Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Study Stuff That Works

By Steven Pressfield
Published: August 24, 2016

 

I was watching True Grit the other night, the 2010 version with Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn. A couple of weeks earlier I had revisited¬†Paper Moon, one of my all-time faves, with Ryan O’Neal and Tatum O’Neal.

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Coburn in "True Grit."

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Coburn in “True Grit.”

True Grit and Paper Moon are basically the same movie.

The key is in the Inciting Incident.

Let’s continue, then, our exploration of the Inciting Incident and how it works to infuse a story with power and narrative drive …

 

The story’s climax is embedded in the inciting incident.

 

Last week we talked about the two narrative “poles” that are set up the instant the inciting incident appears.

The first is the incident itself, in which the hero acquires his or her intention–the life-and-death impulsion that will propel him/her through the story.

The second is the as-yet-to-be-revealed resolution of this intention.

Will the hero get what she’s after?

How?

What will we learn as we watch her struggle?

Let’s consider True Grit and Paper Moon and see how the climax of each story is embedded in the inciting incident.

The inciting incident of Paper Moon is when nine-year-old Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal), who has just lost her mother, is sitting across a Kansas cafe table from Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal), a traveling flim-flam man who knew her mom and who bears an uncanny resemblance to Addie herself.

 

ADDIE

You my pa?

 

MOSES

‘Course I ain’t your pa.

 

ADDIE

You met my mama in a bar room.

 

MOSES

Just because a man meets a woman in a bar room,

that don’t mean he’s your pa.

 

See the two poles?

Number One: Addie, we now know, wants Moses to be her father (she has acquired her intention) and she wants to be with him.

Number Two (which we don’t yet know); Will Moses turn out to be Addie’s pa? Will they stay together? How will this happen if indeed it does?

These questions will pull us powerfully through the story.

I won’t ruin the climax for you if you haven’t seen it or read it yet, but suffice it to say, all questions are answered in a wonderfully warm and satisfying way.

The climax of Paper Moon was embedded in the inciting incident.

True Grit is emotionally almost identical.

In True Grit, fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross (Hallee Steinfeld) in post-Civil War Arkansas has just lost her dad—murdered by the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) who has fled into Indian territory. Seeking justice, Mattie hires U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track the malefactor down and bring him back to be hung.

The inciting incident is when Rooster agrees to take the job—and allows Mattie to come along.

Why is this the inciting incident (and not, say, the moment when Mattie acquires the intention to hunt down Tom Chaney?) Because True Grit, like Paper Moon, is about a young girl’s quest for a father or a father figure.

The intention that Mattie acquires that propels the story forward (in addition to, and superseding, her intention to bring Tom Chaney to justice) is the intention to find a new dad or surrogate in the form of Rooster, the wild and wooly marshal who possesses “true grit.”

Again, I won’t spoil the ending for you except to say that, as in Paper Moon, child and man find a bonding moment that lasts lifelong.

Again, the climax is embedded in the inciting incident.

Again the questions put forward by the inciting incident—will Mattie and Rooster bond with each other as “dad” and daughter? How? What will it mean?—are what pull us in the audience through the movie.

One sidebar:

Both these books/movies are love stories and as such they follow the convention that the “couple” must break apart before they can be ultimately united in the end.

In Paper Moon the darkest moment comes right before the finish.

 

MOSES

(to Addie)

I told you I don’t want you riding with me no more.

 

True Grit gives us Jeff Bridges in this moment at his growly, boozed-up best.

 

ROOSTER

I’m a foolish old man who’s been drawn into a wild

goose chase by a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop.

You, sister, may go where you will. Our engagement is

terminated. I bow out.

 

When we begin to think of ourselves as professional writers, we set about studying stuff that works. How does Charles Portis (who wrote the book, True Grit) do it? How did the Coen brothers make the movie work? How did Paper Moon, by Joe David Brown, work so well? How did Alvin Sargent and Peter Bogdanovich structure the movie script to be so effective?

I love doing this. It’s great fun dissecting material that really hums.

The next step of course is applying these principles to our own stuff.

Do we have an inciting incident?

What is it?

In that moment, does the hero acquire his or her intention?

What is that intention, i.e. the first “narrative pole?”

What is the second pole, i.e. the story’s climax?

Is the climax embedded in the inciting incident?

These are not academic questions. They are the soul and sinew of storytelling and the architecture of the books and movies you and I are trying to write.

We need to teach ourselves this stuff and learn how to apply it.

Next week: the Inciting Incident must always be on-theme.

 

 


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BOOKS

Books
The Profession

The Profession

The year is 2032. The third Iran-Iraq war is over; the 11/11 dirty-bomb attack on the port of Long Beach, California is receding into memory; Saudi Arabia has recently quelled a coup; Russians and Turks are clashing in the Caspian Basin. Everywhere military force is for hire. Oil companies, multinational corporations and banks employ powerful, cutting-edge mercenary armies to control global chaos and protect their riches.

Do The Work

Do The Work

Do The Work isn't so much a follow-up to The War of Art as it is an action guide that gets down and dirty in the trenches. Say you've got a book, a screenplay or a startup in your head but you're stuck or scared or just don't know how to begin, how to break through or how to finish. Do The Work takes you step-by-step from the project's inception to its ship date, hitting each predictable 'Resistance point' along the way and giving techniques and drills for overcoming each obstacle. There's even a section called 'Belly of the Beast' that goes into detail about dealing with the inevitable moment in any artistic or entrepreneurial venture when you hit the wall and just want to cry 'HELP!'

The Warrior Ethos

The Warrior Ethos

The Warrior Ethos was written for our men and women in uniform, but its utility, I hope, will not be limited to the sphere of literal armed conflict. We all fight wars--in our work, within our families, and abroad in the wider world. Each of us struggles every day to define and defend our sense of purpose and integrity, to justify our existence on the planet and to understand, if only within our own hearts, who we are and what we believe in.

We are all warriors. Do we fight by a code? If so, what is it? What is the Warrior Ethos? How do we (and how can we) use it and be true to it in our internal and external lives?

Killing Rommel

Killing Rommel

Autumn, 1942. Hitler's legions have swept across Europe; France has fallen; Churchill and the English are isolated on their island. In North Africa, Rommel and his Panzers have routed the British Eighth Army and stand poised to overrun Egypt, Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. With the outcome of the war hanging in the balance, the British hatch a desperate plan -- send a small, highly mobile, and heavily armed force behind German lines to strike the blow that will stop the Afrika Korps in its tracks.

The Afghan Campaign

The Afghan Campaign

A riveting historical novel that re-creates Alexander the Great's invasion of the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C., a campaign that eerily foreshadows the tactics, terrors and frustrations of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Narrated by Matthias, an infantryman in Alexander's army, The Afghan Campaign explores the challenges, both military and moral, that Alexander and his soldiers face as they embark on a new type of war and are forced to adapt to the methods of a ruthless foe that employs terror and insurgent tactics, conceals itself among the civilian populace, and recruits women and boys as combatants.

The Virtues of War

The Virtues of War

I have always been a soldier. I have no other life So begins Alexander's extraordinary confession on the eve of his greatest crisis of leadership. By turns heroic and calculating, compassionate and utterly merciless, Alexander recounts with a warrior's unflinching eye for detail the blood, the terror, and the tactics of his greatest battlefield victories. Whether surviving his father's brutal assassination, presiding over a massacre, or weeping at the death of a beloved comrade-in-arms, Alexander never denies the hard realities of the code by which he lives: the virtues of war. But as much as he was feared by his enemies, he was loved and revered by his friends, his generals, and the men who followed him into battle. Often outnumbered, never outfought, Alexander conquered every enemy the world stood against him — but the one he never saw coming....

Last of the Amazons

Last of the Amazons

In the time before Homer, the legendary Theseus, King of Athens (an actual historical figure), set sail on a journey that brought him into the land of tal Kyrte, the "free people," a nation of proud female warriors whom the Greeks called "Amazons." The Amazons, bound to each other as lovers as well as fighters, distrusted the Greeks, with their boastful talk of "civilization." So when the great war queen Antiope fell in love with Theseus and fled with the Greeks, the mighty Amazon nation rose up in rage.

Tides of War

Tides of War

If history is the biography of extraordinary men, the life of Alcibiades (451-404 B.C.) comprises an indispensable chapter in the chronicle of the Western world. Kinsman of Pericles, protégé of Socrates, Alcibiades was acknowledged the most brilliant and charismatic personality of his day. Plutarch, Plato, and Thucydides have all immortalized him. As the pride of Achilles drove the course of the Trojan War, so Alcibiades' will and ambition set their stamp upon the Peloponnesian War--the twenty-seven-year civil conflagration between the Athenian empire and Sparta and the Peloponnesian league.

Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire

In 480 B.C., an invading Persian army, two-million strong, came to the mountain pass of Thermopylae in eastern Greece. Led by King Xerxes, they were met by the finest three hundred Spartan warriors where the rocky confines were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, the Greek loyalists hoped, the elite force could hold off, at least for a short while, the invading millions.

The War of Art

The War of Art

What keeps so many of us from doing what we long to do? Why is there a naysayer within? How can we avoid the roadblocks of any creative endeavor—be it starting up a dream business venture, writing a novel, or painting a masterpiece? The War of Art identifies the enemy that every one of us must face, outlines a battle plan to conquer this internal foe, then pinpoints just how to achieve the greatest success.

The Legend of Bagger Vance

The Legend of Bagger Vance

In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete--a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.

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Gates of Fire
The War of Art
The Authentic Swing
The Lion's Gate
Turning Pro
The Profession
The Warrior Ethos
Do The Work
Tides of War
The Afghan Campaign
The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
Last of the Amazons
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Additional Reading
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