When writing a story, one critical thing a writer must determine is how to set the story into action. You see, most stories start with the protagonist in a state of balance. His/her life may or may not be ducky, but it is churning along and the protag has a handle on things. But then some incident occurs – someone dies, an accident, someone drops a sack of money in their lap, they see the love of their life – that takes the protag out of their balance and sets them on this journey we call story.
This event that sets the story into action is commonly called the Inciting Incident. In a hundred-page screenplay, this event almost always happens on page ten. In a three-hundred page novel, it should happen before page thirty. So you see, the writer has a limited number of pages to describe the world the protag is comfortable with before setting the hero off on the journey.
The Inciting Incident must be a dynamic, fully developed event. It must radically upset the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life. This upset must swing the protagonist’s reality either negative or positive.
This, for example, is not an inciting incident: The hero stands in a bar after striking out with several men, and says, “Screw New York. The men are all uppity here. I’m going to L.A.” then proceeds to pack his backpack, stick his thumb out and leave town on a cross-country journey.
If, on the other hand, the hero is standing at the bar when three thugs walk in, one points a finger at the hero and yells, “There’s the bitch that screwed my boyfriend. Waste him!” And the three men pulled out handguns and start blasting while the hero runs out the back door and up the alley. Now the hero must leave town, because the mob is after him, big time. Not only must he flee, but he must keep looking over his shoulder at every step. – This is an Inciting Incident.
Once the Inciting Incident occurs, the protagonist must react in whatever way is appropriate to the character and the setting. There can be a small delay, but then the protag must act.
So the Inciting Incident throws the protag’s life out of balance, then arouses in the hero the desire to restore that balance. Often, the hero thinks of some object or goal that will restore balance, and with well developed heros, they also develop and unconscious desire.
For example, Romeo’s life was churning along. Roselyn had dumped him but he was okay with that because he didn’t love her. But then he sees Juliet, (the Inciting Incident) and he is thrown into turmoil. He must somehow possess her (creating the desired goal) and plans a secret wedding. But then he fights Tybalt, and is thrown into even more turmoil and further away from his goal. In the end, when he believes Juliet dead, there is only one way he can restore balance.
If the protagonist develops an unconscious desire, this becomes the spine of the story. An unconscious goal is always more powerful, with roots reaching deep into the protag’s innermost self. When an unconscious desire drives the story, it allows the writer to create a much more complex character who may repeatedly change his conscious desires.