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. Great 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 I 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.
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 thrillers Book of Shadows, and Huntress Moon, 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 here's the suggestion of the day. Either before you go on to your Nano Act II, - or later, when you're done with the fast first draft and are looking to rewrite, try taking a moment to really consider whether your Call to Adventure is living up to the name.
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