Lately I’ve been brainstorming what to write for my next feature script.  And I’ve been looking for questions to ask myself which might lead to good ideas.

The goal is to stimulate the flow of possibilities through the use of some sort of  prompt, and then listing potential ideas that fulfill the prompt.

Usually the first few ideas are bad, but if I can get my mind to just focus on “another, then another, then another” — with no editing or critiquing — I can shift into a right brain mode, where suddenly something intriguing can just pop into my awareness.

One tool I came up with last week was to think of “inciting incidents” (a/k/a “inciting events” or “catalysts”).  These are those big, singular “uh oh” moments for a story’s main character which come in the first act, and which really set the story in motion.

Such a moment generally comes at around page 12 of a traditional length screenplay.  It consists of a big new problem, challenge, or conflict, which the main character will have to spend the entire rest of the story trying to solve.

The audience, hopefully, will be deeply emotionally invested in them doing so!

So I began breaking down the different types of inciting incidents in successful movies I’ve liked.  And what I came up with were a few different categories that seemed to get repeated over and over.  (Sometimes overlapping each other.)

What follows is a very unscientific list of fifteen, which seemed to cover most of the movies that I ran through this process.

(You may notice that some of these line up pretty very closely with particular “genre”s from the Save the Cat books.  If you know me, you know those genres are my favorite tool for evaluating and developing story ideas.)

    • The thing that has defined you and/or supported you (key to your identity, mission, sense of self, well being, etc.) is suddenly taken away or threatened…   Jerry Maguire, Toy Story, Bridesmaids, About a Boy, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Legally Blonde, Elf, Enchanted, The Godfather  
    • A new mission emerges to help someone,which seems like the necessary and right thing to do, but will clearly come with some major challenges…   Clueless, The Sound of Music, Erin Brockovich, The Sixth Sense, Schindler’s List, The Hangover, Dave
    • You get an opportunity to possibly do the thing you’ve always wanted to do – which may seem too good to be true, and will be really difficult to succeed at…   Almost Famous, Boogie Nights, Working Girl, Tootsie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
    • You meet (or have a first real interaction with) someone who seems like they could be your perfect counterpart, and somehow change your life for the better – but it will be incredibly hard to win them over, or make a relationship work, long-term…    Wedding Crashers, There’s Something About Mary, Pretty Woman, Twilight, Brokeback Mountain 
    • When you’re facing a painful life passage, an opportunity or challenge emerges that seems to you (if not anyone else) like it will be “just what the doctor ordered”…   10, The War of the Roses, Lost in America, We Bought a Zoo, Superbad
    • A problem, challenge or issue that you share with others (whose stories are also explored, interwoven with yours) builds to a head, with the emergence of some new fact, opportunity, or crisis…   The Big Chill, Crash, Love Actually, Traffic, The Kids are All Right
    • You join, try to join, or are taken in by a group or “institution” which will offer potentially great rewards but also great costs…   Goodfellas, Platoon, The Devil Wears Prada               
    • Your deepest darkest secret is made public and/or thrown in your face, wrecking your “comfortable” existence, and forcing you to face this underlying thing that haunts you…   The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Good Will Hunting, Casablanca

    • An enemy of some kind emerges – threatening and/or challenging you and those close to you, in some basic and important way…   Ghost, The Matrix, Witness          
    • An unexplainable magical situation makes living your normal life in its normal way impossible…   Liar Liar, Field of Dreams, Big
    • You realize a fact about your life (or past) that changes your understanding about everything, and also threatens what you want right now (and presents fresh, life-changing challenges)…   Rain Man, The Princess Diaries  
    • You are seemingly rescued from a pressing crisis situation, but thrust into a new one that might actually be even more challenging, in its own way…   Sunset Boulevard, Working Girl           
    • In the middle of your most vulnerable low point over a relatable life passage, you’re thrust into a challenging situation that rubs your face in it…   Swingers, Forgetting Sarah Marshall
    • Something about your normal present life situation, group, workplace, family, etc. becomes unbearable, and makes you want to take action…   American Beauty, Office Space             
    • You are forced to undergo some big challenge in order to have the life you want…   Meet the Parents, The Proposal   
Can you think of any type of inciting incident I’ve missed here, that you’ve seen used over and over again in successful stories?
I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.    And if you'd like me to read something you're working on, check out my consulting page.
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