Monthly Archives: June 2010

More Inciting Incident… and Stuff

Three words: thanks for sharing.

The response to the prior two Storyfix posts on the nature and placement – and the definition – of the fabled Inciting Incident in a story has been very illuminating.

Definitely a victory of quality over quantity. 

The crux of those posts was that the Inciting Incident, commonly referred to (including by me) as being synonymous with the First Plot Point, is, in fact, not quite that simply defined.

I encourage you to read the Comments, including a generic example story idea that shows how an Inciting Incident can legitimately occur at three different places in Part 1 of a story – and only one of them is the First Plot Point – each with a different context.

And how – thank you Patrick Sullivan – you can really only have one of them.  Because once a fuse has been lit, it’s lit.  It then becomes the job of the First Plot Point to explain it to us.

None of those II placement options negate the fact that there still needs to be a proper First Plot Point.  Proper, as in: it meets the stated criteria; if the Inciting Incident happens earlier than the FPP, which it certainly can, it probably won’t.

Confusion continues to ensue.  Let there be clarity.

A Movie to Please the Senses and Insult the Intelligence

I love Tom Cruise movies.  I use clips from them – lots of clips – in my story structure workshops.  So much so that I get wry grins and is-there-something-you’re-not-telling-us stares.

One word: nope.  I just like his script choices (read below, nobody bats a thousand in this game), which happen to offer great structural learning opportunities.

So I couldn’t resist this summer’s popcorn blockbuster starring Cruise and Cameron Diaz, Knight and Day.  It was all it was cracked up to be by the critics – pretty much worthless as a credible story, but, somehow and nonetheless, fun. 

One of the things that makes it fun is that the actors, and perhaps the script, don’t take this story any more seriously than anyone with an I.Q. over 80 should.

That said, it’s fun to count the number of times the director screws up.

Notice in the airport scene (supposed to be Wichita) that an old 727 cargo plane without windows is waiting outside a passenger gate, as if it’s a scheduled airliner.  As if they’d rented this junker from Props R-Us on Melrose.

Then notice how, when another airplane with Cruise and Diaz are supposedly on it takes off, it’s an Airbus 320, with one engine on each wing.

Then  it magically turns into a Boeing 727 – one with windows — once they cut to the interior of the plane, including a cockpit shot showing the three throttles, one for each engine. 

Our stars boarded the airliner during the day.  Then, only a few minutes before the shootout we all saw in the trailer, during which Cruise and Diaz have the world’s most unlikely conversation, we see daylight outside the windows.

And then, about two minutes later when the plane is crashing, it’s the dead of night.

Sure enough, when the plane crashes (not a spoiler, it’s in the trailer) it’s a 727, not the Airbus 320 we saw them taking off in.

Cruise radios air traffic control, using the supposed lingo of pilot-tower banter, including the word “heavy” as part of the call-sign, which identifies the aircraft as a jumbo jet.  Which, apparently Cruise didn’t know, doesn’t include an old 727 (which, by the way, are pretty rare these days).

Has this director never been outside of L.A. County?

Following the crash Diaz is rendered unconscious by Cruise (in context it makes sense) in a corn field next to the about-to-explode wreckage.  He has to flee the scene, but tells her someone will find her.

Then she wakes up in her bed – the next morning – in Boston.  As if someone found her unconscious in the corn field near Wichita, put her on the next Red Eye to Boston, located her purse to get her address, took her home, put her into a nightie and tucked her into bed before dawn.

Yep, that’s what they’re asking you to swallow.

Just sayin’.  We need to be better than the people who are writing this crap.  Or, in defense of the scriptwriter… wait a minute, the director was the scriptwriter.  He should sue himself.

Then again, it was star power and action all over the place, and I have to admit, my wife and I had a lot of laughs.  Both at it and with it.

What can I say, I’m a sucker for popcorn movies.  Now if I could only sell a script for one.

Thank God they’re setting such a low bar.

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Redefining the “Inciting Incident” — Part 2

Continued from the previous post.

The movie Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, is a perfect example of an early Inciting Incident that could easily make you believe that it’s actually the story’s First Plot Point.

In fact, if it happened in the right place, it could be.  But it doesn’t, it’s too early, at the 15th percentile.  Which makes it part of the Part 1 (Act 1) set-up. 

It’s an inciting incident, if you define the term literally.  Which you should.  Because it incites everything that follows.

But it doesn’t define the actual intended story (rather, it tees it up for launch), which illustrates what I often cite as the first step, the most important step in writing one: you must know what your story is really about before you can write it well.

One way to help keep this straight is to separate the definition of the term “inciting incident” into two realms.

The first realm, the one we’re used to regarding as synonymous with the First Plot Point, is the literary-tool definition.  When an Inciting Incident occurs at the proper place and with an effective execution of the mission of a First Plot Point, then the two milestones merge.  They are one and the same.

The First Plot Point is the Inciting Incident, and vice versa.  Happens all the time.

But when an inciting incident happens before that point, perhaps as a plot-twisting, game-changing scene somewhere nearer the middle of Part/Act I, then it becomes part of the set-up for the FPP, rather than being the FPP. 

And in that case, you are obliged to deliver a real FPP in the proper, assigned place.

In the case of Collateral, the crashing body represents a bonafide plot twist, and indeed sends the story spinning in a new direction.  Foxx suddenly has a new mission – survival – with new stakes.

But what does it mean at that point?

Answer: we don’t really know.  Or at least, we don’t know enough in context to what the Big Plan of this story really is all about.

Which means, you, the writer, need a Big Plan for your story before you can optimize pacing, dramatic tension and impact.

When the First Plot Point of Collateral finally arrives at the 25th percentile mark, we now learn what it all means.  The hero’s journey launches – meaningfully – right here.  Much more so, and much more dramatically, than when the body fell on his cab.

At that point we really didn’t know anything about this story, other than obvious.  What the story is really about isn’t obvious.  So the FPP is required to turn that corner, and it only works once the impact of that early Inciting Incident has sunk in, allowing us to feel and empathize with Foxx’s sudden terror.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how the body was just an element of set-up for the actual First Plot Point. 

Even if it looked, smelled and sounded just like a plot point.

The FPP of Collateral happens two scenes later (after the falling body and its aftermath), in the taxi as Foxx drives, barely holding it together.  There is no action, nothing visual, and yet it trumps the earlier inciting incident – labeled here the dictionary sense, because the body indeed incited the ensuing story – and yet, it’s a classic FPP.

Cruise reveals who he is.  Why he’s here.  What his stakes are.  And what lengths he’ll go to in pursuit of his goals.  He offers Foxx a deal – drive him through the night on his deadly appointed rounds and get paid $700… or die. 

Now the story really begins. 

With stakes, inner demons, an antagonist and a dark agenda, and the nature of the hero’s impending journey… all right there in front of us. 

None of that stuff was present in the story when the earlier inciting incident (the  dropping body that had you fooled into believing was the FPP) happened.  You thought you knew, but you didn’t.

This is a better story now.  Deeper, with more tension, more stakes and a ticking clock.

A Slap Upside the Head

This hit me last week while riveted to a deck chair in Hawaii reading Nelson DeMille’s latest, The Lion (sequel to The Lion’s Game).  The book is 440 pages long, which made me expect the FPP at about the 20th percentile or around page 88 (once you know this stuff, you can’t help but look for it).  But when I got to page 60 the entire story spun into a new direction, and in a huge way, focusing on the sudden and unexpected appearance of what would become the antagonist.  

Enough so that one could easily think it was the FPP.  It wasn’t.  If by virtue of nothing other than its placement.

It was, however, a moment that incites the rest of the story.  It was, simply from a dictionary perspective, an inciting incident.  Or from a writer/reader perspective, a plot twist.  An injection of threat and fear.  Of potential – but not yet defined – danger to the hero.

But it wasn’t the FPP.  That showed up in a series that takes place after page 80, where the antagonist and the hero’s agendas suddenly, and violently, collide.  Where the hero suddenly has a new journey, a new need and quest, with deeper stakes and an even more meaningful relationship with the bad guy.

And, because we’ve been set-up for it, the reader has significant empathy (emotional involvement) at this point.

When an inciting incident happens early in a story, our world may indeed be rocked.  But chances are we won’t know what it means to the story, especially to the hero.

That’s the job of the First Plot Point. 

Start watching for this in the stories you read.  And then start engineering this evolved sequential technique into your own stories – whether you deliver an early II or you combine it with the FPP – proactively and with confidence.

It’s all about optimizing pacing and dramatic tension.  And, planned or pantsed, that’s never a happy accident on the part of the writer. 

It’s always a function of structure, rendered in context to character.

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