Writing Challenge: Inciting Incident

One of my favorite things about looking at individual sequences like this in movies is that you realize how much slower things actually move. The film “Being John Malkovich” is a fairly tepid-paced film to begin with and his has a very dry tone that slows it down further, but there is a lot of information packed into every moment. I had seen pieces of it before and I knew the premise, but I had never watched it all the way through until yesterday. I instantly wanted to look at it for today’s sequence: The Inciting Incident.

Logline: A man takes a job in a strange office building where he stumbles upon a room that takes him inside the head of actor John Malkovich. Once there he can see life through Molkovich’s eyes with surprising consequences.

Many people can or try to combine the Inciting Incident sequence and the next when they’re writing. I highly recommend that you don’t. If you’re watching a film and you think that both major beats in these sequences are actually happening in the same sequence, you may be missing major beats in between. The difference between an Inciting Incident and the next sequence, Plot Push to First Act Decision, is that the first sequence hits our protagonist to their core by throwing them off balance. Then the next sequence is how they make their plan of attack so they can get things to return to normal, or at least what they think/want to be their normal, and to accomplish this they have to have their emotional need challenged.

In the case of “Being John Malkovich”, it would be very easy to think that the Inciting Incident is when the protagonist, Craig (John Cusack), finds the portal to John Malkovich’s head. The logline above is basically what’s on the back of a DVD case or the summary in your streamer, it does not actually acknowledge what throws Craig’s world, which is Maxine. Maxine (Catherine Keener) is a woman that is very put together and appears emotionless or if an emotional response is required of her, it’s usually apathy. She is the opposite of Craig’s wife, the empathetic, animal caretaker, Lotte (Cameron Diaz). Finding the portal to John Malkovich is the set up of the next sequence. How can we tell? Because the moment he finds it he says all he wants to do is tell Maxine about it. Maxine is all that matters to him. She has affected his world and getting her is driving his actions.

The Breakdown

Set Up
– Craig pours over the newspaper looking for puppeteer jobs. There are none. Disappointed, he spots a job highlighting “fast hands”.
– Craig goes to the job interview and the company is listed on the 7 1/2 floor. He’s confused, but a woman in the elevator has seen this before and helps him figure it out.
– Craig approaches a secretary, Floris, who struggles to understand Craig and even scolds him for the things she thinks Craig is saying. A frustrated Craig initially tries to explain but gives up on correcting her.
– Craig meets the head of the company, Lester, who is just as quirky as every else in the building. When challenged to prove he’s fast filer, Craig excels over a couple of simple tests.
– Craig is hired and goes to orientation where he first sees Maxine. When she notices him looking at her, he quickly looks away.

– In the orientation video, a woman asks her co-worker why the ceilings in the building are so low. This prompts a sequence on the bizarre history of the building.
– Craig tries to start a conversation with Maxine, but she’s dismissive.
– At home, animals and neighbors screech and holler, while Lotte runs around trying to calm everyone. Craig mumbles reactions, numb to all of it.
– Craig tries to hit on Maxine with small talk. She sees right through it and blows him off.
– At work, Craig compliments Lester on the wisdom that comes with age. Lester blows up on him, wishing he could have the sexual experiences of a younger man.
– Craig makes Maxine promise to go on a date with her if he can guess her name. He guess in the most awkward and drawn out way possible by making sounds and watching for her reaction.
– While juicing with Lester, Craig needs to leave in order to meet Maxine on time. In order to allay his boss, Craig agrees to a dinner with Lester and Lotte later that week.

– Craig goes to drinks with Maxine. He’s thrilled so she messes with him, not even trying to give him a chance.
– Craig tells Maxine he’s a puppeteer. She quickly asks for the check.
– At home, Lotte says she was worried about Craig as she tries to take care of him and her animals. He’s barely paying attention.
Craig asks Lotte to drink with him. She declines and goes to bed with one of her pets, Elijah.
– In his workshop, Craig makes a puppet that looks like Maxine (while one that looks like Lotte hangs in the corner) and uses this puppet in a scene with a Lester puppet where he confesses why he loves puppeteering. The puppet Maxine is so moved that the performance ends with a kiss.

– The next day, Craig tries to give the same impassioned speech about puppeteering to the real Maxine. She tells him he’ll she never be interested and finds his hobby/passion sad.


Maxine’s arrival effects Craig because he’s used to Lotte, who will give him and everyone else a hug whenever she sees pain. He feels like another animal she takes care of when he selfishly wants to stand out. We know this because he mentions being kicked out of his puppeteering group for “raising issues” and for creating shows that can be challenging for audiences, even ones on the sidewalk. Craig wants fame, he wants to be a known individual, and the reason he loves puppeteering is because it allows him to control “others” to do whatever he wants. If he can win over Maxine, then he proves to himself that he is above average because he won over a woman who appears to like no one. And, by convincing her to be with him, he’s controlling her. It’s really sick when you think about it, but the opening sequence makes us feel bad for Craig. It’s not until we later see how far he will go that we see what a sick person he really is.

I’m jumping around a little bit, but as you’re working on your Inciting Incident your mind is going to have to jump a little bit around where your first act has been and where it’s headed in order for this sequence to make sense. You still have the traditional sequence structure. The Set Up is meeting Maxine; Action is trying to get her attention and getting a date; Climax is him revealing his feelings to the puppet version of her; and the Resolution is that the confesses to the real Maxine and is rejected.

Craig’s not giving up on Maxine, though, his ego won’t allow it. She has changed the balance of his world. So when you’re working on yours, ask yourself what will throw off the balance in your protagonist’s world? As well as, how do I make sure that I have a distinction between this sequence and the one that follows? Whatever happens here has to hit that emotional need you set up in the Pre-Existing Life, and also give us an idea of what it is the protagonist is going to say they want in the next sequence.

Let me know in the comments how your act one is coming along or if you’re having any kinks you need working out. I’m happy to help out or give notes on sequences if you need any.

Happy Writing!

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