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.