The Inciting Incident of Star Wars
Every complete story begins with the creation of an inequity, an inequity that requires resolution.
What starts a story? Is it the moment when the Hero receives his Call to Adventure? If one believes stories are transformational journeys of legend, then the answer would be yes. Everything before can simply be thrown out.
But what about those who see stories as powerful analogies to our own minds trying to solve a problem? If true, then a story begins when the problem itself begins--when the inequity, or sense of separateness, introduces itself. In this case, relying on a mythical heralding would prove to be more of a fool's journey than that of a Hero.
Help Me, Obi Wan
Recently there was discussion concerning the moment when the story of Star Wars actually begins. Is it when Luke hears R2-D2's message for the first time or is it when Darth Vader boards Princess Leia's ship? The argument put forth by those who maintain the former suggest that everything prior to the Princess's plea for help was simply set-up for what was to come. In other words, one could conceivably move from the opening crawl directly to the droid's message and the story would essentially play out the same.[^unfort]
[^unfort]: Unfortunately, the link to this original discussion disappeared.
At a glance, this line of thinking reads as reasonable. The journey really doesn't begin until the Hero has had a chance to refuse the call, so clearly starting at this point would have no effect on the story's ensuing plot points.
Yet it would have a tremendous effect on what the story actually means.
Stories as Models of Problem-Solving
The other side argues that the Empire's illegal boarding of a diplomatic ship begins the story's investigation into a process known as problem-solving. They see that opening event as an essential component to a holistic understanding of what Star Wars is really all about. Remove it, and the rest of the film simply becomes sci-fi eye-candy. Why?
The Empire's aggression in those opening scenes has a meaningful connection to what is going on inside of Luke personally.
A Different Point-of-View
The reason you need that beginning section with the Empire boarding the diplomatic ship lies in the fact that Star Wars is looking both objectively and subjectively at the problems incurred by seeing what one can get away with. Objectively you see it within an Empire pushing the boundaries of their imminent domain. Subjectively you see it in Luke constantly testing his mettle against alien and human opponents alike.
Take that opening section out and you only get to see the problem from one point-of-view. By now everyone knows how important it is to see every side of a story when it comes to really understanding what is going on.
It's no different in actual stories.
As discussed previously in Not Everything is a Hero's Journey and noted in The Death Rattle of the Hero's Journey, Campbell's take on the components of story leaves much to question. The same holds true for Blake Snyder's popular paradigm (see Forget the Cat, Save Yourself!). Unfortunately, these paradigms have become so entrenched that they lead many to misconstrue the importance and relative unimportance of many story events.
The reason many believe the story doesn't start until Luke meets R2 is because they're focusing too much on the central character's journey. Whether by Campbell or by Snyder they see story as an arc of one, rather than a sophisticated analogy for the mind's problem-solving process. Thus to them, nothing really happens until the Protagonist receives his calling.
But is this really when problems begin?
The Beginning of Inequity
The Empire boarding a diplomatic ship is not a continuation of the norm. It is not backdrop or backstory. It is an acceleration of aggression and is depicted as such within the film:
- "When they hear you've attacked a diplomatic--" and
- "Holding her is dangerous. If word of this gets out..."
This aggression is something new--a sea change that affects everyone within the story. The Inciting Incident of a story creates the inequity, the Closing Event resolves it. The Empire's act of aggression creates the inequity. Showing the Empire what happens when you push to far (blowing up the Death Star) ends it.
If Luke hearing the message begins the inequity of the story, what is the inequity exactly? What decisions does it force? If the inequity is that now this farmer boy has the plans, then it would follow that this inequity would be resolved when the Rebels have them. But it isn't. Luke hearing the message and the Death Star blowing up are not the starting and stopping points of an inequity. They don't connect. Objectively, the idea of exploring one's reach would no longer apply in any meaningful way.
Stories as Insight
Luke had little issue believing in the Force. He wasn't skeptical like Han or ambivalent about it like 3PO. Rather (as shown in The Difference Between Neo and Luke Skywalker), his problems came as a result of him constantly testing himself, matching his abilities against Sand People, against Han, and ultimately against the Empire itself.
These personal problems naturally coincide with the larger picture story of a ruling body testing itself against its citizens - testing the limits of its authority and testing the limits of its newest weapon. Objective and subjective points-of-view mix together in one coherent piece, thus providing the audience with a unique insight into the problems they face and how best to go about solving them.
This is why stories exist.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The Inciting Incident--or what Dramatica refers to as the first Story Driver--happens when the Empire illegally boards a diplomatic ship. This event reveals the Empire's now impossible-to-hide ruthlessness and forces Leia to make a decision regarding what to do with those plans. It is not simply backdrop as it creates the inequity that motivates the Princess to send the plans to the Old Jedi Knight (in the hope, again, of possibly finding a new way to fight this war).
Instead, that meeting of R2 and Luke can be seen as the first time the Main Character and Objective Story Throughlines collide. Upon hearing that message, the farm boy who dreams of excitement in space assumes his role as the Protagonist of the story. Prior to that, he simply provided the Main Character point-of-view.