Inciting Incident #8

We were talking last week about one of the qualities of the Inciting Incident, the moment in Act One when the story actually STARTS. We said that

in the inciting incident, the hero acquires his/her intention.

Rocky acquires the intention to battle the champ.

Jake Gittes acquires the intention to find out who’s been making a fool of him with this fake Evelyn Mulwray business.

Bogey acquires the intention to win Ingrid back.

But …

But, we suggested,

that intention can (and even MUST) change as the story unfolds.

In some stories, the hero’s intention doesn’t change. Those stories can still work and even succeed spectacularly (Star Wars, Taken, The French Connection). But they feel a bit straight and ordinary, don’t they?

The hero’s intention must change because, as the story advances, the hero changes. 

As the hero battles his way through Act Two, confronting adversaries, uncovering mysteries, being aided by unexpected allies, his understanding of his dilemma and of himself deepens.

Rocky realizes he can’t beat the champ. Apollo Creed is in a whole other league. Rocky must recalibrate his aspirations. “If I can just go the distance with Creed. Nobody’s ever done that … “

Jake Gittes comes to grasp the depth of the evil he has stumbled onto … and the true peril to his client Evelyn Mulwray and her daughter Katherine. “Pack your bags. I’m gonna get you outa here … “

Bogey realizes his own selfish needs are not as important as combatting the greater Nazi danger to the whole world. “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with [your husband, Resistance leader Victor Laszlo], you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life.”

In fact, you could say the whole point of these stories is that the hero’s intention MUST change. She must come to some personal crisis. She must make a choice. She must go from her earlier, facile, usually self-interested intention to something greater, nobler, and more inclusive … or at least more aligned with bedrock reality.

Brienne and Jaime

This principle holds true even in subplots and individual scenes. I’ve been binge-watching Games of Thrones lately. Remember the subsidiary story about Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth? Jaime, the selfish stud, sets out originally (as Brienne guards him as her prisoner) to escape. That’s his intention. He ridicules and humiliates her. Clearly he would even kill her, if he could, to make his getaway.

But as their adventures together unfold, Jaime comes to see Brienne’s graceless but passionate decency and her deep commitment to honor. He comes to respect and even to like her. By the final season, he has taken her as a lover, knighted her, and even, we might say, fallen in love with her.

Jaime’s intention changes, based on a changed reality or a changed perception of an existing reality. That’s growth. That’s self-awareness. That’s evolution. 

That’s what a hero, even the hero of a subplot, is supposed to do.

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15 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on January 27, 2021 at 2:58 am

    Steve, this has provoked so much thought. My mind is reeling with ideas of Wants transforming into Needs and of characters course-correcting. And this surely is a microcosm of real life? Our goals drift and evolve, are forgotten, or are replaced in flashes of insight.

    Good post.
    Peter

    • Dave on January 28, 2021 at 4:50 am

      Well said!

  2. Joe Jansen on January 27, 2021 at 8:13 am

    So many great examples. Han Solo… a mercenary looking out only for himself, but becomes heroic. Mythologist Joseph Campbell said: “He thinks he’s an egoist; but he really isn’t. … there’s something else pushing [him].”

  3. Sam Luna on January 27, 2021 at 9:06 am

    “The hero’s intention must change because, as the story advances, the hero changes.”

    That’s going on a post-it above the ol’ writing desk. Great post Coach!

    • Ryan Seaman on January 27, 2021 at 11:04 am

      Following your lead on this, post-it note posted!

  4. Mary Doyle on January 27, 2021 at 9:13 am

    I needed this reminder today because it really got my wheels turning. It’s spooky how you so often send the message I most need to hear. As always, thanks!

  5. Gigi Blackshear on January 27, 2021 at 10:21 am

    This is the stuff that a writer’s dreams are made of! Okay, so maybe just my dreams. Once again you have encapsulated my angst in one passage. This is what was missing from my most recent story.

    “She must come to some personal crisis. She must make a choice. She must go from her earlier, facile, usually self-interested intention to something greater, nobler, and more inclusive … or at least more aligned with bedrock reality”

    Thanks for being my hero.

  6. Chuck DeBettignies on January 27, 2021 at 12:18 pm

    I have the tidbit below in some notes about the last stages of the hero’s journey process, but I’ve forgotten where I got them.
    “Hero returns home with treasure, reintegrates into ordinary world, but now as a changed person, thanks to his ordeal and experiences on his journey.”
    I love how these ideas change an ordinary story into something that connects with the audience on multiple levels.

  7. Dorothy Seeger on January 27, 2021 at 1:24 pm

    Thank you for this post, Steve. I am about to embark on a memoir, so I will be the hero. So many questions to ask myself. How did I change? From what to what? What was the crisis that precipitated the change? How did my ordinary life change as a result? How have I reintegrated with family? friends? spiritual life? What are ongoing situations, changes, , challenges? And – how will all this help someone else? Why write it at all? Good question!

    • LaVonne on January 28, 2021 at 6:00 am

      Great questions, Dorothy! I am writing a memoir too and, though I knew the heroine (me) must change, I didn’t think enough about what precipitated it. So important!

  8. BRENDON LUMGAIR on January 27, 2021 at 3:53 pm

    Would you say that the Hero’s intention changes from she WANTS to what she NEEDS?

    Of course, that would imply they see through the WANT and realize their NEED, or the greater need of the community.

  9. Adam Abramowitz on January 28, 2021 at 10:01 am

    Excellent

  10. David James on January 29, 2021 at 5:00 pm

    Firstly, thank you Steve for pointing out the keystone to my own brick wall – the one I whammo’d into a few months back – specifically about the inciting incident within a whole-of-life saga. Obviously it can’t be birth?! With your point on evolving incitements through to next level, then another next level of intent vs. challenge, etc … man that whole wall of mine just crumbled. I now envisage about four, each evolving at various stages of through the characters’ life and major obstacles.
    Which oddly made me think of a sailing metaphor – when you are heading for a point in the horizon and the wind is blowing against you /from that direction/, you have to tack back and forth, yes into the wind but slightly away. It’s simply impossible to go straight into the wind when it’s coming from where you want to go. So with various adaptations (from little milestones and inciting incidents) you tack back and forth until the Act III style dash to straight on to the target, the original intent.
    Or I wonder if that’s muddling metaphorical methodologies a bit?

  11. Gwen Field on January 31, 2021 at 11:22 am

    Wonderful discussion here. Thanks.

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