Here’s an interesting question: What does your audience want from your film?
They want a reason to watch it from beginning to end!
Seriously, I’m not kidding. We can’t take this for granted.
This is why we consistently hear “you’ve got to grab their attention right away.” For years I took this statement for granted and, without much thought, assumed it was about stimulating them with visual delight or shocking them with an outrageous event. While it would be great to incorporate these elements into our first act, they don’t necessarily hook our audience from a narrative point of view. If we really want to keep them engaged we need a well thought out inciting incident, a through line and an obligatory scene.
What is inciting incident?
The inciting incident is the most important plot point of your story and it should happen before page twenty eight. This is the event that starts a chain reaction of cause and effect. When the inciting incident takes place, the audience instinctively knows life will never be the same for our main character. This is the event that stimulates the protagonist to try and move from his current situation to something better. It’s what gives your story momentum and purpose.
The inciting incident in the movie “The Hangover” happens when the gang wakes up and realizes that they’ve lost their friend Doug. Everything before that is exposition. Before listening to master screenwriting instructor Robert McKee’s course on audio, I had never heard the term “inciting incident.” I had written them into stories but I had done this on instinct. Now looking at it in terms of structure, I’m better equipped to leverage it to launch my story.
This brings me to the next thing I learned from Robert McKee and that’s the obligatory scene.
What’s the obligatory scene?
The obligatory scene is the climax of your movie and it’s embedded in the inciting incident. If the climax does’t resolve the inciting incident you won’t have a film or at least you won’t have a compelling film that engages the audience.
If the inciting incident in the hangover is losing Doug, the obligatory scene is finding Doug.
Try this Exercise
Watch a movie at home and pause it once you think you’ve identified the inciting incident. Write it and the questions that surface from it down. Once you’ve done that, document what you think the obligatory scene will contain. If you really want to go for it, document what the climax scene will be. It’s not likely you’ll nail this, but you’ll be surprised by the insights you’ll get.
Not long after I got the movie bug I began predicting what the last shot of the movie would be. Unfortunately this was not a skill my wife appreciated, so I had to stop. I remember the first time this happened – it just came to me. I thought I was pretty cool and possibly gifted when I did this more then once, but I know realize it came to me during the inciting incident and this was an unconscious reaction to story structure and plot. I was manipulated by the story teller and liked it ! (tweet that)
Two inciting incidents with their corresponding obligatory scene.
Inciting Incident = When we realize that Bertie has a stutter and he’s destined to become monarch.
The obligatory scene is the king confronting his infirmity as he addresses the shaken nation.
Inciting Incident = When the monster gets aboard the ship.
The obligatory scene is when Sigourney Weaver goes toe-to-toe with the monster.
I got this all from the master Robert Mckee. If your aspirations are to be a screen writer I suggest you check him out at http://www.storylogue.com/. He’s actually so well known in Hollywood he was written into the movie Adaptation, starring Nicholas Cage, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper and written by Charlie Kaufmann.
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