We’ve talked about the inciting incident before and you know that I say the inciting incident doesn’t happen on page one. But some people have this thing about saying that it does. So, I think what we need is another name for that thing that does happen on page one. When talking about beginnings, James Scott Bell mentioned that we begin with a “disturbance to the lead’s ordinary world.” Borrowing from his terminology, I would like to suggest that we simply call it the initial disturbance.
The inciting incident is that thing that incites the lead to make a change in order to solve a problem that we’ve mentioned in the first act. The initial disturbance doesn’t incite change, it is just an irritation. In Cinderella, the inciting incident happens when she is prevented from attending the ball, but the initial disturbance is that her mother died. She doesn’t change who she is because her mother died, but after she is prevented from attending the ball she makes the transformation from a commoner to a refined lady.
Unlike the inciting incident, the initial disturbance isn’t a structural element of the plot. There are many disturbances that exist throughout a story. The initial disturbance just happens to be the first one. While the inciting incident is the last straw, the initial disturbance is one of many straws.
Another term we use for the initial disturbance is the hook. That term implies that we’re trying to grab the reader’s attention, but it doesn’t make it obvious that the way to do that is to present a problem. Disturbance brings to mind ripples on a still lake or storm clouds on the horizon. It’s that first indication of what is to come. It’s that first indication that change needs to take place.