The Obligatory Scene

A couple of weeks ago we were talking about the Inciting Incident. I apologize for getting away from it. Let’s get back …

The formula says, “The Inciting Incident sets up the Obligatory Scene.”


Alan Ladd shoots it out with Jack Palance in the obligatory scene of "Shane"

What is the Obligatory Scene?

It’s the climax. It’s the scene that, if you don’t have it, you don’t have a story.

In The Hangover, the inciting incident is Losing Doug. The obligatory scene is Finding Doug.

In The King’s Speech, the inciting incident is when we realize that Bertie has a terrible stutter and he’s destined to become monarch just as Hitler is starting World War II. The obligatory scene is the king confronting his infirmity as he addresses the shaken nation.

In Alien, the inciting incident is when the monster gets aboard the ship. The obligatory scene is when Sigourney Weaver, the last survivor, goes toe-to-toe with this nightmare.

How knowing this can help us

If we think of the Vietnam Memorial as a story, the inciting incident is the approach to the monument, as the visitor sees that the wall with the names of the fallen is sunken below the surface of the ground. The obligatory scene is when the visitor–in this private, emotion-packed space–touches the name of the soldier she has come to mourn or honor.

We as storytellers can use the known relationship between inciting incident and obligatory scene the same way a mathematician employs a formula or equation. We can follow it from the known to the unknown.

The obligatory scene is embedded in the inciting incident and vice versa. A straight line runs between the two. That’s the throughline. That’s Act Two. That’s the story.

If we have our inciting incident, we can deduce the obligatory scene. The Terminator pops from the future into our present, seeking to kill Sarah Conner. Climax? T-1 and Sarah fight it out.

Theme and the Inciting Incident

The straight line that runs between the inciting incident and the obligatory scene contains the theme. It expresses what the story is about. But the tricky part is, the story can be about a lot of things and still have the same inciting incident and obligatory scene. An art film will have a deeper, more subtle theme. An action flick will go for the obvious–and hammer the audience over the head with it. There’s nothing wrong with that. You and I go to action movies to get hammered over the head. (At least I do.)

Subtle or not-so-subtle: we the storytellers have to decide what we want.

Star Wars versus Shane

The obligatory scene in Star Wars is Luke Skywalker going up against the Death Star. Luke trusts the Force, blows up the empire’s mega-weapon. George Lucas follows with a straight-ahead wrap-up: our guys are heroes, medals are pinned on their chests, cue the Victory March. That’s great. That works. Star Wars is that kind of story.

In Shane, the obligatory scene comes when Alan Ladd shoots it out with Jack Palance (the evil gunslinger brought in by the bad-guy cattlemen) and kills him. But here the denouement isn’t dead-on, it’s ironic. The very act by which Shane saves the homesteaders is the act that compels him to leave the valley–and thus to abandon his dream of hanging up his guns and settling down. In the final scene, Shane articulates this to young Brandon deWilde:


There’s no living with a killing. There’s no goin’ back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no goin’ back. Now you run on home to your mother and tell her… tell her everything’s alright. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.

Shane rides off alone.


Shane, come back!  Shane!  Come back, Shane!

Star Wars is action, Shane is tragedy. You the artist, you the musician, you the entrepreneur decide what your work is about, between the two poles of Start and Finish, between the Inciting Incident and the Obligatory Scene.


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  1. Jen Grisanti on February 23, 2011 at 7:03 am

    I LOVE this post Steven. It is a very clear and concise way to view the inciting incident. Thank you!!
    ~ Jen

  2. Dale on February 23, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Great stuff, Steven. So incisive. It’s like having John Wooden yelling out instructions from the sideline while I write.

  3. Vaughn Roycroft on February 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    As they so often do, this post comes at the critical moment for me. I’m just navagating my way from Inciting Incident, through Act Two, on my way to the Obligatory Scene. Although I know what the O.S. will be, I need to nail down what the story means, to get to the guts of what it’s all about.

    Thanks, as always Steven, for your clear way of breaking it down with concrete examples.

  4. Bob Mayer on February 23, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    It’s the Alpha and the Omega. The inciting incident leads us on the journey to the climactic scene. Usually, the protagonist, as they are in the inciting incident, would not be able to defeat the antagonist. Their arc through the escalating conflict changes them to the point where they can. The concept of calling it the obligatory scene is interesting.

    • Jeremy on February 24, 2011 at 12:29 pm

      Great point Bob. In many classic stories, from mythology to Star Wars, the “hero’s journey” arcs over the theme that connects the inciting incident to the obligatory scene.

      Connecting those in my own work is a blast. I love knowing how it starts and ends (mostly), then finding out what happened between the two. I find the process fascinating and enjoy discussing it with artists in other mediums (music, sculpture, web code, etc.). The differences and similarities are amazing.

  5. william downey on February 28, 2011 at 10:34 am

    As a painter, there is an inciting incident that is established when the viewer first approaches the painting, It sometimes happens that the viewer doesn’t last long enough in front of the painting to get to the part when the the obligatory resolution, (the word scene doesn’t fit as well here), but that’s not always the painter’s fault. In the case I’m fighting with now, we stand over the shoulder of two girls hugging their knees sitting atop a high rock as they look down over the north shore of Lake Superior. the incitement is: are we there with them?, can we feel it?, is this just a collection of attempts to represent related objects in a space, or does it all hit you together as a real moment? If the viewer walks away without getting stunned with a blast of the latter, there is no obligatory resolution. If almost nobody gets that, the painting has certainly failed. Just like the newer Star Wars films, the more you put into rendering all the clues that set you up for the resolution, the worse it fails when it doesn’t make it. That’s the main reason why realism in paint fell out of favor, ’cause its hard to pull off. What most contemporary artists do is make the incitement so obscure or non existent, that the viewer has to supply their own, releasing the author of the piece from responsibility from coming up with an obligatory scene. Get it? no incitement, no obligation! no courage required from the artist except whatever audacity it requires to pass off emptiness as art. There is always more bad art than good because its way easier.

  6. Eric Schneider on April 16, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I never heard of you before, Steven. I got this link from a fellow Introduction Leader for Landmark Education. I’m very inspired by this post and “Start before you’re ready.” I’m a screenwriter and songwriter with a CD online and 3 scripts in my backpack. AND I’m stalling on my present screenplay, or I WAS. Gonna get back to it as soon as I send this off.

    I want to subscribe, but I don’t know anything about RSS Feeds. Does anyhone know how I should choose among the alternatives you offer? Thanks, Eric.

  7. redshirt6 on September 13, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Nuts and bolts. Thanks!

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