Something I've been meaning to write about for a while is the difference between the Inciting Incident and the Call to Adventure.
This is one of those posts you might not agree with. You might think the Inciting Incident and the Call to Adventure are one and the same. If so, fine. I think there are good and credible arguments to that effect and luminaries such as Christopher Vogler don't emphasize the difference between the two.
If thinking about the Inciting Incident as synonymous with the Call to Adventure works for you, great! Ignore this post. If, however, you're curious about what might be gained by viewing these two events as distinct, or if you feel there might be a good reason for looking at the two differently, I invite you to read on.
The Inciting Incident
I used to believe that the inciting incident was pretty much the same thing as the Call to Adventure. For example, when I wrote the blog post "Larry Brooks On The Structure Of Short Stories," I talked about both under the same heading. I now think there's good reason to keep the two conceptually distinct even though, in practice, they can occur at the same time.
So, let's talk about the Inciting Incident, what are its characteristics?
First of all, the Inciting Incident is the exciting incident--or at least it should be.
Syd Field writes in Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting:
"You've only got 10 [script] pages to grab the attention of your reader or audience; that's why so many films open with an attention-grabbing sequence like the opening of Jaws [...]. Once you establish this scene or sequence, usually called the inciting incident, you can set up the rest of your story."
"Shakespeare is a master of openings. Either he opens with an action sequence, like the ghost walking the parapet in Hamlet, or the witches foretelling the future in Macbeth, or he uses a scene revealing something about the character: Richard III is hunch-backed and laments about the "winter of our discontent [...]."
"Your story determines the type of opening you choose."
The Inciting Incident does two things; it has two functions. First, it grabs the attention of the audience and, second, it draws the main character (either immediately or after a chain of actions and reactions) into the story.
The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure is pretty much what it sounds like.
Christopher Vogler, in The Writer's Journey, writes:
"The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake. Once presented with a Call to Adventure, she can no longer remain indefinitely in the comfort of the Ordinary World.
"Perhaps the land is dying, as in the King Arthur stories of the search for the Grail, the only treasure that can heal the wounded land. In Star Wars, the Call to Adventure is Princess Leia's desperate holographic message to wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi, who asks Luke to join in the quest."
"The Call to Adventure establishes the stakes of the game, and makes clear the hero's goal: to win the treasure or the lover, to get revenge or right a wrong, to achieve a dream, confront a challenge, or change a life."
"Typically, in the opening phase of a story, heroes have 'gotten by' somehow. They have handled an imbalanced life through a series of defenses or coping mechanisms. Then all at once some new energy enters the story that makes it impossible for the hero to simply get by any longer. A new person, condition, or information shifts the hero's balance, and nothing will ever be the same. A decision must be made, action taken, the conflict faced. A Call to Adventure has been delivered, often by a character who manifests the archetype of the Herald."
The Ordinary World of the hero is relatively static at the beginning of the story. Often, there is something deeply wrong with the hero's normal existence, with the hero's Ordinary World, and he exists in a state of imperfection. One way of looking at this is as a kind of false, local, optima. The hero isn't happy and knows he's not happy but is scared that if he tries to change things will get worse.
A good example of this is of Neo--or, rather, Mr. Thomas Anderson--in The Matrix. In the beginning Anderson knows that something is wrong; not just with his life but with the world. The problem: he doesn't know what. He's searching.
The hero's stasis, his status quo, the state of equilibrium he exists in, is shattered by the Inciting Incident. Something happens that introduces a change into his world, a change which will--sooner or later--shatter his status quo. The Inciting Incident creates an imbalance, an inequality that the hero must, eventually, address.
At the beginning of The Matrix words, unbidden, flash on Anderson's computer screen: "Follow the white rabbit." I would argue that this is the inciting incident, the event that sets a series of other events in motion that, eventually, leads to his call to adventure.
One could argue that Anderson receives a few different calls to adventure, but certainly the event that shatters his status quo and locks him into the adventure occurs at the end of Act One when he is offered the choice between the red pill and the blue pill.
Example: Star Wars IV A New Hope
Although there doesn't seem to be consensus on the point, I'm one of those who think that, in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the Inciting Incident was when Darth Vader--seeking the plans for the Death Star the Resistance 'acquired'-- attacks and boards Princess Leia's shuttle.
When Darth Vader attacks Princess Leia's diplomatic craft Vader introduces an imbalance, an imbalance that initiates a chain of events that eventually involve the hero and lead to the Call to Adventure.
Granted, the Call to Adventure doesn't come till much later, but the Inciting Incident (DV boarding the shuttle) has set in motion a series of events which will culminate in the call to adventure (the call occurs when OWK asks Luke Skywalker to help him deliver the plans to the resistance base on Alderaan).
Whether or not you agree with me about the Inciting Incident in Star Wars, I find it fruitful to view the Inciting Incident and the Call to Adventure as conceptually distinct because they serve different, though complementary, functions.
The Inciting Incident (=exciting incident) functions to a) grab the audience's attention and b) sets the story in motion by breaking the status quo.
The Call to Adventure, on the other hand, connects the hero to the cataclysmic changes in the Ordinary World.
You can see how these two events would often go together.
The bottom line: If how you view the Inciting Incident and Call to Adventure works for you, then great! In the end there's only one rule: use what works for you.
Photo credit: "2014-037 the talk on the cereal box" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.