What comes first, the Catalyst or the Inciting Incident? Are they the same thing? Different?
A Catalyst is something that brings about an event.
An Inciting Incident is a single event that provokes change.
Put together. The Catalyst brings about the Inciting Incident that provokes change.
Clearly they are different. However, as I’ve studied structure, I’ve seen these words transposed, renamed, and altered completely. How they are labeled has no bearing on order. The point is to make sure that your writing includes both, beginning with the Catalyst.
Need a deeper understanding? Imagine a timeline for your main character (MC).
He’s born, has a childhood where he develops coping mechanisms for survival against the world (See Blog on Conflict in Fiction). In his youth, he begins to believe lies about himself, whether self-generated or told to him purposefully.
Then he enters adulthood with twisted beliefs and bad habits and tics. These are your MC’s flaws that the writer must SHOW during the first 10% of the story. Review any well structured book or movie and you will notice the MC’s flaws in the first 10%.
These flaws are also the obstacles (result of the backstory) that you’ll have to make obvious to your MC by making him face the crisis/catharsis routine until he sees how his flaws are killing his chances to obtain his goal. By changing, only then will your MC obtain his goal.
The Catalyst, therefore, is the result of the backstory, and that which has led your MC to develop flaws he’ll need to overcome in the story. The Catalyst precedes the Inciting Incident.
The Inciting Incident is the first time your MC will have the opportunity to begin a journey to overcome his flaw(s). The Inciting incident is when something BIG happens, big enough to jerk your MC out of the water and say to him, look? If you want X, then you’re going to have to change Y and make a decision to move forward into the new world.
Of course your MC will flounder around for a while on this new path. He’ll resist changing. He’ll make things worse, until finally he realizes that his flaws are keeping him from obtaining his goal. And, again, your MC’s decision to change is the only way he’s going to get what he wants.
Point is: The Catalyst brings about an opportunity to change from the old world to a new world. The Inciting Incident provokes your MC into action—a journey—into this new world and gives him the opportunity to overcome his flaw and achieve their goal.
Hope this helps. I’d love to hear from you!