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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The Warrior Ethos

The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy,
but where are they.
—Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

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?

From the Introduction by Steven Pressfield.

[The following is from chapter 12 of The Warrior Ethos:]

12. HOW THE SPARTANS BECAME THE SPARTANS

All warrior cultures start with a great man.

In ancient Sparta, that man was Lycurgus. He took the city from a normal society to a warrior culture.

So that no man would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9000 equal plots of land. To each family he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called "citizens," but "peers" or "equals."

So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man's head and weighing over thirty pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.

Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield. A Spartan entered the army at eighteen and remained in service till he was sixty; he regarded all other occupations as unfitting for a man.

Once a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. "That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece," he declared, "and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect." The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. "Yes," he said, "and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup."

The Athenians, of course, were outstanding warriors in their own right. The great playwright Aeschylus, composing his own epitaph, mentioned nothing of his ninety plays or of any other civilian accomplishment.

Here lies Aeschylus the Athenian. Of his courage at the battle of Marathon, the long- haired Persian could speak much.

Lycurgus decreed that no man under thirty could eat dinner at home with his family. Instead, he instituted "common messes" of fourteen or fifteen men who were part of the same platoon or military unit. Above the threshold of each mess was a sign that said:

Out this door, nothing.

The point of the common mess was to bind the men together as friends. "Even horses and dogs who are fed together," observed Xenophon, "form bonds and become attached to one another."

The payoff came, of course, on the battlefield.

Here's how Spartans got married. Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child—a boy— conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride (he spent all day training and slept in the common mess). If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered.

It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.

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