By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 31, 2016
Ah, back to my favorite subject—theme.
Diane Ladd as the fake Mrs. Mulwray in “Chinatown”
The Number One mistake that writers make is they forget that their book or screenplay must be about something.
That’s crazy, you say. Of course a story has to be about something. But I can’t tell you how many I’ve read that have no theme, no controlling idea, no unifying narrative and emotional architecture.
Which brings us to the next principle in our exploration of Inciting Incidents.
The inciting incident must be on-theme.
Let’s go back to Paper Moon, which we were talking about last week. The theme of the book and movie is “family is everything,” “blood is thicker than water.” The story is about a daughter and father—nine-year-old orphan Addie Loggins (Tatum O’Neal) and the itinerant flim-flam man Moses Pray (Ryan O’Neal) who bears an uncanny resemblance to her—and the daughter’s quest to find and connect with her true dad.
The inciting incident of any story, we know, is the moment when the hero acquires his or her intention. The inciting incident, we’ve said, has the story’s climax embedded in it. The inciting incident puts forward the Narrative Question that will pull us, the readers or viewers, through the story.
From Minute Five of Paper Moon:
You my pa?
“Course I ain’t your pa.
You met my mama in a bar room.
Just because a man meets a woman in a bar room
don’t mean he’s your pa.
We got the same jaw. We look alike.
A lotta people look alike. I know a woman who looks like
a bullfrog. That don’t make her the damn thing’s mother!
See how on-theme this inciting moment is? It is absolutely about the story’s theme of family. It absolutely asks the Narrative Questions that will pull us in the audience through the movie: Will Moses turn out to be Addie’s father? How will we learn this? What will it mean? And it embeds the story’s climax: Addie and Moses coming together as father and daughter.
The theme of Chinatown is “Evil hides under a benign surface.”
Let’s cue up the film and see how the inciting incident embodies this.
The inciting incident of Chinatown is when the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) walks into private investigator Jake Gittes’ office (Jack Nicholson) with her lawyer and informs him that the woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray (Diane Ladd) who hired him a week ago to follow her husband was a phony.
Have we ever met?
That’s what I thought. You see, I’m Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray.
Clearly Mrs. M. is about to sue poor Jake and make a fool of him in the press.
I see you like publicity, Mr. Gittes. Well, you’re about to get it.
Why is this the inciting incident of Chinatown? Because
One, in it our hero Jake Gittes acquires his intention—to find out who played him for a sucker and to get to the bottom of this scheme and subterfuge.
Two, it establishes the Narrative Questions that will pull us through the movie: Who did set Jake up? Why? What will happen because of this? What does it mean?
Three, the climax is embedded in this moment. Evelyn’s tragic death/murder, Gittes’ getting to the bottom of everything, our understanding of the initial deception.
And four, the inciting incident is 100% on-theme. It’s about deception, it’s about ulterior motives, it’s about how the seemingly-benign surface of things can conceal unfathomed and possibly evil intentions.
Here’s my own confession. In a lot of the stuff I write, I don’t know what the inciting incident is until after I’ve written it. I’m flying by the seat of my pants half the time. I know I’ve got a great start to a story but I don’t know why. It’s only later, in Draft #2 or partway through #1, that I sit down and actually ask myself, “What’s my inciting incident? Do I even have one?”
Almost always I do. I just didn’t realize it.
This is how knowledge of storytelling principles is invaluable for the writer. I can ask myself, “Does my inciting incident give the hero his intention?” “Does it ask the Narrative Questions that will pull the reader through the story?” “Is the climax embedded in it?” And “Is it on-theme?”
Next week: the Inciting Incident corresponds to “the Call” in Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey.
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.”
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?
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.
You my pa?
‘Course I ain’t your pa.
You met my mama in a bar room.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 17, 2016
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?
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:
- The moment when the hero acquires a burning, life-and-death intention.
- 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.