The Inciting Incident #7

I wrote this in Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t:

I took Robert McKee’s class. It was called Screenplay Structure then. The class was three days—half of Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday. It cost $199, I think. The class was full of other aspiring screenwriters, as well as actors and actresses, studio execs and development guys and gals.

We were all desperate to find out what made a movie work.

McKee delivered.

About an hour into Friday evening’s class, he introduced the concept of the Inciting Incident.  

The Inciting Incident is the event that makes the story start.

It may come anywhere between Minute One and Minute Twenty-Five. But it must happen somewhere within Act One.

It had never occurred to me that a story needed to start.

I thought it started all by itself.

And I certainly had never realized that the writer had to consciously craft that specific moment when the story starts.

Is this stuff simply academic? Or does a writer actually use it when she’s structuring a story?

I can tell you that I, absolutely and with total conscious attention, craft an Inciting Incident using all the checkpoints I’ve learned over the years:

In the inciting incident, the hero acquires his or her intention.

The climax is embedded within the inciting incident.

The inciting incident = “the Call” in the hero’s journey template.

Here’s a link to the first five chapters of my upcoming novel of the ancient world, A Man at Arms. (I’m not trying to inflict a chore of reading on you. Skip over this if you’d like.)

I actually learned something new working on this Inciting Incident. I’ve followed the principle for years that “the hero acquires his or her intention” in the Inciting Incident. Think about Rocky when he’s picked by Apollo Creed to get a shot at the title … or Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in The Searchers when his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) is kidnapped by Comanches. Both heroes acquire their intention in those inciting moments.

But what I hadn’t thought about (though I certainly should have) was that the hero’s intention inevitably changes as the story progresses. In fact you could make a strong case that, if the story is going to be more complex than straight-ahead vanilla, the hero’s intention must change.

Consider the Detective or Private Eye story. The detective acquires his intention when he’s assigned to the case. “Find my missing daughter.” “Recover the stolen jewels.” “Track down the Maltese Falcon.” And the detective indeed starts out on that trail.

But inevitably things change. The private eye or homicide cop learns things he wasn’t supposed to. He uncovers secrets. By the time the story reaches its Act Two Curtain, everything the detective believed at the start has been turned on its head.

In A Man at Arms, the hero too is given an assignment. (You’ll see the moment in the first five chapters.) As I was working on this scene, I was thinking, “Yes, this is the Inciting Incident.” But …

But indeed the hero’s intention does change. It has to, or the story would remain “first-level” and the hero would be revealed to be one-dimensional. 

How the hero changes and what his intention changes to … that’s what makes the story interesting—and reveals the protagonist’s deep character. 

I learned something new working on A Man at Arms.

The hero’s intention can (and must) change as he or she progresses through the events of the narrative.

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19 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on January 20, 2021 at 4:04 am

    Oh this is good. Thanks Steve. Now I’m thinking about the external Want and the internal Need and am wondering whether Steve is referring to this. Or perhaps Steve means that the Want changes, or both the Want changes, and then gets replaced by the Need. I guess all of that must happen.

    What an awesome new novel, but I first need to catch up with others I haven’t yet read. I’m still reeling with admiration from reading Killing Rommel.
    Peter

  2. Joe on January 20, 2021 at 7:53 am

    Look forward to seeing this new novel released into the wild.

  3. Brian Nelson on January 20, 2021 at 7:59 am

    Steve,
    I’ve usually read posts like today’s with a rather detached perspective. I’ve never written a book, and if I do I will certainly be non-fiction. That’s not true either, because the shit I think about most of the time certainly can not be proven, and it may just be stuff I make up to explain the world to myself.

    That said, it occurred to me today (9+ years later) that maybe the actual craft of writing, the principles, are applicable to other creative ventures.

    In our stair-climbing event, we always have a well-rehearsed awards ceremony. We do not give ‘finisher medals’–sorry kids, do the Bubble Run if you a trophy for walking/jogging 5K in 55 minutes…

    We do award the winners in each category and gender. Yes, we do categorize our participants as well. We don’t do a junk-check prior to racing, but we do require people to make a binary choice.

    The thing is, while it is always impressive to watch the elite athletes tear it up, the most inspiring examples are those finishers who have NO BUSINESS running the stairs. Back in 2019, there was this gal who was ascending the final flight of stairs during the awards ceremony. Her entire gym was with her, re-climbing the stairs together. She easily weighed two bills, and was at least 60 minutes into an event that takes most people 22-25 minutes to complete. She was suffering big time. Weak-legged, and walking–sitting down, getting up and walking up more. Her friends were holding her hands. It was freaking beautiful.

    I paused the awards ceremony, and said something to the effect of, “Now this is something amazing…let’s pause to cheer her in…” At least another 100 people lined the track to scream, applaud, and encourage this woman in for the last 5-10 minutes it took her.

    Maybe I’m awarding the wrong thing–or at least maybe we need to add a category of “Most Inspirational Finisher”. The joy everyone felt witnessing this effort, this determination lifted all of us for the rest of the day, if not week.

    I dare say “It Took A Village” for this to happen, a book I have never read and sneered at when it was written. I have so much to learn. Thanks for this. While the inciting incident maybe didn’t change–but the plot surely did.
    bsn

    • Trisha on January 20, 2021 at 8:47 am

      And now, Brian, you’ve inspired others (or at least one, me) with this story.

      • Brian Nelson on January 20, 2021 at 9:49 am

        Thanks Trisha. You should have seen this. Nearly 30 people re-climbing the stairs (this is no joke, most people are SMOKED afterwards) to help their teammate finish. I think even more inspiring is that this was an ad hoc team put together by a gym owner. We have ‘community partners’, groups who agree to get 10 or more registrations, and we ‘brand’ them like sponsors.

        My point is they likely didn’t even know each other all that well. This gym is relatively new, and I am confident those 30+ people never worked out together previously. More likely it was mostly individuals, and maybe 3-4 clusters of friends to chose to run.

        That day, however, they were all on one team. In fact, while we interrupted the awards ceremony, the team grew to about 400 people. That’s winning. I’ve been thinking about this all morning now, and I think technology might be able to help this. I’m sure we can add an app, or put an iPad at our booth and have people vote the most inspiring bib number.

        We need to be seen, and we need to be heard. I just need to be clever enough to provide this opportunity for a community’s recognition.

        Thanks again Trisha. I appreciate it.
        bsn

  4. Michael Greco on January 20, 2021 at 8:04 am

    Terrific blog, thanks Steve! One of the watchwords I am inculcating is ‘Relentless Pursuit’ – certainly if Spade pursues tracking down the Maltese Falcon (or Archer’s killer) from beginning to end the story would lack dimension, so nakedly that it is funny to think about reading a blog. Important to remember in the ‘Deep Thicket’ of writing / unfolding the story…. lots to options to pursue and to reveal. Cheers, Mick

  5. Frank J Ishizaki on January 20, 2021 at 8:20 am

    great stuff. thank you, Steven.

  6. Sam Luna on January 20, 2021 at 8:34 am

    Basic screenplay structure theory taught me how to write a story, and McKee’s book was a big part of that. I remember sitting in the stock room of the bar I was working in 20 years ago, copying out the chapters onto a yellow legal pad.

    The hero’s intention changing is an interesting insight, I had never really considered that. Thanks as always Coach!

  7. Jurgen+Strack on January 20, 2021 at 8:42 am

    Right on the button, Steve, as always.
    Thank you. .
    The first (shitty) draft of my debut non-fiction book is I feel beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.
    Your guidance nicely informs and makes me go over my hero’s journey template again,
    in those terms, i.e. have I defined the inciting incident and is the protagonist changing along the narrative, which I feel he is.

    Like they say in the military, no battle plan survives the enemy.
    Or as they say in Sales & Marketing, no sales plan survives the customer.

    God bless,
    Jurgen

  8. Paul J Triller on January 20, 2021 at 8:43 am

    Another great bit of insight.
    I may never be a writer, but this series of blogs certainly has helped improve my reading enjoyment.

    Thank you.

  9. Kenneth N Proudfoot on January 20, 2021 at 10:09 am

    Thanks for this, Steve. Now I need to go back to my story and see where/how/if the hero’s intention changes as he progresses through the challenges in his journey. Another great post!

  10. elizabeth rose on January 20, 2021 at 3:02 pm

    THis is great, thanks Steve. I took Robert’s weekend course at Hunter College, NY in the early 1990’s. It was brilliant, entertaining, and for the whole 24 hours of “instruction” I was on the edge of my seat. Since then, “Casablanca” is my favorite film. (My second fav is “Minions.”) Ok – but the Minions discover their quest..right?

  11. James McCabe on January 21, 2021 at 4:57 am

    Excellent, as always, Steven. One thinks of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, eh?
    You really must write a dramatic manual…

  12. Colleen on January 21, 2021 at 8:31 am

    I’m enjoying these weekly gems from you Steven as well as the replies from your readers. Carry on all.

  13. Chuck DeBettignies on January 24, 2021 at 8:33 am

    Love this post Steve. I wrote out by hand something you wrote earlier speaking about the inciting incident and the introduction of the mystery.

    “The inciting incident is the introduction of the mystery.We, the reader/audience, get hooked by this. As does the “male” lead.
    Act two becomes the male lead’s quest to get to the bottom of the mystery.
    In act three, he succeeds (the male lead). But,If the story is a good one, this revelation only leads to a deeper mystery – A mystery that sheds light on some profound aspect of life for love or the human condition.”

    I’ve always thought this was such a profound point! It shows how an author/artist creates that “Wow” moment, where the person in the audience realizes this story has struck a chord with them on multiple levels. So good!!

  14. Mitch Bossart on January 27, 2021 at 7:46 am

    Thanks, Steve.

    Because I am a nerd, I transcribed my notes from Robert McKee’s Story seminar (in LA 2017) to a Word file. Here’s day one. (I had a blast in LA, took Uber’s everywhere, learned to surf, and began the struggle with the Resistance. )

    Distilled versions of notes from Robert McKee seminar on story – March 2017
    DAY 1
    Story
    A series of events that creates a meaningful change in the life of the protagonist (achieved through conflict)
    Scene
    Brings about a simple change in the life of the protagonist (every scene has a positive/negative value charge—life/death, truth/lie, laughing/crying, etc.)
    Beats
    Actions/reactions within the scene … can be several beats in the same scene
    Sequence
    Series of scenes that brings about a moderate change in the protagonist
    Act
    Series of sequences that brings about a major change in the life of the protagonist
    Climax
    Brings about an irrevocable change in the life of the protagonist (change that sticks)
    Arc
    Describes the great sweep of change throughout the story
    Advice from Mr. McKee:
    1) Research is the key to bringing a rich depth to the story. This kind of research is not “book-learning”; Mr. McKee is speaking about going to a place (say a coffee shop, a singles bar, a home for the mentally challenged, New York City) and either become a fly on the wall and/or participate in the activities.
    a. Your broadened knowledge will give you more options in your writing (plus you might have fun in the process)
    2) Scene rewrites
    a. Sketch out (not write out) all the possible ways the scene might transpire based on the context of the story and the genre.
    i. Once you have experimented with all the possibilities that make sense, and then select the best one.
    1. Ask: What could happen, realistically, within the setting of this story?
    3) Writing scenes with passion
    a. If your protagonist is experiencing fear, think about the most fearful experience of your life, write about it in detail, then go back to the story and write the scene.
    4) Your personal experience is never enough to write a significant, rich story.
    5) Most of the time, the first scene that comes into your head is a cliché theme from your memory of a movie or a TV show—DO NOT RELY ON THE FIRST IDEA THAT COMES TO YOU!!!
    6) Audiences know their genres and they will look for the conventions in your movie. Do not disappoint them.
    a. The author needs to know the genre better than the audience does.
    b. Give them what they expect, BUT NOT IN THE WAY THEY EXPECT IT.
    7) Conventions
    a. You can combine, bend, or break them but you must do it on purpose and it must make sense to the audience and story at that moment in time. Ask yourself the following:
    i. Why do it?
    ii. What’s the benefit?
    8) Characterization
    a. Detailed view of your characters. They need to be unique, credible, interesting, and intriguing. Your audience should WANT to get to know this character better.
    9) Choices under pressure are what reveal the TRUE character of the protagonist.
    a. The movie starts with who they SEEM to be and the movie ends with who they really are or become.
    i. Good guy to bad guy or bad guy to good guy or immature to mature, etc.
    10) In the course of the film, the protagonist’s view of the world is drastically changes—could be positive to negative or negative to positive—by the end of the movie.
    Character-driven film means actions that the protagonist takes are in his/her control.
    Plot-driven film means actions are based on things outside of protagonist’s control.
    Story is an emotional experience. Art is an emotional experience. Story puts together meaning and emotion which could be intended to persuade the audience.
    Story = the acting out of an idea without explanation. The story proves what is true without explicitly stating it: it proves what is true by what actually happens (show don’t tell). Story is rhetoric to prove a point.
    Story must give a persuasive expression to both sides of an argument—in all core values—this makes a suspenseful movie. (values: Justice/injustice; crimes doesn’t pay/crime does pay; and so forth)
    What all stories should say: How and why the do values in life undergo change?
    When evaluating your script’s story: Once you understand its meaning, ask yourself if you (yourself) believe it. If not, kill it. If yes, do everything you can to get it out into the world.

    Your film needs to “feel” like life, the rhythm of life but realize at the same time that audiences want their expectations reversed; they want to be surprised. You have to constantly provoke questions with asking them explicitly. You have to arouse curiosity, solve mysteries, keep them guessing. Audiences do not go to a movie to watch a protagonist have a “middle ground” experience. Audiences want drama—to one side or the other. A strong experience/encounter, positive or negative, good or evil. The audience is not rooting for the protagonist; they are rooting for themselves, but they are identifying with the protagonist.
    The difference between story and life = take out all the banality and humdrum of life. Story is drama.
    If my protagonist does not get what they want, then something highly desirable or undesirable happens.
    It takes 10 years of failure, typically, to get your first screenplay published/made.

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