So we’ve broken up the idea of an “inciting incident” into three parts: an old problem, a scary opportunity, and an unforeseen conflict. But what does this do to the climax of the story? Do all three of these elements resolve at the same time? Not usually. The problem that became acute in the first scene is almost always resolved in the very last scene, but the other two elements don't always resolve themselves in the same order...
Sometimes the opportunity ends early, but the conflict continues, which looks like this:You’ll recall that Gulino preferred a structure in which the original dramatic question was taken off the table at the ¾ mark, forcing heroes to reverse course and spend the rest of the movie undoing the damage they’ve done, now that the consequences are raging out of control. Obviously, this structure tends to imply that the opportunity was ultimately too costly:But it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes the hero doesn’t reverse course. In these movies, it’s actually the conflict amongst the main characters that resolves itself early, so that the third act becomes a unified struggle to pay off the opportunity. These movies look like this:The result is movies that are more uplifting...Superbad is an interesting case, because it splits the difference. There are two co-equal plotlines: our heroes say they want to split up and get girlfriends, but what they really need is to admit that they love each other as friends and will miss each other at different colleges. Thus we get a split: in one plotline, the conflict is resolved early, allowing the opportunity to pay off later. In the other plotline, the opportunity fails early, bringing on the conflict later.So much for Problem, Opportunity and Conflict. Now we’ll bring it all together for a week on How to Structure a Movie, but first tomorrow we’ll have a very special 100th installment of Storyteller’s Rulebook where I add one last key concept into the mix...
When we left off, I was saying that I’ve come to realize is that the “inciting incident” usually consists of three distinct events.
- Page 5 or so: A longstanding personal problem becomes more acute for the hero.
- Page 15 or so: An intimidating new opportunity to solve the problem presents itself.
- Page 35 or so: Taking advantage of the opportunity leads to unforeseen conflict.
Or to put is more simply: Longstanding problem, intimidating opportunity, unforeseen conflict. So this is the set-up for most romances:
- Longstanding Problem: Loneliness (or dissatisfaction with current relationship) intensifies
- Intimidating Opportunity: A new love interest out of the hero’s league appears.
- Unforeseen Conflict: Someone is opposed to the match (sometimes another lover, or a parent, or the actual love interest, who isn’t interested).
- Longstanding Problem: Hero becomes more desperate for money
- Intimidating Opportunity: Hero gets roped into committing a crime
- Unforeseen Conflict: Cops close in and/or hero finds out it’s a set up.
There are many reasons why this is a stronger conception of story than the traditional Jaws “contented guy gets a problem, then solves it and returns to contentment” paradigm. Here’s some problems with the idea of an “inciting incident”:
- It de-emphasizes the importance of change.
- If you define the inciting incident entirely in the negative, then the hero rarely has enough motivation to get through the story. “Return to normality” is a weak motivation. The hero isn’t really trying to gain anything, just return to zero.
- The hero isn’t proactive enough, they’re reacting to events instead of choosing to act upon them.
- One reason that many movies bog down in the second act is that the hero has already jumped in with both eyes open by the end of the first act. A problem arrives and they understand the danger of it right away, but now they have to wait until the third act to defeat it. So what’s the second act for?
- The focus is on change.
- Now they have a much stronger motivation: this journey is one that they’ve needed to take for a long time. Their goal is to change their life for the better, not just return to zero.
- Now the hero is more active: they are proactively choosing to seize an opportunity that they’ve spotted, rather than merely reacting to a problem (which is something that anyone would do).
- So now what is the second act for? For realizing the unforeseen true nature of the conflict! This only works if the first act shows what seems like a positive (though scary) opportunity, without realizing how much conflict it will cause.
As with any paradigm, it’s all well and good to say that movies should do this, but does this actually apply to movies you’ve seen? We’ll look at that tomorrow…
As a result, everything the guru says is true of every story. There’s just one problem: that provides no actual guidance. In the second half of each book, the gurus always go through a litany of their favorite movies and point out how each one conforms to every point of their process, but we don’t always see for ourselves the trends they’re trying to point out. Just the opposite: we see them twisting and warping the story to fit their pre-established thesis.
One thing that really stands out to me is how un-helpful the phrase “inciting incident” is. I was once criticized online (in this epic two-part piece) for using the term imprecisely myself, and I concede that I was letting the term float in the entry they were mentioning, but I felt free to do so because it rarely means the same thing twice.
The problem with the usual definition of “inciting incident” is that it’s a rule that nobody can break, because it’s just about impossible to create a story that doesn’t have something that could be called an inciting incident. The purpose of rules should be to separate good behavior from bad behavior, so that you can explain why some stories work and others don’t.
A classic example that is often used to demonstrate an “inciting incident” is the one from Jaws. Everybody in the town is happy, then a shark attacks. In the end, they kill the shark so that they can all be happy again. That’s very tidy, but most movies don’t work like Jaws. In most movies, heroes have a much more volatile and ironic relationship to the events that befall them.
What I’ve now come to realize is that the “inciting incident” usually consists of three distinct events: the old problem, the new opportunity, and the unforeseen conflict that arises. We’ll pick up there next week…