The Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: what are they?

The first significant incident in any story (from a structural point of view), is the initial disturbance that sets everything in motion. In his book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that this disturbance, usually referred to as the inciting incident (in relation to the main plot of your story), is an event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s world. In seeking to restore the balance, he (or she) is forced to respond to the challenge, creating a domino effect, which culminates in the story’s first major turning point.

Magnitude and Direction

While the inciting incident and the first turning point are distinct entities, there exists a strong relationship between them — one of direction and magnitude, mediated by the injection of new information. The inciting incident is a result of the protagonist’s response to an outer (or inner) event, but the respose is either misdirected, or not strong enough to solve the problem or grasp the opportunity at hand. Indeed, the forces that have caused the disturbance, now regather to confront the protagonist more powerfully than before. In the light of additional information, this causes the protagonist to rethink the old goal, or to seek a new one. In this way, the story moves from lower to higher stakes to the first major turning point, the mid-point, the second turning point, and finally, on to the climax and resolution (the subjects of future blogs).

In The Matrix, for example, the inciting incident occurs when Neo meets Trinity in the club. Trinity surprises Neo by pinpointing the foremost question in his mind: what is the Matrix? This question is answered when Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the blue and red pills – essentially to choose between continuing to live a life of illusion or waking up to the truth in “the desert of the real”. Neo, of course, chooses the red pill. This choice/action bundle constitutes the first major turning point and leads directly to the end of the first act: Neo’s connection to the Matrix is broken and his body and mind are jettisoned into the real world. The question raised by the inciting incident – what is the Matrix – now becomes, how does Neo defeat the agent Smith and machines? These questions frame the dramatic context of future events and help to keep the story on track.

In Summary

The relationship between the inciting incident and the first tuning point is one of magnitude and direction. The inciting incident introduces the initial disturbance and asks an early version of the dramatic question, while the first turning point increases the stakes and reframes the question in the light of new information – a question answered only at the story’s climax and resolution. Mastering the use of these two important structural entities will help you launch your stories and keep them on track.

In Defense of Story-Structure

Some time back, I conducted a series of workshops on story-telling in Sydney and Brisbane, attended by aspiring writers — a cross-section of folks whose age ranged from late teens to late forties. Some were new to writing. Others had been writing for a while. During the introduction to the Brisbane classes, I mentioned that I’d be spending some time talking about story structure — that without a deep understanding of the functional and structural aspects of a story, one’s writing would be the poorer. This seems to have touched a nerve because someone in the audience objected to this statement. What about the intangible creativity, the ineffable inspiration that comes from the muse? What about the poetry? How can all this talk of turning points, inciting incidents, and mid-points, lead to good writing? Surely great writing comes from wisdom, empathy, and observation?

The simple answer is: of course it does. Certainly, without these qualities all the tinkering and fidgeting with structure is shallow, much like music is shallow without the emotional depth which grants it resonance. But if narrative content, guided by the sorts of qualities mentioned above, provides the raw material, structure provides the shape and the means of delivery. The point is surely that the muse and structure are not mutually exclusive.

As a young writer starting out at Elmo De Witt Films in South Africa in the ’90’s, I remember feeling uncomfortable at Elmo’s suggestion that I read Vladimir Propp, Joseph Campbell, Lagos Egri, and Syd Field on story structure. Surely, Elmo couldn’t have been implying that someone who had spent every free moment since childhood either writing stories or dreaming about them, and had graduated from the London International Film School with distinctions in writing and editing, needed to improve his writing skills? Surely my stories sprung perfectly formed from my brain, like lithe and nimble ninjas, ready to conquer the world? Wouldn’t all this left brain activity merely stifle the magical outpouring of an unfettered and spontaneous mind?

Such, at any rate, was the tenor of my argument against Elmo’s suggestion. Happily, it was an argument I lost thanks to the experienced director’s gentle persistence. Truthfully, I was lucky to have kept my job. Sadly, Elmo passed away in March this year, but his quiet wisdom lives on through the many South African actors, writers, and directors he helped to foster. I see now that my motives had sprung not only from a poor understanding of the many layers enfolded into the craft of writing, but from a deep-seated fear that if there was so much I hadn’t thought about, so much still to learn, I’d be better off denying its validity all together. Yet, if there was ever a definitive moment in which I become a writer, that must have been it.

My intention here isn’t to suggest that my personal journey is more meaningful than any other’s. Clearly, it isn’t. And certainly, there have been many writers who wrote superlative works without ever mentioning inciting incidents, turning-points, and mid-points. But even those great merchants of spontaneity and intuition, the great Romantics — Shelley, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth — used verse, rhyme, and rhythm to give form to their poems. Besides, truly great writers are children of the gods with an indelible instinct for such things. I’m a lesser mortal. In an age of evolving social, technological, and scientific complexity, reflected in the equally complex stories we tell, I can ill-afford to ignore the rich vein of literature on the subject of story-structure. That’s my journey. Perhaps it’s yours too.

Where’s the Mid-Point in your Story?

In story-telling, as in so many things, the mid-point is a special moment in a journey – the moment in which one considers what has gone before and what is to follow. It is a moment of evaluation and of reflection. Have things gone according to plan? Do I continue on this path, turn back, or veer off in a different direction? Are my body and spirit up to meeting the challenges that lie ahead?

In my classes on screenwriting, I devote quite a bit of time to this structural gem. I’m in good company. Screenwriting gurus such as Syd Field, Robert Mackee, Michael Hague, Linda Seger, and Stanley D. Williams, likewise emphasize the importance of the mid-point within the overall story structure. Williams, in his book, The Moral Premise, refers to it as “the moment of grace”, the point in which the protagonist is given the opportunity to accept or reject an underlying truth about herself, and, therefore, to gain insight about her current predicament. Since action flows from a character’s psychological, spiritual, and emotional motivation, the mid-point lays the foundation for structuring the protagonist’s future actions, based on this moment of illumination.

Although the mid-point is one of many structural devices at our disposal (the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, and the climax, are others), I consider it especially important since it not only allows for the integration of the first and second parts of the outer journey, but also ties in the inner journey to the outer journey more tightly than would otherwise have been possible. I shall be discussing each separate strand in more detail in future blogs, but for the moment we are reminded that the inner journey describes a character’s beliefs, intentions and motivations — who the character is — while the outer journey describes action the character initiates in order to reach her goal, precisely because of who she is. In this sense, the outer journey is a metaphor for the inner one — the invisible life made visible.

The use of the mid-point in Braveheart

In the film Braveheart, for example, William Wallace, played by Mel Gibson, goes from a man who is willing to compromise liberty in order to raise a family and be allowed to farm in peace, to a man who embraces the challenge of winning Scotland’s freedom by leading his nation to war. The transforming event is arguably the moment in which Wallace is knighted. In accepting the knighthood (outer journey) Wallace reaffirms the traits of courage, self-sacrifice, and virtue (inner journey) that go with the role that was always inherent in him. The bestowing of the knighthood, which occurs half-way through the film, forms a link between the old and the new Wallace, and provides the dramatic context for the story in general.

Structuring the mid-point

In structuring your mid-point, begin by asking the following questions:

1. What does the protagonist not know about herself and her predicament before the “moment of grace”?
2. What incident/obstacle best allows for the moment of illumination to burst through?
3. Does the protagonist use this new insight to initiate new action that essentially differs from previous action?
4. Or, does the protagonist reject the moment — as in Tragedy?
5. Is the end of the story an inevitable consequence of actions flowing from the moment of illumination?

In Summary

A well constructed mid-point aligns your protagonist’s transformational arc to a significant outer event. As an inner journey mechanism, it is the moment in which the protagonist allows herself to grasp or let slip the opportunity for self-illumination. As a manifestation of the outer journey, it finds expression in a bold and significant act, which differs essentially from anything that has gone before. A masterful use of the mid-point in your stories will greatly improve the way your characters act and grow as they strive to achieve their goals. Enjoy the journey!