The Three Act Structure, Part IV: Act I Inciting Incident

Tools and Techniques

The three acts are broken into eight sequences. Each of those sequences end with a type of climax.

Depending on the book you read, the names of those climaxes vary: inciting incident, the catalyst, set-piece, big event, setback or triumph, midpoint climax, the point of no return, the crisis, the final battle, or denouement.

There may be other names, but those are the terms mentioned in Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff and The Screenwriters Bible by David Trotter.

Recommended Reading

And, since it’s been a while, here’s the list of recommended reading:

  • The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne
  • The Screenwriters Bible by David Trotter
  • Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff
  • Alone With All That Could Happen by David Jauss
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
  • Thrill Me by Benjamin Percy
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  •  The Truth About Fiction by Steven Schoen
  • Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro
  • How Fiction Works by James Wood
  • Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
  • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  • Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
  • How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

For reference, here’s the current three-act structure of CHRONICLES OF A WITCH-HUNTER:

Sequence 1 Climax: Inciting Incident Defined

This is a key event that sets up the entire story and leads to the Act I climax. At this point in the story, the main character or main characters have no clear direction. The first 50 pages or so have led up to this moment with exposition and character development. That’s not to say there isn’t conflict. There needs to be conflict. And there needs to be tension. Without tension[CL1] , the story may endanger reader engagement and interest. Tension is a whole nother post.

In scripts, the inciting incident occurs within the first 10 pages if not sooner. In books, it certainly needs to occur on or before page 50 (in a 400-page book). During my MFA, I learned early on that readers are exceptionally impatient and that the inciting incident should occur even earlier.

Sequence 1 Climax: Inciting Incident General Examples

The inciting incident in action films could be a big car chase. In rom-coms it’s typically two lovers meeting and hating or being annoyed with each other: conflict between them.

Sequence 1 Climax: Inciting Incident in Blade Runner

More specifically, in the original Blade Runner—a movie released in 1982—the inciting incident is when Gaff speaks with Rick Deckard at the noodle bar. And, honestly, it may be even earlier when Holden is attacked by Leon while delivering the Voight-Kampff test; however, this scene doesn’t directly involve the main character, Rich Deckard, so it’s more likely the noodle bar scene where Rick realizes he has no choice and reluctantly accepts the call to adventure.

My Next Post

I’ll continue the three-act structure in my next post by defining the climaxes beyond sequence 1.

Author: Chuck Lang

Chuck Lang is a writer of science fiction and horror. Influenced by his years as a carpenter, four years serving in the US Navy, and his nearly two decades teaching literature, he holds an MFA in Writing (Fiction) from Lindenwood University. After completing his first manuscript, the supernatural horror novel DEAD GODS, in 2019, he has begun work on its two sequels, DEAD GODS: INHERITANCE and DEAD GODS: RESOLUTION. He is currently developing two additional projects, an urban fantasy horror novel and a military science fiction novel. He lives and writes near the frequently flooded Red River in Fargo, ND with his wife and two redhead sons.

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