By Steven Pressfield | Published: February 23, 2011
A couple of weeks ago we were talking about the Inciting Incident. I apologize for getting away from it. Let’s get back …
The formula says, “The Inciting Incident sets up the Obligatory Scene.”
What is the Obligatory Scene?
It’s the climax. It’s the scene that, if you don’t have it, you don’t have a story.
In The Hangover, the inciting incident is Losing Doug. The obligatory scene is Finding Doug.
In The King’s Speech, the inciting incident is when we realize that Bertie has a terrible stutter and he’s destined to become monarch just as Hitler is starting World War II. The obligatory scene is the king confronting his infirmity as he addresses the shaken nation.
In Alien, the inciting incident is when the monster gets aboard the ship. The obligatory scene is when Sigourney Weaver, the last survivor, goes toe-to-toe with this nightmare.
How knowing this can help us
If we think of the Vietnam Memorial as a story, the inciting incident is the approach to the monument, as the visitor sees that the wall with the names of the fallen is sunken below the surface of the ground. The obligatory scene is when the visitor–in this private, emotion-packed space–touches the name of the soldier she has come to mourn or honor.
We as storytellers can use the known relationship between inciting incident and obligatory scene the same way a mathematician employs a formula or equation. We can follow it from the known to the unknown.
The obligatory scene is embedded in the inciting incident and vice versa. A straight line runs between the two. That’s the throughline. That’s Act Two. That’s the story.
If we have our inciting incident, we can deduce the obligatory scene. The Terminator pops from the future into our present, seeking to kill Sarah Conner. Climax? T-1 and Sarah fight it out.
Theme and the Inciting Incident
The straight line that runs between the inciting incident and the obligatory scene contains the theme. It expresses what the story is about. But the tricky part is, the story can be about a lot of things and still have the same inciting incident and obligatory scene. An art film will have a deeper, more subtle theme. An action flick will go for the obvious–and hammer the audience over the head with it. There’s nothing wrong with that. You and I go to action movies to get hammered over the head. (At least I do.)
Subtle or not-so-subtle: we the storytellers have to decide what we want.
Star Wars versus Shane
The obligatory scene in Star Wars is Luke Skywalker going up against the Death Star. Luke trusts the Force, blows up the empire’s mega-weapon. George Lucas follows with a straight-ahead wrap-up: our guys are heroes, medals are pinned on their chests, cue the Victory March. That’s great. That works. Star Wars is that kind of story.
In Shane, the obligatory scene comes when Alan Ladd shoots it out with Jack Palance (the evil gunslinger brought in by the bad-guy cattlemen) and kills him. But here the denouement isn’t dead-on, it’s ironic. The very act by which Shane saves the homesteaders is the act that compels him to leave the valley–and thus to abandon his dream of hanging up his guns and settling down. In the final scene, Shane articulates this to young Brandon deWilde:
There’s no living with a killing. There’s no goin’ back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no goin’ back. Now you run on home to your mother and tell her… tell her everything’s alright. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.
Shane rides off alone.
Shane, come back! Shane! Come back, Shane!
Star Wars is action, Shane is tragedy. You the artist, you the musician, you the entrepreneur decide what your work is about, between the two poles of Start and Finish, between the Inciting Incident and the Obligatory Scene.