What Makes a Reader Keep Turning Pages?

We were talking last week about the storytelling concept of the Inciting Incident. We said that this week we’d get into the two “narrative poles” that spring into being the instant this scene is introduced.

Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven." Will he remain true to his beloved wife's wish that he become a good man?

Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven.” Will he remain true to his beloved wife’s wish that he become a good man?

What we’re talking about here is the architecture of a story.

Architecture is not the same as genius. It’s not the unique brilliance that you the writer bring to your dialogue. It’s not the one-of-a-kind twists and spins that you alone can insert into your narrative. It’s not the dazzling characters or relationships that you and only you can deliver.

It’s more important than that.

It’s the structure of the bridge you’re building.

It’s the foundation of the skyscraper.

It’s the design of the rocket ship.

What we’re talking about is the architectural superstructure onto which you the writer will hang all your scenes and sequences and characters and relationships.

Okay. How does the Inciting Incident fit into this concept of Story Architecture?

Have you watched any of Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass on Screenwriting? (I highly recommend it.) Mr. Sorkin’s central storytelling concept is the idea of Intention and Obstacle.

The protagonist has an intention. Obstacles try to stop him or her from achieving this. What he/she does to overcome these obstacles is what produces drama.

(There, I just saved you ninety bucks.)

The Inciting Incident is the moment when the hero acquires his or her intention.

Jason Bourne realizes he is a very specific someone—a spy? a killer?—but he has lost all memory; he must find out who he is. Nine-year-old Addie Loggins in Paper Moon decides she wants to be with her Pa and she is convinced that Moses Pray is that person. Rocky decides he’s gonna fight the champ. Mark Watney decides he’s going to escape death on Mars.

These moments are Pole Number One of our story’s architecture.

Pole Number Two is the Object itself.

Between the two, immediately springing to life, is the Big Narrative Question, the issue that will keep the reader turning pages and hold him or her riveted to your story.

Will Jason Bourne find out who he is? How will he do it? Who, in fact, is he?

Will Addie Loggins find a home with her pa, Moses Pray?

Will Rocky stand up to the champ?

Will Mark Watney return safely to Earth?

The Inciting Incident sets up both poles:

  1. The moment when the hero acquires a burning, life-and-death intention.
  2. The yet-to-be-revealed success or failure of this intention.

Aaron Sorkin tells us that a story’s drama is created by the obstacles that the hero must overcome to reach his or her objective.

The desire to find out how he or she does this is what keeps us, the audience, glued to our seats.

It’s what keeps us, the readers, turning pages.

Will Shane succeed in hanging up his guns and settling down in the valley?

Will Jake Gittes find out who played him for a sucker with the phony Mrs. Mulwray?

Will gunfighter William Munny remain true to his dead wife’s wish for him to become a good man?

The inciting incident is Pole Number One of this story architecture. The instant it appears, it sets up Pole Number Two, which we the audience can feel, ahead at the story’s climax, and which electrifies us.

A great inciting incident gives us gooseflesh. We think to ourselves, “Wow, this story is cooking! I can’t wait to see how it turns out.”

A great incident sets up a Narrative Question that we the readers can’t resist.

A great inciting incident establishes an almost electromagnetic tension between the two poles, one at the start of the story (which we the readers now know) and one at the end, which is yet to be revealed.

We keep turning pages to get to that second pole.

Next week: the climax is embedded in the Inciting Incident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

do the work book banner 1

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.

noboybookcover

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

A New Tool to Fight Resistance

Get a new mini-book from Steve every single month.

16 Comments

  1. Kenny Stringer on August 17, 2016 at 3:31 am

    Hello Steve,

    Have you ever considered making your weekly presentation in the form of a podcast? An audio or video presentation? I for one love to hear you speak or better yet, see you speak. I just listened to you this morning on youtube, but a new weekly thing would be outstanding!

    People love audio and even moreso video presentations. James Redfield does a weekly radio show which I love to listen to. Eckhart Tolle has new video clips all the time. I only just discovered your Writers Wednesday, but was a little disappointed that it wasn’t in an audio or video format.

    Anyway, just thinking outloud here. No matter how it is presented, I love your work. Thank you!!

    Kenny

    • Adam Abramowitz on August 17, 2016 at 3:01 pm

      I think that’s a great idea. I’d dig to hear a podcast where Pressfield talks about whatever he wants to talk about. I listen to Brian Koppelman’s “The Moment”…i’m surprised that Brian & Steve haven’t connected for a show.

      • Adam Abramowitz on August 17, 2016 at 3:01 pm

        Koppelman always talks about The War of Art on his show.

  2. Yvonee Lorenzo on August 17, 2016 at 5:19 am

    Hello, Steve,

    I dropped by to say hello and to let you know that Lew Rockwell published my post on my experiences and I credited you for my victory against Resistance and creating my books. In the end of the essay, I did quote from you and there are links to Amazon’s Kindle edition of The War of Art at the site so I hope new readers find your brilliant work.

    I have also recommended your writing and site to aspiring creators, not just writers, because you’ve made a tremendous difference in my life and I can’t thank you enough. Of course your own art, not just your advice is an inspiration. You have the burden and joy of your tremendous talent yet you take the time and effort to help people realize their dreams. How wonderful is that!

    You’re the best!

    https://www.lewrockwell.com/2016/08/yvonne-lorenzo/youre-politically-incorrect-author

  3. jody on August 17, 2016 at 6:31 am

    I can’t wait for next week. Give us a hint now.

  4. Mia Sherwood Landau on August 17, 2016 at 6:40 am

    “…electromagnetic tension between the two poles, one at the start of the story (which we the readers now know) and one at the end, which is yet to be revealed.” I’ve been noticing this electricity lately when I’m reading. I can feel it when it’s happening, and of course when it’s not, when it fades away for some reason. Here’s something I also noticed… the electricity seems to have a life of its own. Meaning, I might intellectually know where the story is going, but the electricity keeps me connected in its invisible flow, irrespective of my intellect. I can’t let go, and it’s not logical or rational at all. Is this making sense? The electricity is not magic, it’s mechanical. That’s my favorite part of this whole idea. It’s like being trained as an electrician… a person can learn the necessary skills to handle it. Wow! Awesome stuff!

  5. Mary Doyle on August 17, 2016 at 6:45 am

    I’m printing this post out for reference – and thanks for saving me the ninety bucks! Can’t wait for next week.

  6. Joel D Canfield on August 17, 2016 at 9:39 am

    I can’t tell you how many times I know I’ve heard this same advice.

    I also can’t tell you why this is the time I finally got it.

    This series is gelling so much of what’s been floating around in my head after years of reading an endless series of craft books, all excellent, but mostly still floating in my head, not coming out my fingers.

  7. Adam Abramowitz on August 17, 2016 at 10:24 am

    Great post!

    A friend at work challenged me to write a flash fiction yesterday. He told me to do 250 words on “Space” & “Romance”. I went back to my cubicle in the access center of the mental health facility I work at and wrote this:

    The starship exploded, bursting heat into the void of space. A vacuum of cruel conformity; thousands of passengers deleted from existence. Consciousness lost, adrift amidst the cosmic ocean…

    “I miss you.”

    The message beeped quietly between the seats.

    A shoulder shrug followed by a noisy armrest…

    The passenger leaned forward to grab his tablet.

    A look of wonder pondered his face. Memories inflexed emotion as he reminisced the last time they touched. A kiss to her forehead, planted before leaving his planet.

    He never believed he would find someone worth looking forward to.

    For him, life had been a mistress of its own; consumed by the discovery of his trade. A man of science; obsessed with observation. His mathematics and theories had brought him to the brink of discovery. The fabric of space-time, the envelope of life as we perceive it, was within his computations…

    The passenger smiled to himself; warmth filling his gut.

    “How did I get so lucky? How is it that someone so beautiful would miss ME?”

    He thought to himself, as his hand moved towards his breast pocket. An involuntary movement of assurance as the passenger patted the hard disk drive in his coat.

    He would show the woman he loved how absolutely perfect and profound everything was. His computations would prove to her, and the universe entire, that love was part of a divine plan.

    The passenger smiled as the cabin cracked; pulling his insides out into space.

  8. Erika Viktor on August 17, 2016 at 1:43 pm

    Unfortunately, I didn’t save the ninety bucks! Ha! I signed up for his class last week. I did enjoy it but not as much as James Patterson’s class. I really like Aaron as a person and have admired his work. I think the most valuable part of the series is listening to the script readings.

    I also like to think of the inciting incident as a decision to be made, one which you can’t unmake.

    • Michael Beverly on August 17, 2016 at 5:24 pm

      The decision you can’t undo is the point of no return, the doorway, the answer to the call.
      Brooks calls it the First Plot Point.

      The inciting incident triggers the movement to the choice, but it’s not the choice.

  9. Madeleine D'Este on August 17, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    This post is perfectly timed for me, as I’ve gone back to the story board (or Story Grid to be correct) to re-plot my current manuscript.
    Wise words again, Mr Pressfield and thanks for the Sorkin spoiler.

  10. Patricia Wilson on August 17, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    Mr. Pressfield,

    How does a writer integrate a “killer” first sentence, the setup, and the inciting incident?

  11. Jen B on August 18, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Good stuff! Thank you.

  12. David Kaufmann on August 18, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    I appreciate the progression of these posts, succinctly summarizing so much wisdom about writing and its process. As I wrote (just now) in response to last week’s post:
    But I can’t help wondering how the great writers of the past (Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy and even to our day Twain, Hemingway and the plethora of pulp writers, etc.) managed to tell great stories only by reading other stories, some good, some bad, and without the help of wonderful people like Blake Snyder, Robert McKee and others.

    I wonder, though, how long it takes you to write these, knowing how many other projects you’re involved with. These are consistent, high-quality and always on time. I admire you for not only meeting a weekly deadline, putting yourself out there for the readers and writers, but always doing so with what is obviously a deep commitment on your part.

    • Adam Abramowitz on August 18, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Its an interesting thing you bring up; about all of the great authors who managed to carve out stories without the need for referencing any “how to” or “story board” help.

      Although, to be fair, there’s no real way for us to know the amount of knowledge they retained prior to publishing the works that we know of. Like, they could have been mentored, or coached, by friends or acquaintances.

      I think its something in our DNA. Like, some people have the ability to re-invent themselves and implement the influences of those who came before them. Like, the act of writing and reading, the act of living, begets better work.

      On storytelling, I think its in our nature. I think we all tell stories, and it takes an open/aware mind to recognize when a story becomes “boring” or “uninteresting”…

      A lot of that can be retained from every day conversations. I know I’ve definitely noticed attention dissipate as soon as I’ve begun speaking about a subject someone’s not interested in, or when I tell a story that doesn’t involve myself…

      Its a little different with art though. When something is in a “frame” (captured in a solid form) it becomes significant because its been outlined. Like, a conversation is just a conversation…unless you record it. Then, its a podcast episode. A chat about you’re experience in the Nuremberg trials as a 12 year old boy is just a story, until a camera is put on the storyteller, its not “solid”.

      Anyways, these are just some of my thoughts. I’m sitting at work and I wanted to share because I’ve wondered the exact same thing…

      Its hard for me to imagine a world where I wasn’t guided by the artists who had created before me.

      Posts like this one, podcasts like “The Moment” or The James Altucher show. All these things are available for me to siphon knowledge from…

      Its the shit.

Leave a Comment