Tag Archives: Inciting Incident

Writing is Rewriting II

Fountain pen and corrections

Rewriting II

In last week’s post, I talked about Frensham’s six areas of focus involved in arriving at the final version of your screenplay—the first stage being to increase comprehensibility. Today, we look at the second: Structure; because this website is filled with discussions of the story spine—the inciting incident, turning points, pinches, the mid point, and so on, it is not my intention to repeat this material here. Instead, I want to focus on an important aspect of structure: the structure of climaxes within the overall story context.


The climax of an Act is contained within its turning point. Because your screenplay is a composite of several stories, or subplots, supporting the main through-line, each turning point is part of the broader story sweep. One of your tasks in writing your second draft, therefore, is to ensure that each climax pitches higher than the one before it.

The climax at the end of Act II is often the most challenging. The hero needs to be (seemingly) as far away from achieving her goal as possible—having (seemingly) been, or about to be, defeated. She abandons her quest, and/or denies responsibility for her actions, and/or faces her moment of truth. If she does none of the above, then consider remedying the situation by introducing another character/subplot, an action which reveals her state of mind, a further confrontation either directly or through a flashback, or new information through an unexpected revelation.

In crafting each climax, ensure that you have seeded the possibility for it earlier in your story and allowed the audience to chew on it before unleashing it, remembering that the essential skill in constructing an effective climax is knowing what information to reveal, and when to reveal it. Examine each climax in your screenplay with this in mind and ensure the ‘what’ and ‘when’ are effectively utilised.

Lastly, ask yourself whether each climax is followed by a pause that is encapsulated within a scene or sequence which is in harmony with the pacing and rhythm of your overall script? Does each climax build from the least significant to the most significant moment by the end of the story?


Because climaxes occur towards the end of acts as part of a turning point as well as at the midpoint, they are natural attractors for the action that leads up to them, helping to shape and direct the material before them. Effective climaxes, therefore, are an indispensable part of writing successful stories.


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How to Improve your Outline

Hand drawing

Improving Your Outline:

So, you’ve come up with a logline for your story and proceeded to generate an outline from it (see earlier posts). How do you go about improving your outline, prior to commencing the actual writing of your script or novel? Here are some suggestions, chosen for their effectiveness from a myriad of others, to help you with this very important step:

Improving your Logline

Consider your logline carefully:

Is it as unique and intriguing as it can be?
Does it contain a set-up and pay-off that is the best as it can be?

If not, seek to improve it by brainstorming the ideas behind it.

Getting the Story Structure Right

Examine the basic structure of your story. Consider whether you can improve any of the events and actions that occur specifically at the main structural junctions:

The opening
The inciting incident
Do we know what the story is about by the first third of the Act I
The first turning point at the end of Act I
The mid-point
The second turning point at the end of Act II
The crisis
The climax
The resolution

Identify Weaknesses in your Story

Search for sections that seem weak, flat, or uninteresting. Specifically, consider:

Is your setup and payoff sharp and unique enough?
Are there enough twists and surprises in between the main structural beats to hold our attention?
Is the mislead and reveal as surprising and fitting as it can be?

Focusing on specific structural and pivotal junctions allows you to target your improvements where they counts the most.


Seek to better your outline by lifting the overall standard of your logline and the actions and events that occur at the main structural junction points of your story. Also improve the quality of your setup and payoff, the various story twists, and your mislead and reveal.


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Structuring Act I, etc.

Building Structure

Building Structure

In his book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the first act of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is inflected by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point. The primary function of the first act is to set up the dramatic context for the entire story, introduce the protagonist as well as other important characters, their world, and the goal – that which the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.

Dramatic context

Establishing the dramatic context of the first act means setting up characters, the situation they find themselves in, and the premise of the story: Who is the protagonist? What is at stake? What is the goal? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? And more concisely, what is the dramatic question of this act? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence.

Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I—I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I—I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…” The first act, and indeed, the entire film revolves around that short statement. The film examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?”

Pilot Question

This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question: in the first act there are really two questions: one which quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen) – what I call the pilot question, and a smaller one which concerns itself with the single act; for example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?

The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act

Identifying the dramatic questions of the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic questions of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall, for example, the dramatic question might be, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question might well ask, what is the final straw that finally breaks them up? Our task as writers, therefore, is to lay out the answers to these questions – a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.


Encapsulating the needs of the first act (and indeed, the second and third acts in general) in terms of a dramatic question helps us focus on the dramatic context of our story and propels us to write material that is purposeful, concise and which keeps our entire story on track.


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Exploring the Story Network I

Structural Links

Structural Links

Understanding story structure involves different stages of learning. The first stage is to identify, name, and understand the function of each narrative component. We learn that a turning point, for example, spins the story in a different direction, and we learn that in a typical story there are two such turning points. But looking at individual elements in this way provides us with a static picture. It tells us what the elements do, and where they occur, individually, but not how they interact with each other to produce a cohesive and dynamic narrative. This is very much a case of the sum of the parts being less than the whole: we cannot unlock the full meaning of a text unless we trace the links between the narrative elements, understand that they form a network, and explore how that network functions. Individual structural units, seen in isolation, therefore, surrender less information than they do when studied as a network. The following series of posts tries to remedy this situation by exploring these important interrelationships, starting with the inciting incident and the first tuning point. For the purposes of this post, the typical starting point – the ordinary world – is treated as given.

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident, we are reminded, is an event that gets the story rolling. It usually occurs after the ordinary world of the Hero has been established and takes the form of a disturbance to the status quo of this world. The inciting incident is often mistaken as the start of the story, precisely because it jump-starts the tale by relating its first significant event. In media res beginnings, the inciting incident replaces the introduction to the ordinary world, injecting a sense of excitement and urgency at the start of the story at the expense of context.

The First Turning Point

The first turning point is the true start of the story because it presents new information which forces the Hero to respond to a challenge, opportunity, or threat, hatch a plan, and embark on a series of actions to implement this plan which affect the entire story. It differs from the inciting incident in that it introduces information that spins the story in a different direction than that suggested by the inciting incident.

Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: First Link in the Network

The relationship of the inciting incident to the first turning point, is, therefore, one of deviation resulting from a surprising and unexpected change – a rotation, or alteration to the path initiated by the inciting incident. One can only understand the inciting incident, therefore, by relating it to the ordinary world before it, and the first turning point ahead of it, just as one can only understand the first turning point in relation to the inciting incident and the structural nodes ahead of it – but more of that in next week’s post.


Understanding structure relies not only on an understanding of discreet structural units, but of the links that exist between them. Each structural node exists in a dynamic relationship to the other nodes in the narrative network and can, therefore, only be understood in relation to the overall network.


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The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure II

This is the second and final installment of The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure.

Must-Have Scenes

Must-Have Scenes

Second Pinch

As mentioned previously, pinches are scenes located within act II that remind us of the major concerns of the story. Their main propose is to keep the story on track. If the first pinch in The Matrix has Neo fail to leap successfully to the adjacent building, the second has him reel in a helicopter via an attached cable. The second pinch is related to the first, then, in that it revisits and develops the concerns posed by the first.

The Second Turning Point

As with the first turning point, this structural device turns the story around in an unexpected way. Up to now, the Hero has accepted a challenge or opportunity, acquired a goal, grown through moral insight, and pressed forward towards achieving that goal, despite mounting obstacles. Now, a new situation arises – usually prompted by antagonistic forces – that ups the stakes, forcing a reassessment of, and adjustment to, the original goal. The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny learns that Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), his best friend, has died at the hands of the sheriff; Munny, who has already fulfilled his contract, has no choice but to expand his goal and seek revenge on all those who participated in Ned’s death.

The Climactic Scene

This scene, also known as the must-have confrontational scene, pits the Hero and antagonist against each other in a fight to the finish (either literally, or metaphorically). Its outcome establishes the theme of the story – for example, that good triumphs over evil. In The Matrix Neo is resurrected through the power of love and faith, symbolised by a kiss.

The Resolution or Denouement Scene

In a typical conventional story with an up-ending, the Denouement Scene ties up loose ends, answers earlier questions, and unites the Hero with his community and love-interest. In a down-ending, the Hero is defeated in some important way – he may, for example, win the battle but lose the war, lose some moral or spiritual aspect of himself, fail to win the girl, leave questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Here, the theme may well be that evil triumphs over good, or that good guys finish last.

The Realisation Scene

I’ve left the mention of the Realisation Scene (see past post) till last, not because it necessarily occurs at the end of the story, but because it is a scene that injects new information about the plot – it allows the Hero to get at the truth. Most typically, the Realisation Scene (and its decision/action consequences) occurs at the first turning point, or the midpoint, or even as late as the second turning point, although this is less common, since it places the engaging and dynamic realisation-decision-action cluster towards the end of the story.


Story structure comprises of certain must-have, or master scenes, which form the undercarriage of the entire tale. Additionally, linking and transitional scenes abound. Other important scenes include the realisation-decision-action cluster, which can occupy any one of several points in the story, depending on the individual needs of the story itself.


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The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure

Nuts & Bolts

Nuts & Bolts

For sometime now, I’ve been posting articles about such narrative elements as the introduction scene, the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the first and second pinches, the midpoint, realisation, decision, action, obligatory, and denouement scenes – in short, about the structural underpinnings of most stories. Of course, other linking and transitional scenes are dispersed in between these larger ones, but together, they coalesce to form a solid template for an entire tale. In this two-part post, I want to bring these elements together in order to present a snapshot of the overall shape of a typical story. What follows, then, is a simple, but useful summation of story structure:

Introduction Scene

With the exception of a medias res beginning (see past post), a typical story often starts with an introduction to the ordinary world of the Hero – this is the world before the initial disturbance. Here we learn about the Hero’s life and environment as it has existed for some time. This is our opportunity to get to know and empathise with the Hero in his or her natural habitat. In Unforgiven, for example, we see retired gunslinger and now struggling pig-farmer and widower, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), fighting to make ends meet in order to feed his two young children, and we begin to empathise with his plight.

Inciting Incident

Now, into this world, comes an unexpected opportunity, challenge, or threat, which disturbs the status-quo. The Hero may at first choose to ignore this event, or he/she may respond to it immediately. This is the inciting incident and is the event that kick-starts the story. In Unforgiven, the inciting incident occurs when the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) asks William Munny to help hunt down and kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, an offer which Munny originally rejects, then decides to accept.

First Turning Point

The first turning point is a powerful structural event that spins the story around in a different direction; it avoids predictability and injects freshness into the tale. In The Matrix, the first turning point occurs when Neo (Keano Reeves) learns that the world he thought was real is actually a computer simulation, and that his body (and most other bodies) is slumbering inside a machine-constructed cocoon which continuously siphons energy from it. This new information necessarily changes the course of Neo’s life.

First Pinch

The first pinch typically occurs in the first half of act II, between the start of the act and the story’s midpoint. The pinch is a scene which reminds us of what’s at stake, thus helping to keep the longer act II on track. In The Matrix, a pinch occurs when Neo fails to leap successfully to an adjacent building and plummets to the ground. This reminds us that his training is not yet complete, but it also prompts us to ask whether Neo is indeed The One – the underlying question of the entire act and the story as a whole.

The Midpoint

The midpoint, also referred to as the moment of (moral) illumination (not to be confused with the realisation scene), occurs about halfway through act II, in effect, splitting this longest of the three acts into two units; in Braveheart, William Wallace (Mel Gibson), spends the initial part of the story avoiding involvement in the politics and troubles of his country. But at the midpoint, he receives a knighthood. This event, which is an outer manifestation of his acceptance of a moral duty to involve himself in the plight of his country – to help lead it to freedom from England – demarcates a change of attitude in Wallace. Henceforth, his actions, and the entire course of the story, will be informed by this moment of moral illumination.

The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure concludes next week.


Story structure comprises of a set of must-have scenes that are interlinked by smaller transitional ones to form an overarching structure. Understanding the function and purpose of each scene provides the writer with a formal template for crafting a unique story at the level of content.


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Understanding Archetypes II

In the previous post I began exploring Christian Vogler’s use of eight Archetypes extracted from his study of myths — specifically the archetypes of Hero and Mentor. In this post I look at two more — Threshold Guardian and Herald.

Threshold Guardian

Threshold Guardian

Threshold Guardian

Vogler sees stories as journeys to reach an important goal through obstacle-strewn terrain. Each obstacle is typically patrolled by powerful guardians. Threshold Guardians are the antagonist’s henchmen, or lesser villains, but they may also be morally neutral figures, objects, or elemental forces that are simply in the way.

Psychologically, the guardians represent the obstacles we encounter in daily life — bad luck, bad weather, hostility, repression, prejudice and the like. At a deeper level, they represent our inner demons — emotional scars, vices, and neurosis that manifest themselves more strongly at the threshold of obstacles.

At a dramatic level, the Threshold Guardians’ main function is to test the Hero — they are not necessarily evil in themselves. Indeed, they often help the Hero articulate and cross thresholds of resistance. Typically, the Hero must solve a puzzle as in the example of the Sphinx who presents Oedipus with a riddle before allowing him to continue his journey. A Hero may challenge the guardian, offer to bribe him, sidestep him, or literally get under his skin: In The Wizard of Oz, the Tin Woodsman, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow manage to enter the heavily guarded castle by overcoming then disguising themselves as three sentries — by donning the (outer) skin of the Threshold Guardians. As Hero’s evolve, however, they learn to recognize Threshold Guardians are not necessarily enemies but opportunities to grow and acquire new power.




Heralds typically appear near the beginning of a story to issue a challenge to the Hero in the form of a call to adventure. The Hero, who has previously lived an ordinary life, is now asked to help prevent some impending catastrophe to himself, his family, or society at large because of a new threat. Occasionally, the threat is disguised as a new opportunity, which, when pursued, turns out to be fraught with dangers. In terms of structure, the Herald functions as the Inciting Incident, kicking-starting the story at the earliest opportunity.

Psychologically, the Herald represents our unconscious need for change — the need to restore internal and external balance. It may come as a dream, a new idea, a person, or as the mysterious voice in The Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.”

At the dramatic level, the Herald provides the Hero with a new practical challenge — the motivation to commence the journey. Again, the Herald may appear as a person, or an event such as a hurricane, even as mail. In Romancing the Stone, the Herald takes the form of a treasure map that arrives through the post and a phone call from Joan Wilder’s sister, informing her she is being held hostage in Colombia.

In Summary

Threshold Guardians take the form of characters or forces that cause the Hero to confront and overcome internal and external obstacles during his journey to the goal. A Herald may appear as an event or character that imparts new information that helps to initiate that journey.


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How to Kick-Start your Story

In a previous post, I mentioned that the inciting incident is an early narrative event intended to get the story rolling. In this post, I want to expand on this important device by highlighting two of its main functions: the inciting incident creates forward momentum by tearing us away from the ordinary world. It also keeps us interested in the story by setting up the 1st turning point as a surprise. The 1st turning point, as Syd Field reminds us, is the moment the plot truly commences — the real start of the story. Expressed in another way, it is the moment the protagonist is issued a new challenge, accepts a new opportunity, formulates a new plan, and embarks on a new journey to achieve it.

The function of the inciting incident, therefore, is to introduce an event which disturbs the status quo and initiates a course of action with unexpected consequences. In this sense, it is an early mislead that prevents the writer from showing her hand too early.

Shutter Island

In the film Shutter Island, Police Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Chuck Auel (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at the hospital for the criminally insane, which operates under Boston’s jurisdiction, ostensibly to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the facility. When his request for access to the hospital’s personnel files is refused, Daniels begins to suspect a sinister plot by the doctors to cover up his investigation into possible unethical and illegal medical procedures. Soon, however, Daniels begins to doubt everything around him, including his own sanity.

The inciting incident occurs when Daniels arrives at the island to investigate the patient’s disappearance. The main thrust of the story, however, is to determine what is real and what is merely the insane imaginings of a psychotic mind. The plot starts in earnest at the first turning point — the doctors’ refusal to grant Daniels access to the hospital’s personnel files. This sets up the dramatic question which drives the entire story: what are the doctors hiding from Daniels?

In Summary

The function of the inciting incident is to kick-start the story by ushering the protagonist away from his ordinary world towards the surprise of the 1st turning point. In this sense, this narrative event may be regarded as a sort of mislead.

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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.