CTA : Dave and Todd robbed
    Denial : Dave overthinks himself into superhero stuff and get to beat up his robbers
    Catalyst : get stabbed, run over and gains “superpowers”

    1. Post
      Author

      Thank you Romain. I find it really useful to distinguish between these steps of what people call the Inciting Incident and/or Call To Adventure.
      Is this a distinction you came up with, or did you read it somewhere? Although I like the principle, I would probably use different terms depending on the framework I’m working in (Hero’s Journey or other).
      Thank you for your contribution. Keen to read your response.

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