Study Stuff That Works


I was watching True Grit the other night, the 2010 version with Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. A couple of weeks earlier I had revisited Paper Moon, one of my all-time faves, with Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal.

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Coburn in "True Grit."

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Coburn in “True Grit.”

True Grit and Paper Moon are basically the same movie.

The key is in the Inciting Incident.

Let’s continue, then, our exploration of the Inciting Incident and how it works to infuse a story with power and narrative drive …


The story’s climax is embedded in the inciting incident.


Last week we talked about the two narrative “poles” that are set up the instant the inciting incident appears.

The first is the incident itself, in which the hero acquires his or her intention–the life-and-death impulsion that will propel him/her through the story.

The second is the as-yet-to-be-revealed resolution of this intention.

Will the hero get what she’s after?


What will we learn as we watch her struggle?

Let’s consider True Grit and Paper Moon and see how the climax of each story is embedded in the inciting incident.

The inciting incident of Paper Moon is when nine-year-old Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal), who has just lost her mother, is sitting across a Kansas cafe table from Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), a traveling flim-flam man who knew her mom and who bears an uncanny resemblance to Addie herself.



You my pa?



‘Course I ain’t your pa.



You met my mama in a bar room.



Just because a man meets a woman in a bar room,

that don’t mean he’s your pa.


See the two poles?

Number One: Addie, we now know, wants Moses to be her father (she has acquired her intention) and she wants to be with him.

Number Two (which we don’t yet know); Will Moses turn out to be Addie’s pa? Will they stay together? How will this happen if indeed it does?

These questions will pull us powerfully through the story.

I won’t ruin the climax for you if you haven’t seen it or read it yet, but suffice it to say, all questions are answered in a wonderfully warm and satisfying way.

The climax of Paper Moon was embedded in the inciting incident.

True Grit is emotionally almost identical.

In True Grit, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hallee Steinfeld) in post-Civil War Arkansas has just lost her dad—murdered by the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who has fled into Indian territory. Seeking justice, Mattie hires U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track the malefactor down and bring him back to be hung.

The inciting incident is when Rooster agrees to take the job—and allows Mattie to come along.

Why is this the inciting incident (and not, say, the moment when Mattie acquires the intention to hunt down Tom Chaney?) Because True Grit, like Paper Moon, is about a young girl’s quest for a father or a father figure.

The intention that Mattie acquires that propels the story forward (in addition to, and superseding, her intention to bring Tom Chaney to justice) is the intention to find a new dad or surrogate in the form of Rooster, the wild and wooly marshal who possesses “true grit.”

Again, I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that, as in Paper Moon, child and man find a bonding moment that lasts lifelong.

Again, the climax is embedded in the inciting incident.

Again the questions put forward by the inciting incident—will Mattie and Rooster bond with each other as “dad” and daughter? How? What will it mean?—are what pull us in the audience through the movie.

One sidebar:

Both these books/movies are love stories and as such they follow the convention that the “couple” must break apart before they can be ultimately united in the end.

In Paper Moon the darkest moment comes right before the finish.



(to Addie)

I told you I don’t want you riding with me no more.


True Grit gives us Jeff Bridges in this moment at his growly, boozed-up best.



I’m a foolish old man who’s been drawn into a wild

goose chase by a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop.

You, sister, may go where you will. Our engagement is

terminated. I bow out.


When we begin to think of ourselves as professional writers, we set about studying stuff that works. How does Charles Portis (who wrote the book, True Grit) do it? How did the Coen brothers make the movie work? How did Paper Moon, by Joe David Brown, work so well? How did Alvin Sargent and Peter Bogdanovich structure the movie script to be so effective?

I love doing this. It’s great fun dissecting material that really hums.

The next step of course is applying these principles to our own stuff.

Do we have an inciting incident?

What is it?

In that moment, does the hero acquire his or her intention?

What is that intention, i.e. the first “narrative pole?”

What is the second pole, i.e. the story’s climax?

Is the climax embedded in the inciting incident?

These are not academic questions. They are the soul and sinew of storytelling and the architecture of the books and movies you and I are trying to write.

We need to teach ourselves this stuff and learn how to apply it.

Next week: the Inciting Incident must always be on-theme.







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  1. Patrick Maher on August 24, 2016 at 6:42 am

    Go ask Aristotle how relevant this post is. The intention frames the obstacles, which determine the drama.

    Excellent Article.

  2. Michael Beverly on August 24, 2016 at 6:53 am

    True Grit is a great read.

    Question/thought that contains a spoiler follows:

    Okay, so the inciting incident in True Grit has the climax “embedded” into it. I get that.

    But, Steve, you say Maddie and Rooster formed a bond that lasts a lifetime.

    Yeah, that might be true, in some esoteric sense, but the fact is that Rooster, the new father, abandons Maddie as well.

    See never sees him again. She’s an old maid (having forgone love for herself) at the end of the book (the entire story is a reflection of her past, told by her late adult self).

    When she goes to see Rooster in the traveling western show (this is as an adult), she is informed he’d died the year before.

    The story is fabulous, I loved reading it, but it is horribly tragic.

    I’ve done my share of betraying and abandoning when it comes to Mattie Ross figures, and there is nothing more tragic, sad, and hollow. The real villain in True Grit isn’t the murderer, he was a murderer, the real villain was Rooster, who betrayed all that’s good in the world by not loving someone who deserved it.

    When I finished True Grit, I felt a dull pain of loneliness and regret.

    Love doesn’t win, does it?

    What can be more sad than a wonderful, strong, courageous, beautiful young woman losing two dads and then spending her entire life alone?

    I guess this is why I liked Twilight so much, another spoiler: the girl gets the man (also a father-figure/lover).

    Oddly, True Grit is, ultimately realistic, life sucks and is filled with loneliness, loss, and despair.

    Twilight is a fantasy.

    I guess good art simply follows one of these two paths, life as it is: tragic, or life as we wish it was, joyful.

    Life is pain, Princess, anyone that says any different is selling you something… ~PB

    • Sean Crawford on August 24, 2016 at 7:09 am

      Good points.
      Maybe that’s why I liked The Iliad. In that one people lose friends and lovers, and nobody gains anything. (The story ends with the long war still raging)

    • Tina M Goodman on August 24, 2016 at 11:38 am

      They shared a bond that lasted the rest of their lives. That is romantik and realistik. She visited him at his grave, as khildren do for their parents. (My bird pekked the letter “see” off of my keyboard, sorry about the missing letter that komes after the letter b.)

      • Michael Beverly on August 24, 2016 at 12:51 pm

        A bond without intimacy, contact, and shared time is like a having a ticket to last year’s Super Bowl.

        Worse than meaningless, its presence is a demonic mocking of lose.

        I’d rather have been left in the snake pit.

        • Michael Beverly on August 24, 2016 at 12:51 pm


          See what happens when I forget to edit twice.

  3. Mary Doyle on August 24, 2016 at 7:33 am

    Thanks for the excellent film examples! It’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen Paper Moon, but I watched True Grit again a few months ago, and you’re so right – the climax IS embedded in the Inciting Incident. As always, thanks!

  4. Erika Viktor on August 24, 2016 at 7:56 am

    There are some seriously spooky attributes to well structured story. I was watching a movie last night and noticed that the middle of the movie closely mirrored the theme of the inciting incident AND the climax. When I see patterns like these I sometimes wonder if it’s all cosmic somehow, like Carl Sagan’s base-11 perfect circle of zeros being evidence that the universe was intentionally created (Contact, the book not the movie). Does story structure point us to immutable laws? Or is this just human pattern recognition stemming from form recognition in evolution?

    Who am I? Why am I here? What does it all mean!!??

    • Jonathan Berman on August 24, 2016 at 10:53 am

      John Yorke writes about the fractal nature of story in “Into the Woods”.

      Here’s an article he did for The Atlantic. Doesn’t address the fractal aspect, but does give a good sense of some other things the book addresses.

    • Michael Beverly on August 24, 2016 at 1:01 pm

      Story Structure is an outgrowth of human evolution, Lisa Cron has a good book about this, Wired for Story.

      If there is a God, or a creator of some kind, I can answer your questions.

      Who am I? A play thing, a toy, a pet.
      Why am I here? For the creator’s amusement.
      What does it all mean? Nothing.

      If we are here because of evolutionary mechanics, I can also answer your questions.

      Who am I? Whoever you want to be, limited by the construct of your random socio-economic circumstances, brain chemistry, and to some degree your physical body.

      Why am I here? Because DNA replicates itself: you are a flesh vehicle for miniature unthinking machines.

      What does it all mean? Nothing.

      I believe stories exist for only two reasons:

      One, they are a drug-inducing mechanic and provide a mind altering experience (they let us escape).

      Two, they are an inadequate attempt to heal ourselves.

      I tell stories because if I didn’t I commit suicide.

  5. Madeleine D'Este on August 24, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    Reminds me of this quote from TS Eliot
    “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

    Thanks for the reminder to extend my critiquing muscles to work other than my own.

  6. Mia Sherwood Landau on August 24, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Walking us through the process of recognizing (and creating) an inciting incident is a big help. Today I thought about the famous statement about obscenity made by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964, “I know it when I see it…” I want to be able to say that about an inciting incident, whenever I read one or see one portrayed. This post pushed me farther toward understanding, for sure. Thanks for that!

  7. Sean Crawford on August 25, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    Steven, I like how you humble me into realizing that I could be studying too.
    I like how you teach concepts that would take me a long time to figure out on my own.

    I am a sucker for self-help writer’s books, but truly I haven’t come across your insights elsewhere. (Yes, I know you sometimes quote other writers, but I never come across them)

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