I've been reading a lot of scripts recently (nothing new there) but have become fascinated by inciting incidents, and their precise value to a story. This mainly applies to feature films, but is relevant to TV, too.
What's an inciting incident? It's the moment when the introduction and set-up of the story changes, and the premise of the film begins. Typically, it revolves around the hero, and is sometimes referred to as 'the call to adventure'; the moment where the protagonist (or his world) is challenged and the story awaits his/her response. It happens early on in a script, usually around page 10 or so.
(image from Seeking The Write Life)
This is standard stuff that most of us know. However, in the scripts I've been reading there's been a common pattern of mistaking an inciting incident with a random occurrence of plot rather than combining it with an inherent sense of story.
'A bad' inciting incident will be a plot-point that seemingly has no connection with the hero or the set-up so far, and the reader doesn't know how the two relate to each other. As a result, the reader can get detached until the script contrives the action to the end of act one, where the hero finally gets involved with whatever the inciting incident established. With this approach, the script feels plot-driven, and not very engaging.
A good inciting incident creates the central dramatic question of the film involving the protagonist and story. The central dramatic question gives the film its narrative spine (what the story should be focused on) and what the audience expects to see (whether they're conscious of it or not).
++++INCITING INCIDENT SPOILERS++++
For example, in 'How To Train Your Dragon' some might say that the inciting incident is when the hero meets the dragon. The hero realises he's no dragon killer, and never will be. It's an important moment, for sure, but it doesn't yet set up the central dramatic question of the film. It happens shortly afterwards when his father finally gives him the chance to train as a dragon slayer. 'Will the hero make his father proud of who he really is?' It's what the story is about, on a character-driven and personal level; it adds resonance and meaning.
In 'Jaws', the shark attacks. Inciting incident? Maybe. But the central dramatic question of the film revolves around the hero when he's confronted with the issue, and his fear of the water, not to mention whether to keep the beaches open. "Will the hero kill the shark and protect his community, and get over his hang-ups about the water in the process?" It's what the story is about, on a character-driven and personal level; it adds resonance and meaning.
In 'The Impossible', the story about a family who get caught up in the 2004 tsunami, the inciting incident occurs around 10 minutes into the film when the tsunami hits and washes everyone away. The central dramatic question of the film is 'will the family survive and reunite?' It's what the story is about, on a character-driven and personal level; it adds resonance and meaning
A good inciting incident will create this central dramatic question of the film that's pertinent to character and story (and usually suggestive of a wider theme or purpose, rather than plain plot excitement). In 'The Matrix', Neo's got a dull life, a slave to the system, yearns for something more, and feels like he's connected to something bigger. So when the inciting incident occurs, it's intrinsically linked to Neo's character, and what he must undertake in the story. "Will Neo face the challenges of The Matrix and accept that he's The One?"
To recap then, an inciting incident isn't just a significant plot point (an asteroid hits Earth), it's what it represents to the wider aspects of the character and story (an asteroid hits Earth, but will a journalist reconcile with her father before the next asteroid obliterates mankind? 'Deep Impact'). Really think hard about your inciting incident, and whether it corresponds or compliments everything about the hero/set-up so far.