The #1 Mistake That Writers Make
Ah, back to my favorite subject—theme.
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:
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
don’t mean he’s your pa.
We got the same jaw. We look alike.
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.
Have we ever met?
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.
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.