With his first two films, Ari Aster displays a distinctive style. Hereditary and Midsommar are weird, gruesome, and inventive films that show he isn’t afraid to take the time to build to horrific images or linger on reactions. Another thing Aster isn’t afraid to do is shock his audience early on. In both films, he makes use of the “inciting incident,” a narrative plot point that puts the story into motion, as a way to intrigue the audience and promise there is worse to come.
Screenwriters have a lot of different words for narrative plot points, but the structure is pretty much the same no matter whose screenwriting bible you read. There are three acts — or, a beginning, middle, and end. In between those, there are plot points that help show exactly where the story is turning and building to the climax. The point that sends the characters from their normal world to an exciting new story is one of the most important. We’re going with the label of the inciting incident.
As studiobinder defines it, the inciting incident is “an event that hooks the viewer into the story and sets everything else that happens into motion. This moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.” This plot point can happen a little differently in every story. Sometimes it can happen before the movie has even begun, like in Juno since the pregnancy happens off-screen. Sometimes it can happen long after the supposedly “correct” spot on page 10. No matter where it happens, it kickstarts the story.
The inciting incident’s point is to build up to something else, so it can be looked at as just a stepping stone for something more exciting. If you look at popular horror movies, their inciting incidents are just a glimpse of what’s to come. In the original Halloween, the inciting incident is Michael escaping the sanitarium and stealing a car. It’s the beginning of his reign of terror in Laurie’s neighborhood. The moment is a little scary but definitely doesn’t show all that he is capable of because the movie needs to wait to show that later. Horror more than any other genre likes to delay the worst for the last bits of the movie and so sometimes their inciting incidents aren’t as horrifying as they could be.
We know this because Aster defies that convention in his first two films. Both of the inciting incidents in his films are not afraid to be as shocking as possible while still performing the main role as a narrative plot point.
Spoilers for HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR below.
Hereditary takes its time getting to the true inciting incident, so much so that you could argue for a few different places where it could be. The grandmother’s death happens before the film begins and like other films, that could be the moment the story begins. However, for the first parts of the movie, the family is able to keep their lives semi-normal. The moment that truly changes everything and ignites the story into a far-from-normal story of grief is impossible to miss. Peter (Alex Wolff) begrudgingly takes his sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) to a party so he can hang out with a girl, but Charlie eats nuts and goes into anaphylactic shock and they have to leave. Charlie has a hard time breathing and sticks her head out the window. When Peter swerves to miss an animal, he clips a pole and accidentally decapitates Charlie.
Charlie’s death makes it impossible for the family to cope with anything the way they had been doing before. Peter begins to go off the rails. His mom (Toni Collette) is completely distraught. This is where the horror of the story really begins. Aster’s inciting incident in Hereditary does the work of a plot point; it begins a snowball effect for the family to go into complete disarray and builds up to the ending. It also shocks the audience completely. Up until that point in the movie, the creepiness is there but it is sparse and the tone is pretty mild. The audacity to kill one of the most prominent characters in all the trailers and in such a gruesome way so early on is rare in modern film.
In this, Aster doesn’t just use the inciting incident to get the story going. He shocks his audience into a state of heightened awareness for what comes next after watching something so gruesome. It almost makes the audience appreciate the slowness of what follows because we need a break after something so horrible. Unlike some of the most popular horror films ever, Aster doesn’t hold back with the beginnings of his films, especially with this moment.
Aster uses this similar tactic in Midsommar. Before we get to the main Swedish festivities, we have to see why Dani (Florence Pugh) goes with her shitty boyfriend and his friends. At the beginning of the film, she reaches out to her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) because she is worried something is wrong with her sister, who has mental health issues and has threatened suicide in the past. This part shows a lot of Dani’s relationship with Christian, but the story really begins when Dani finds out her sister has actually gone through with suicide this time and taken her parents with her.
Aster floats through the parents’ house to show the elaborate way Dani’s sister killed herself and her parents with the exhaust from their cars. In the moments before this, the film made it look like Dani’s parents were simply sleeping when they didn’t answer her calls, but he shows their dead bodies along with her sister’s in her bedroom. Aster takes the time to linger on this moment because he is using it as more than just a reason for Dani to tag along with Christian to Sweden. It defines how she reacts and copes with everything in the rest of the film. It also defines the tone for the rest of the movie. It may have seemed like a normal relationship drama in the beginning, but this inciting incident lets the audience know that it’s far from ordinary.
Shocking his audience early on doesn’t just surprise them, but it sets up a challenge for Aster. He has to do worse than decapitating someone later in the movie. He also has to use that energy from surprising his audience and keep them engaged. It’s a challenge a lot of filmmakers wouldn’t dare to do because it requires the act of outdoing yourself. It’s Aster’s tactic of horrifying his audience early on that also lets him get away with the slow-burning build-up in between his gross inciting incident and this climax of the film.
His unique approach to a staple of screenwriting is unlike any other filmmaker. It proves that the inciting incident can be more than just a stepping stone to the climax, but a climax in itself if you aren’t afraid to go further later on. This way of writing helps writers push themselves. Thinking of each plot point as a different spot in a screenplay to reinvent the formula will only continue to break the boundaries of filmmaking.