You’d be surprised – I have been – but a very high number of scripts I’m reading don’t have inciting incidents. I am getting to page 15, page 20, page 30, and there’s really no defined story. I would say that this is in about 25% of the scripts I’m reading. Obviously, these scripts are an automatic pass.
The inciting incident is the beginning of your story. If you don’t have a clearly defined inciting incident, you don’t have a story. The inciting incident throws the protagonist from “the normal everyday world” into a challenge, an obstacle. Something shifts in his world so that his world is no longer the same. If you don’t flag a major shift (with huge dramatic stakes and passion), then you likely don’t have a story.
The inciting incident is also how I know as a reader (and potential viewer) what “race” we’re going to be running and where the finish line is. If you think of a movie as a two hour marathon (give or take), and the journey the protagonist undergoes is like running a marathon, the writer has to get that protagonist over the finish line. It’s the story that gets the protagonist over the finish line, thus accomplishing his goal. The inciting incident must come at the very beginning of the script (right after you establish the normal world) so that I know what kind of race we’re running (genre, goal) and what finish line I should be looking for. Without an inciting incident, the race never begins. Your story never starts.
The inciting incident should come, genre dependent, between page 5 and 7. If I am at page 5 and I don’t have a very clear understanding of what your script is basically about – who your protagonist is, what the core problem is and basically where the finish line of the story will be – that is a MAJOR problem.
With a well-written script, I will have a very solid idea of this by the end of the first scene, which might be within only one or 2 pages. In some cases, I will have a clear idea of where the script is going from the time the protagonist speaks, which could be within the first 2/8ths of the first page of the script. This is what you should aim for. It is more difficult within certain genres (for example, political thrillers are more difficult to write than comedies, I would argue). But, this should still be the goal for the writer.
So, if you are on page 5, and no inciting incident, and then I get to page 10, and still no inciting incident – that is for sure a pass. If I’m on page 40 and I still haven’t gotten any idea of what your story is, I will just be pissed off and annoyed.
New mantra: The inciting incident is great! We love inciting incidents! We bow to the Gods of the inciting incident!