Friday, March 07, 2008

Exciting Coincidence

"A strong inciting incident is an event that happens to the protagonist, never an action by the protagonist", I said.

Then I asked you for exceptions, i.e. strong Inciting Incidents that
are actions by the protagonist.

Now have a look at the first three responses I received: 1.) THELMA & LOUISE, 2.) PULP FICTION and 3.) KING LEAR.

Look at them again and see if you remember 1) who causes the inciting incident and 2)how does the character end in the story?
The answer is baffling.

1. Louise kills a man. The end: Louise dies.
2. Vincent kills Marvin. The end: Vincent dies.
3. King Lear excludes Cordelia. The end: King Lear dies.

For these three, Tom, Brett and Margaret each earned themselves three months Premium Subscription. Well done.

Recently UNK blogged about Inciting Incident (another exciting coincidence: one day earlier, someone hit my web site using the key words inciting incident definitions.) and among his favourite I.I.'s he lists COOL HAND LUKE.

Here we go:

4. Luke cracks open parking meters. The end: Luke dies.

Exciting coincidence? Or does it mean that EACH TIME a protagonist incites the story, we have a down ending? Probably not. Perhaps the readers of this blog have a slight predilection for somber movies. ;)

Anyhow, I found the examples you sent to me striking.

More exceptions to the "event-not-action" rule:
- Simon: "Not my kind of thing really, but what about Ferris Bueller's Day Off?"
- Simon D.: "What about any story where the protagonist activates something, like the Princess and the Frog in the pond, Pandora's Box etc"
- Jim: "If Russell Crowe is the Protagonist in 'Yuma', then it happens in that."
- Chris: "3 Movies that the protagonist is responsible for the inciting incident: Scarface, June, O Brother Where Art Thou."
- Robert: "Chow Yun Fat's Hitman character accidentally blinds a girl during a hit on a triad boss that he is carrying out. Therefore he himself sets in motion the "inciting incident" and for the rest of the film sets out to redeem himself and possibly help the bling girl regain her eyesight by doing more "hits" to pay for the operation!"

Thank you all! It was a great exercise.


As to screenwriting theory, there are so many sources of conflicting advice it is difficult to know who to listen to. Each new piece of advice can be as convincing as the one that came before it. What should you do?

How do you choose who to listen to?

Do you take the word of

  • the most influential,
  • the most popular,
  • the most convincing,
  • the loudest,
  • the most confident,
  • or maybe what they perceive to be the safest.

As a person who dishes out daily doses of advice I am as guilty as anyone out there who tries to offer opinions of what you “should” do.

The fact is, at worst people do not have any idea what will work for you, and at best they can only rely on their own experience. Certainly I give you the benefit of what I have learned through my work, but you still have to work out what will work for you.

I am still learning, things still take me by surprise. You may have read me say before, I am of the opinion you can learn something from every person you meet. Your job is to not blindly accept what you are told but collate it, cogitate on it and apply it in your own unique way.

Work out the approaches that suit you best, that fit what you are trying to achieve and how. Which stories resonate with you, and enthuse you, separate out those that leave you cold.

You can never take the same journey twice, your journey is yours and yours alone, but you can learn about possible pot holes and beauty trails from people who have traveled a similar path before you.

Here I have to confess something: all the above (except the first four words "As to screenwriting theory") was taken literally from Chris Garrett's blog on blogging. When I read it, I found it so completely true for pretty much any field of learning, including ours.

My own little piece of advice on where to start learning?

Just write, every day, undisturbed by what you learn or what people say. While you are doing so, go through the list below. And take your time.

1. Read McKee's STORY, or better: listen to the audio book. You won't learn too much about the craft, but you'll get a feel for what you're in for. If you have less time and you want to be fashionable, read Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT.

2. Take a craft workshop. Mine, Hauge's or John Truby's. Read the stuff they have published.

3. Watch movies a second time to break them down into acts, sequences and plot points. Dozens of them, until you start seeing the light.

4. Carefully choose a story consultant you can trust and you like to work with. You will continue to learn, but now specifically about your own strengths and weaknesses.

At this point, you will have found your vision and direction. You will see which of the savants out there fall within your view on storytelling. Read their books, join their seminars.

Finally, you are on your own, confidently.

And while you just continue writing, your craft will improve, and improve, and improve...


It has been the core of my consultancy and teaching: the protagonist needs a clear and present desire.

Nothing new, though, Michael Hauge has been teaching this for much longer. In the context of Michael's visit to Australia in two months, I interviewed him and the full text will soon be available to my clients and for subscribers of The Story Dept. Here's an excerpt:

Karel: Two problems I often find in screenplays by inexperienced writers are 1) the choice of protagonist and 2) the key qualities of the protagonist. Would you mind giving us an insight?

Michael: In almost every case where the problem seems to be choosing the wrong protagonist, the writer isn't clear about what the story concept is, about what the hero's visible goal is.

In other words: if the writer is operating under the belief that they just need to portray characters and show them going through a situation in their life and let's see what happens, then that's the quicksand they have stepped into. Because movies are about heroes who are pursuing specific visible goals.

It is about stopping the serial killer, about escaping from the panic room or from N.Y. or from Alcatraz, about winning the love of another person or winning an athletic competition. Or it's about getting the buried treasure. But the goal must be specific, must be visible, must have a clearly defined end point.

The first part of the full interview is now online on the Premium Ed. As usual, it will be visible for a few days only. After that you will need a subscription to see it. Part two and three will follow over the next few days, as well as a podcast (audio) version of the telephone interview.


The RATATOUILLE DVD shows has 1 (one) deleted scene. It is a long, uninterrupted travel from a wide establishing shot of the Paris skyline down to street level, through the Auguste Gusteau restaurant and ending on Remi, our hero.

The shot could have been spectacular, reminding of the opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL and its pastiche in THE PLAYER.

Brad Bird's commentary talks about the reason why it was cut and it is simply: Point of View.
ego.JPGThe natural question that would occur is "Why would you cut this spectacular shot?", because it is obviously great. "I want to see that film!" Well, I feel that way, too.

The problem, once you get passed the initial sort of rush of seeing this very elaborate shot that shows you a lot of different things in one shot and very impressively, is that it is no character's point of view.

It is just a sort of God-like shot where you're presented this whole world and it is spectacular and there have been many fine shots like that - Touch of Evil being one - that were great but I felt that this is Remi's movie and it needed to be Remi's perspective.

And I want to know the emotions that lead up to Remi looking into the kitchen. I don't just want it laid on a platter, you know, just cut to Darth going "You're my son, Luke."

We should be with Remi when he has that moment. We should know how he is experiencing it and what is he feeling when he is experiencing it. And you kind of aren't, this way.

It did lay everything out, but I don't think that it took the audience with it.

-Brad Bird

Brad Bird's reasoning confirms what I have written about 'omniscient POV': it is weak, or worse, it doesn't work.

Movies are inherently about empathising, even identifying with characters.

When you step out of the protagonist's POV, it should be to shift to another POV, never to take an omniscient POV.

Omniscient POV is devoid of emotion.

Read some more about Point of View here.


Anthony said...

Karel - loved your blog about inciting incidents happening TO a hero not BY a hero. Whilst I think this is true 95% of the time, I think I may have found one other notable exception; The Passion of the Christ.
Some would argue that Judas' act of betray happened to the protagonist. However, I think the whole point of Gibson's Garden of Gethsemane scene was to illustrate that Christ knew exactly what was going on and willingly chose to go down that path.

Karel said...

Great! Now, how does that movie end again??

Nathan said...


I just watched THE HOME SONG STORIES for the first time. And sure I've only watched it through once but I couldn't seem to pick the Inciting Incident, let alone the beginning of the second act.

And who was the protagonist? The mother? She was the centre of the story. Or was it the little boy whose POV we shared?

Now I'm not saying that I didn't think it was an interesting film, but for the first hour I couldn't help feeling that if my DVD player decided to crash and burn at any point I wouldn't find myself losing any sleep that I didn't find out what happened next.

I can't help feeling that my inability to find an inciting incident or clear protagonist may have been the reason for my lack of interest. That ol' first act Turning Point is always the sign to crack out the pop-corn - but where was it? Did I miss it, or did that little kernel fail to pop?

Does this make me a bad film-goer? ;)

Susan Plunkett said...

Event not action.
Perhaps another good example is Agatha Christie's 'Cards on the Table' with the wonderful David Suchet as Poirot. In this story Shaitana sets up the II by bringing together a number of people who had acted to bring about the death of another. Shaitana takes a drug to lull him into sleep so that the 'inevitable' death blow against him would not be known (of course). Of course he is stabbed and murdered.

Here the Shaitana character seems to play both antogonist and protagonist (to a lesser degree).