Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Key Story Elements: Inciting Incident

As I continue to work my way through the Key Story Elements…

Okay, I admit there’s something more than a little OCD about this venture of mine, but it’s also a much more concrete endeavor than writing fiction, especially a first draft, which is where I happen to be in my novel, which makes doing this story elements thing oddly relaxing for me.

Whether I’m blogging, writing, or teaching, I keep looking for ways to make the point that filmmakers take extra care with certain key scenes of a story. Filmmakers pay particular attention to all the ways they have at their disposal to underscore the significance of these moments – whether it’s delivering the pure visceral experience of the genre, revealing character, conveying theme, externalizing the hero/ine’s ghost – any and sometimes many of the above and more.

And to do that, they usually create those scenes as SETPIECES.

To review - there are multiple definitions of a setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight, that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in - a shower, for instance, in Psycho. Setpieces are the tent poles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes – and as certain key scenes, like the Inciting Incident.
And I think it’s one of the very best lessons we as authors can take from filmmakers.

So I want to break down a key scene among key scenes – the INCITING INCIDENT, or INCITING EVENT, and show how a few of my favorite movies handle that scene.

The Inciting Incident is basically the action that starts the story. The corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation, the hero gets his first glimpse of the love interest in a love story, a boy receives an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy.

I would like to emphasize, for new writers, that SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT.

You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem – but I strongly suggest that you get to your INCITING INCIDENT as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. It can make or break your submission, so find a way to get it into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it.

This beat also often called the CALL TO ADVENTURE (from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces, summarized by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey), and that's the phrase I actually prefer, it's just more - more.

But I’ve been watching a lot of classic movies lately (God bless TCM!) and the more I look at this story beat, the more I’ve realized that while the Inciting Incident and Call To Adventure are often the same scene – they are just as often two completely different scenes. And it’s useful to be aware of when and how they’re different, so you can bring out the particular qualities of each scene, and know when to combine them and when to separate them.
In Jaws, the inciting incident is immediate, occurring on the first pages of the book and the first seconds of the movie: the shark swims into the Amityville harbor and attacks and kills a swimmer. The protagonist, Sheriff Brody, is not present for the inciting incident, he’s not even aware of it. The next morning he gets a phone call reporting a missing person, possible drowning, and he goes off to investigate, not having any idea what he’s about to get into. It’s a very small moment, played over the ordinary sounds of a family kitchen in the morning.
But we’ve already seen the big setpiece inciting incident and we know what he’s in for.

However, I don’t think that Inciting Incident is the actual Call To Adventure. I think that comes at the climax of Act One, when the bereaved mother of a little boy who was killed in the second shark attack walks out on the pier and slaps Sheriff Brody, accusing him of killing her son (because he didn’t close the beaches after the first attack) in front of all the townspeople. And this is one of the best examples I know of an emotional setpiece: the camera just holds on the mother’s ravaged face as she goes on for what feels like forever, telling Brody that her son would be alive if he’d done the right thing to begin with. And as she stands there against the sun and sky, the black veil she is wearing whips around her face in the wind… she looks like the Angel of Death, or an ancient Fate, or a Fury. It’s a moment with mythic resonance, in which Brody is called to right this wrong himself, to redeem himself for this unwitting and tragic mistake. Now that is a real Call – not just to adventure, but to redemption.
It’s one of the most haunting scenes of the movie – and I find it really interesting that Spielberg uses it as his Act Climax instead of another shark attack.

The Inciting Incident of a love story is very often meeting the love interest. In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant hovers in the aisles of his little bookshop, realizing that the customer who just walked in is the movie star Anna Scott (Julia Roberts). In a prolonged moment he watches her as she browses, but he’s not just gawking at a celebrity. It’s a classic depiction of how time seems to stop when the Beloved walks into our lives, and we get to experience that moment with him.

In Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the Inciting Incident and Call To Adventure are the same scene, and a whole lot of other things are going on in the scene as well – it’s one of my favorite Calls To Adventure for all the layers of it.

Professor Indiana Jones is called out of his archeology class by his mentor Marcus, who also serves as a HERALD here, too, summoning Indy to a meeting with a pair of government agents who will deliver the actual Call To Adventure. It’s worth noting as a technique that having this double layer to the Call – first a Herald appearing to say to the hero/ine, “There’s someone here with a job for you”, and then escorting the hero/ine to a different location where another set of messengers delivers the call, builds up the importance of the moment and the mission.

And the location of this next scene, where the government agents (US Army Intelligence) explain the mission, is very significant here. This scene could have been set just in an office. Instead, the filmmakers make it a setpiece all on its own by putting it in a huge, elegant, high-ceilinged auditorium with stained glass windows, creating a cathedral-like ambiance. The setting gives us a feeling of the import of this mission. And since the Call is one of the most exciting and crucial moments of any story, why not give it a setting to create an extra layer of excitement and significance?

We learn from the government guys that a Nazi telegraph has been intercepted and Hitler’s men are looking for Indy’s old mentor, Abner Ravenwood. Indy and Marcus interpret the telegraph: The Nazis have discovered an archeological site where supposedly the Lost Ark of the Covenant has been buried for millennia, and they think Ravenwood can help them pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

Hitler has been sending teams of Nazis out all over the globe collecting occult artifacts (this is historically true). Ominously, the legend of this particular artifact, the Ark, is that it will make any army who bears it invincible.

These are the really huge STAKES of this story, and our FEAR: If Hitler gets the Ark, it will make the German army invincible. World domination = not good.

So we also get a glimpse of what Indy is up against: his real OPPONENT is the ultimate bad guy: Hitler and the whole German army.

And our HOPE is that Indy finds the Ark before Hitler does.

This is also a good example of an EXPLAINING THE MYTHOLOGY scene – you often see these when the mission is convoluted, or fantastical – such as in horror movies, sci-fi, fantasy – and the scene often includes the hero explaining the rules to an outsider. Here, it’s Indy and Marcus explaining the history of the Ark to the government guys. And they also explain that the Nazis want to find Ravenwood because he has a medallion that can be used to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark (Indy draws all this on a blackboard, a SET UP for when we see him do for real it at the Midpoint). So we also get the whole PLAN of the movie in this scene.

There is also a big SET UP and FORESHADOWING with the illustrations of the Ark bringing down the wrath of God on a blasphemous army – it’s a sketch of exactly what happens in the final scene.

However, although Indy knows the mythology of the Ark, he quickly adds, “If you believe all that stuff.” – indicating that he himself does not believe it. This is an action-adventure film, there isn’t a huge CHARACTER ARC here, but this is what it is: Indy starts out scoffing at the supernatural and mystical and ends up barely saving his life and Marion’s precisely by believing in the power of the Ark and showing reverence. (The secondary character arc has to do with reconciling romantically with Marion, although in the trilogy that doesn’t last long. There is also even a reference to this GHOST when Indy says, with some shame – that he and Ravenwood had “a sort of falling-out.”)

Also, adding to the THEME of world religions, there are several Judeo-Christian references in the University scene – the auditorium that looks like a church, with the stained glass windows, the leather-bound text that looks like a Bible, the references to the story of Moses and the Israelites and the Lost Ark of the Covenant and the wrath of God. Marcus’s voice echoes in the auditorium like the voice of a priest.

The tag line of the scene is Marcus saying: “An army carrying the Ark before it was said to be invincible”, leaving us a moment to think about that most important point as the scene changes.

All of that, about a dozen key story elements – in one scene! It’s really a miracle of compression.

Hmm. I look at those three examples I just detailed above, all chosen because they were the first Call To Adventure scenes that came immediately to my mind, and I realize that even though they’re very different stories and styles, what those scenes all have in common for me is a sense of mystical, or even mythical, importance. That’s certainly my preference as a writer and reader, but I also think that there should be something mystical and mythical about any Call To Adventure scene. It’s the scene that summons the hero/ine to the journey, and invites us, the reader or audience, to come along. Shouldn’t that be magical?

I’ve also just realized that in my own current WIP, and the book I just finished, and also in my last thriller, Book of Shadows, the protagonist’s Call To Adventure in the crime story is simultaneous with meeting the love interest. I didn’t do that in previous books, and the Inciting Incidents and Calls To Adventure in my other books are separate scenes. I wonder if I’m getting more efficient at storytelling - or if possibly my stories are getting more twisted! But I look at what I’m doing now and I know it’s right that those two story elements occur together; it says something thematically that I definitely wanted to say, although I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time I wrote those scenes.
All of which I think illustrates the point that I’m always trying to make in my blogs and teaching – that taking the time to analyze a particular story element by looking at examples that really do it for you – can take your writing to a whole other level.

So do you have examples for us of favorite Inciting Incidents and/or Calls To Adventure – from your favorite movies and books or from your own books or WIPs.

- Alex

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Workshop Intensive in June

West Texas A&M Writers Academy, June 20-24, 2011

I wanted to post about this upcoming workshop I'm teaching because this one is different - not just lectures but a five-day intensive with lots of one-on-one critiquing. If you're looking for some serious hands-on help with a book (or script), this is the one.


West Texas A&M University and the Office of Continuing Education are pleased to host the annual WT Writers' Academy (WTWA) on our campus. Join us for daily classes, afternoon critiques and seminars, as well as activities such as the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum and the outdoor musical TEXAS in the Palo Duro Canyon. Class size will be limited to 15, so reserve your space now!

Early registration $450

For info and to register

Or call 806-651-2037

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Key Story Elements - Ordinary World and Special World

Here’s another trick of detailing and revealing your protagonist. And of world-building as well.

It’s really effective to put some serious creative thought into detailing the Hero/ine’s Ordinary World and the – hopefully! – contrasting Special World that the Hero/ine will be entering, inhabiting, exploring, journeying through, or maybe even fleeing, during the course of your story.

Drama loves CONTRAST, and this is one of the easiest ways I know to provide it, as well as revealing character, developing character arc, and working the themes of your story.

I think it’s useful to first look at the Ordinary World and Special World as depicted in fantasies like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and The Wizard Of Oz to see this dynamic at work in more blatant examples, then try your hand at recognizing the more subtle variations.

Naturally, you can’t have a more blatant contrast than the Ordinary World of Dorothy’s black and white Kansas and the Technicolor lusciousness of Oz. And look at the first Harry Potter to see Harry’s tiny, cramped bedroom under the stairs in his aunt and uncle’s bourgeois house – and that first shot of the identical Muggle houses and identical Muggle cars lined up on that perfectly flat Muggle street – as opposed to the magical, colorful eccentricity of Diagon Alley and the torchlit boat trip across the lake to the towering mythical castle of Hogwart’s.

But to get a little more real - Romancing The Stone also depicts a beautiful contrast between the Ordinary World and Special World. Joan Wilder’s little Manhattan apartment is practically her whole world – but the Call To Adventure thrusts her into the colorful, expansive wilds of first Cartagena, and then even wilder (pun intended) jungles of Columbia. Going from big city to wilderness and villages, from one country to another country, is always an easy way to develop contrast – you see this in the small romantic comedy Leap Year, where the uptight heroine goes from big city Boston to the tiny village/county of Dingle, Ireland (one of my favorite special worlds, rapturously beautiful), and in The Proposal, where again, an uptight executive heroine goes from Manhattan to the mindblowingly gorgeous, relative wilderness of Alaska.

Weather is also an easy contrast, as we see in the romantic comedy New In Town. The Ordinary World for corporate executive Lucy is Miami – beach and sun and high fashion and palm trees. Her Call To Adventure (a major job opportunity) thrusts her into the frozen wasteland of New Ulm, a very small, provincial, and decidedly unfashionable town in Minnesota. But thematically, it’s really the heroine who’s frozen, and it’s that frozen little town that finally unthaws her.

Good storytellers will find all kinds of ways to make the Ordinary World and Special Worlds both contrasting and thematic. Notting Hill contrasts shots of Julia Roberts’ ghamorous Hollywood life – red carpet premiers and photo shoots and film sets - with the funky London neighborhood of Notting Hill, which with its pushcart vendors and cobblestone streets looks more like an Elizabethan village than a major cosmopolitan city. The filmmakers chose to emphasize the bohemian and eccentric and insular qualities of Notting Hill to give it that contrast to the Hollywood life, and to underscore the Cinderella theme of this fairy tale romance (The commoner falls in love with the princess). Just the visual difference between their worlds sets up a big subliminal opposition to this love story working out, and it also pushes all those fairy tale buttons. And I personally love stories that create fairy tale settings and themes in a realistic setting.

Actually anyone writing a romance – or writing in any genre, really! - should look at this film for how the filmmakers use visual detail in the sets to depict character. As authors we have an unlimited budget – our imaginations – to do this kind of production design in our books.

Here are some less fantastical examples to look at to hone your perception:

- What are the Ordinary World and the Special World in The Hangover?
- What are the Ordinary World and Special World in Meet The Parents?
- What are the Ordinary World and Special World in How To Train Your Dragon? (Okay, it’s fantastical, but this is a great one to look at for contrast).
- What are the Ordinary World and Special World in Sense and Sensibility?
- What’s the Ordinary World and Special World in Jaws? (A particularly nice use of production detail).

And tell me - what are some of your favorite examples of stories which use this Ordinary World/Special World contrast to great effect?

And of course, the real point of all of this is – how are you depicting your hero/ine’s Ordiinary World and Special World to bring out character, character arc, and the themes of your story?

- Alex


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Monday, April 11, 2011

The Protagonist: Using Character Clusters

I’ve just started this series on working through the whole Story Elements Checklist to expand the discussion on each element – and already, I’ve gotten a little
stuck trying to figure out how I could approach the next story element (or even what the next story element should be!).

No, really, I know what I need to handle next is the protagonist. But I’ve already written a lot of posts on that, actually.

Creating Character: The Protagonist

Rules of Character? Don’t Ask Me

What Makes a Great Protagonist? Case Study: Jake Gittes

Character Introductions

Collecting Character

So today I wanted to focus on just one particular trick of creating a well-rounded or deep or interesting protagonist, and that’s by using the characters around the protagonist to illuminate facets of the protagonist.

The characters you surround your main character with will tell us a lot about your main character. In real life our families, friends and significant others say volumes about who we are as people – through both the choices that we’ve made and the things that we had no choice about. It’s exactly the same in books and films: the characters who surround your hero/ine should be characters in their own right, but they can also reflect a lot about your hero/ine. Let’s look at just a few examples:


The person whom the protagonist is fighting is often a dark mirror of the protagonist; in many stories we see that it wouldn’t take much for the hero/ine to become the antagonist, metaphorically speaking. In fact, Belloq says pretty much exactly that in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The hero/ine and the antagonist often want the same thing, whether it’s an actual object, like the lost Ark of the Covenant; or money; or a power, like control of a town (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) or a country (THE LION IN WINTER), or a family (ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST); or a person: a child (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), or a lover (five billion romantic comedies). And sometimes the only thing that distinguishes the protagonist from the antagonist is what methods they’re willing to use to get what they want; the hero/ine, we hope, is moral about it (though crossing the line is almost an inevitable part of any story), and the antagonist is willing to lie, cheat, hurt or kill for it.


The annoying – I mean, amazing - thing about a good mentor is that they know the protagonist better than the protagonist knows her or himself. From Glinda to Yoda to Hannibal Lecter, the mentor often represents the hero/ine’s higher power or superego, sometimes both, and always holds the key to the life lesson the hero/ine most needs to learn. And the great thing about a mentor character is that they’re allowed to be on the nose and say exactly what it is that the hero/ine needs and wants, and why they’re too screwed up to ever get it (unless of course they do exactly as the mentor tells them to).


This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor. The object of desire is very often the opposite of the hero/ine – and thus represents all the qualities that the hero/ine needs to become whole.


The sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister – all of these can illuminate different sides of the protagonist, whether it’s by providing contrast to the protagonist’s character traits or helpfully pointing out why the protagonist is wrong about what s/he wants in every possible way.

But I’ve noticed that the allies of a protagonist often fall into a combination that I call a CHARACTER CLUSTER – and when you become aware of these clusters, you might find you can use them to your own advantage.

The Freudian Model
: One type of character cluster you see a lot is a hero/ine with two sidekicks, one of whom is all superego, one of whom is all id – like Harry Potter balanced between hyper-academic, hyper-rational Hermione, and more earthy, appetite-driven Ron. Then there’s Luke Skywalker balanced between spiritual mentor Obi-Wan and appetite-driven warrior Han. And James Kirk balanced between hyper-intellectual Spock and hyper-emotional Bones. As you can see from those examples, this is a very effective cluster; the hero/ine acts much as the ego does to balance between the two extremes of thought and action, and this superego-ego-id cluster feels familiar and right to us because that Freudian model is so ingrained in our consciousness.

You could say that Jake’s agency operatives in Chinatown are id and superego characters, but in that case I think those two function more as Jake’s good and bad angels, two very different sides of his character. But maybe that’s a difference that’s apparent only to me!

Another interesting cluster uses a more Jungian model. In The Wizard Of Oz Dorothy has to deal with external representations of her anima (inner woman) and animus (inner man) in the forms of Glinda and the Wizard. And Miss Gulch/the Wicked Witch is an extreme form of the destructive anima. In Sense and Sensibility you see extreme forms of the destructive animus (in the form of the passive male relative John Dashwood) and destructive anima (in the form of his bitch-on-wheels wife Fanny). This pair makes a great villainous team I think partly because they are such archetypally warped forms of the animus/anima. A reader or viewer may not know anything about Jung but will still be able to recognize these characters.

Sense and Sensibility contains another character cluster: the polar opposite model. In this story we have two sisters: one all sense, and the other all sensibility (passion). Each one needs to assimilate the qualities of her sister to be a truly balanced woman, wife, and human being, and we see those arcs play out in the story.

Another kind of character cluster is the Three-Brother or Three-Sister cluster. It’s used brilliantly in The Godfather, which modernizes the fairytale story of the dying old king with three sons, one of whom will take over the kingdom. The whole question of a story like this is “Which brother will win?” And of course, the youngest and least likely brother is the one who prevails.

Jaws uses a three-brother structure – Sheriff Brody goes out on that boat to hunt down the shark with Hooper, the oceanographer, and Quint, the ship’s captain – and it’s Brody, the least likely to prevail on the water, who faces down and kills the shark after the other two have failed. (You also have the contrast of Hooper, the intellectual scientist, and Quint, the crazy ship's captain - a kind of superego/id pairing again).

And Cinderella is the iconic example of a three-sister structure – again, the youngest sister prevails.

But you also see the three sisters show up as three female villains that operate almost as one person– as in Heathers and Mean Girls. And you can see three evil brothers at work in The Matrix in the form of that triple agent.

Then there’s the Motley Crew cluster: the team of vastly different oddball characters that gets assembled to perform a certain task in caper, heist, and war movies like The Magnificent Seven, Ocean’s 11, Armageddon, and Inception.

The Three Supernatural Allies is another classic character cluster, seen in Harry Potter (Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid), and Sleeping Beauty (Flora, Fauna and Meriwether), and more ominously in Macbeth (the three witches) and the Pre-Cogs in Minority Report.

In The Matrix we see another kind of trinity: Morpheus, Trinity and Neo – a modern version of the pre-Christian Father/Mother/Son trinity that patriarchal Christianity de-feminized into Father/Son/Holy Ghost. The Matrix is full of references to all kinds of world religions, and the character trinity is part of that story’s thematic image system.

The Wizard of Oz uses a three-ally cluster in a different way: the three allies, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, represent three specific character traits – brains, heart and courage - that Dorothy must assimilate into herself during this inner journey in order to be able to face Miss Gulch/the Wicked Witch as a strong, confident woman instead of a scared little girl.

And Harry Potter uses a Janus type of character cluster constantly: not only are Harry and Voldemort two sides of the same coin, but also that two-sidedness is carried out in pairing after pairing in that series: Harry and his useless cousin Dudley, Harry and Draco, Snape and Quirrell – and in imagery, too: the Janus head of Quirrel with Voldemort as a bizarre tumor on the back of his head; the idea that Harry and Voldemort have wands made from the only two feathers that a particular phoenix ever produced.

Hopefully that’s enough examples to start making sense! Can you think of other kinds of character clusters? I'm sure we could all name dozens if we just started to think about it.

- Alex


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