The #1 Mistake That Writers Make

 

Ah, back to my favorite subject—theme.

Diane Ladd as the fake Mrs. Mulwray in "Chinatown"

Diane Ladd as the fake Mrs. Mulwray in “Chinatown”

The Number One mistake that writers make is they forget that their book or screenplay must be about something.

That’s crazy, you say. Of course a story has to be about something. But I can’t tell you how many I’ve read that have no theme, no controlling idea, no unifying narrative and emotional architecture.

Which brings us to the next principle in our exploration of Inciting Incidents.

 

The inciting incident must be on-theme.

 

Let’s go back to Paper Moon, which we were talking about last week. The theme of the book and movie is “family is everything,” “blood is thicker than water.” The story is about a daughter and father—nine-year-old orphan Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) and the itinerant flim-flam man Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) who bears an uncanny resemblance to her—and the daughter’s quest to find and connect with her true dad.

The inciting incident of any story, we know, is the moment when the hero acquires his or her intention. The inciting incident, we’ve said, has the story’s climax embedded in it. The inciting incident puts forward the Narrative Question that will pull us, the readers or viewers, through the story.

From Minute Five of Paper Moon:

 

ADDIE

You my pa?

MOSES

“Course I ain’t your pa.

ADDIE

You met my mama in a bar room.

MOSES

Just because a man meets a woman in a bar room

don’t mean he’s your pa.

ADDIE

We got the same jaw. We look alike.

MOSES

A lotta people look alike. I know a woman who looks like

a bullfrog. That don’t make her the damn thing’s mother!

 

See how on-theme this inciting moment is? It is absolutely about the story’s theme of family. It absolutely asks the Narrative Questions that will pull us in the audience through the movie: Will Moses turn out to be Addie’s father? How will we learn this? What will it mean? And it embeds the story’s climax: Addie and Moses coming together as father and daughter.

The theme of Chinatown is “Evil hides under a benign surface.”

Let’s cue up the film and see how the inciting incident embodies this.

The inciting incident of Chinatown is when the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) walks into private investigator Jake Gittes’ office (Jack Nicholson) with her lawyer and informs him that the woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd) who hired him a week ago to follow her husband was a phony.

 

EVELYN MULWRAY

Have we ever met?

JAKE GITTES

Well, no.

EVELYN MULWRAY

Never?

JAKE GITTES

Never.

EVELYN MULWRAY

That’s what I thought. You see, I’m Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray.

Clearly Mrs. M. is about to sue poor Jake and make a fool of him in the press.

EVELYN MULWRAY

I see you like publicity, Mr. Gittes. Well, you’re about to get it.

 

Why is this the inciting incident of Chinatown? Because

One, in it our hero Jake Gittes acquires his intention—to find out who played him for a sucker and to get to the bottom of this scheme and subterfuge.

Two, it establishes the Narrative Questions that will pull us through the movie: Who did set Jake up? Why? What will happen because of this? What does it mean?

Three, the climax is embedded in this moment. Evelyn’s tragic death/murder, Gittes’ getting to the bottom of everything, our understanding of the initial deception.

And four, the inciting incident is 100% on-theme. It’s about deception, it’s about ulterior motives, it’s about how the seemingly-benign surface of things can conceal unfathomed and possibly evil intentions.

Here’s my own confession. In a lot of the stuff I write, I don’t know what the inciting incident is until after I’ve written it. I’m flying by the seat of my pants half the time. I know I’ve got a great start to a story but I don’t know why. It’s only later, in Draft #2 or partway through #1, that I sit down and actually ask myself, “What’s my inciting incident? Do I even have one?”

Almost always I do. I just didn’t realize it.

This is how knowledge of storytelling principles is invaluable for the writer. I can ask myself, “Does my inciting incident give the hero his intention?” “Does it ask the Narrative Questions that will pull the reader through the story?” “Is the climax embedded in it?” And “Is it on-theme?”

Next week: the Inciting Incident corresponds to “the Call” in Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey.

 

 

 

 

 

THE WAR OF ART

Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.

The-War-of-Art

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

16 Comments

  1. Michael Beverly on August 31, 2016 at 8:34 am

    This has me thinking about the “B” story, not the external-internal, but the love-romance-buddylove “B” story that is common in nearly every genre.

    I read Save the Cat a couple days ago and Blake noted that romance or buddy-love was almost a given in nearly every genre as the B story (if it’s not the A story, which obviously it is a lot of the time).

    I have this in my own work, it’s a constant in everything, love, romance, broken hearts, and buddy-love, and everything that goes with it.

    SO:

    Is this a theme in and of itself?
    Or does the “B” story in this case have it’s own “A” and “B” story?
    Like, boy meets girl, the “A” story of the “B” story in any detective story, and then either love or loss happens, depending on the “B” story of the “A” story of the “B” story…meaning, maybe the love goes bad, betrayal, or maybe the love ends well…

    I know we often talk about how these things are in conflict, but at the end of Silence of the Lambs, Starling is the hero who saved the day AND she ends up between the sheets. Happily ever after…

    Well, at least until Thomas Harris went insane and wrote Hannibal.

    I hope my question isn’t too confusing.

    Is the “boy meets girl” or “buddies at play” the automatic inciting incident to the “B” story and does this inciting incident also need to be on theme to them main theme? Or can it be on theme to the “B” theme?

    Side Bar: In novels, especially series, the “B” story seems to often leave an open loop. Maybe the guy gets the girl…maybe not. Maybe Virgil Flowers, for instance, in the last book I picked up, he starts off with a dying relationship from the previous book. Will he find love again.

    I think with Elvis Cole it’s: Will it continue?
    Bosch is always dealing with past lovers/wives, etc.

    What’s the theme there? Life sucks?



  2. Joel D Canfield on August 31, 2016 at 8:52 am

    It’s finally sinking in: blast the first draft from a cannon. Just get it written written written.

    Then do all the planning, analyzing, structural prep and whatnot.

    The two books I’m working on right now, I think I planned them too much before I’d written three scenes, and now I’m realizing (with 70,000 words in one and 50,000 in another) that just maybe every important plot point is off-theme.

    Write like the wind for as long as it blows. THEN slow down and plan. Yeah, maybe I’ll try that next time.



  3. Peter Koslik on August 31, 2016 at 9:00 am

    Wow, I read this piece three times and I am confused. I think I understand the concepts of theme, central dramatic question and inciting incident separately but I am confused by the idea that the inciting incident must always be on theme…

    I’m almost embarrassed to admit my confusion because I have been studying story for a long time.

    Bottom line, if the inciting incident isn’t on theme but both exist separately, does that mean the story just doesn’t work?



  4. Michael Beverly on August 31, 2016 at 9:11 am

    I don’t know, Joel, sounds like a lot of extra work.

    I think you can plan, outline, and know the story really well and have the theme inside of you unconsciously.

    I agree that the analyzing and structural fixes can (and need) to happen afterwards, but the planning?

    That’s an oxymoron, how can you plan after the fact?

    It’s like going to war, observing all the dead soldiers, and then coming up with a different way to invade.

    Maybe really good stories come from such deep wells inside of us that the theme is there, but it’s therapeutic work to figure it out, so plan, orchestrate, write it down (fast, like you say) and then go back and see what it was you were really trying to say?

    But, not planning ahead of time sounds like going fishing without bait.



  5. jude feldman on August 31, 2016 at 10:28 am

    the fun really starts when u identify the inciting incident in your own personal story. the call.



  6. jude feldman on August 31, 2016 at 10:29 am

    great piece btw!!



  7. Steven Pressfield on August 31, 2016 at 10:51 am

    Peter, if the inciting incident isn’t on-theme, it isn’t the inciting incident.



  8. Douglas Keeler on September 1, 2016 at 9:30 am

    I think you can make the argument that the theme for Chinatown is secrets. Noah Cross’s secret deal to bring water the Los Angeles, as well as Evelyn Mullwray’s daughter. But isn’t that the theme for almost every detective story?



  9. LarryP on September 1, 2016 at 11:35 am

    So, I’ve got two questions I’d love for Steven to answer (though anyone, of course, can chime in).

    Is there a nomenclature that differentiates between the Inciting Incident of the story as a whole, and the incident that gets the ball rolling? In Chinatown, the latter would be when the false Mrs. Mulrae first engages Jake’s services. It’s not THE inciting incident of the whole story, but without it, there is no story.

    Now, here’s another question: as I think we’ve seen in the discussion of the posts on Theme, different people have different takes on what the theme of a story is. Will they then pick out different scenes as THE inciting incident? Let’s fantasize that Polanski thought the theme is “You can’t fight City Hall.”, rephrased in the memorable line from the movie: “Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown”. Is the encounter with Dunaway’s character the inciting incident, or is it when he meets John Huston’s character? Or when he actually goes to City Hall (or whatever city offices he goes to — it’s been a while). Or would the story fall apart if that were the theme, because certain key elements would not be on theme?



  10. Joel D Canfield on September 1, 2016 at 4:31 pm

    Different levels of “planning.”

    I can sit down and bang out a 40,000-word draft any time I want.

    It will be drek. Entertaining, at some level, perhaps, but mushy and wandering with anemic stakes and poor organization.

    As Larry Brooks is always saying, plotting and pantsing are different ways to find the same answers. I’m realizing that I find my theme by writing, not by planning.

    If I have to write the draft to find the theme, it’s actually less work to write it, then plan, than to plan, draft, then retrofit the plan in light of the theme. I have done it both ways (and 3 others) and I’m pretty sure this is the right path for me.

    Of course, you should ask me about this in a few months when I’ve done it again.



  11. Joel D Canfield on September 1, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    Larry Brooks calls the thing that fires up the story The Hook. Is that what you meant?

    The Inciting Incident can be The Hook, it can be the First Plot Point, or maybe even a separate thing though I suspect that’d be rare indeed for it to be neither hook nor FPP.



  12. June Randolph on September 2, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    In your book, you lay out different types of story. I like your categories. So, if I write a dudette with a problem, what is the structure? (You have dude with a problem). The way I wrote the story, all the points are places where different parts of the solution come together. Yes, there are points where all seems lost, but the 20%, 50%, 75% points all have a part of the solution falling into place. At 80% the end game plays out. Will it work out? A lot can go wrong. The inciting incident is on page 2 when she gets her assignment. Sometimes it seems all the structure types categorize by moments when all seems lost. I am actually confused. No structure I’ve read seems to fit.



  13. Stephen Scholle on September 4, 2016 at 8:08 am

    It’s Mozart vs Beethoven. One rode the wave, the other had to generate it carefully and piece-by-piece.



  14. Mario T. on September 6, 2016 at 5:19 am

    I’m here to thank you, Mr. Pressfield,for this great piece of advice. I’m writing my first book and I had a lot of setting ideas, good characters and an idea of an arc. I started writing with 100% of confidence that I had good elements and something great would come up by mixing those elements together. Then I saw your text about inciting incidents and now I have an incident, that happens when I set two goals for my main characters that can only lead to a conflict between them. Thank you very much. Btw, I’m writing in Portuguese so don’t worry that you set up someone to finish a book in this clunky English. Really, thank you!



  15. Chris Z on September 6, 2016 at 8:16 am

    I think this is a great article for any aspiring writer or higher education student to read. It can be so easy to write and write and write, and then come to find out that everything you’ve written has essentially no meaning. The emphasis on theme is very easily overlooked because, as you said, all stories have a “story” but it does not mean that it has value.



  16. Renee Labrenz on September 17, 2016 at 9:59 am

    I think you are right Joel. Just do it! Then go back and analyze and fine tune what is necessary. It’s all about a good story. If you are a storyteller, then just tell your story. Resistance is war, baby. Just do it!



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