Monday, October 10, 2011

Problem, Opportunity, Conflict, Part 2: How It Works

When we left off, I was saying that I’ve come to realize is that the “inciting incident” usually consists of three distinct events.

  1. Page 5 or so: A longstanding personal problem becomes more acute for the hero.
  2. Page 15 or so: An intimidating new opportunity to solve the problem presents itself.
  3. Page 35 or so: Taking advantage of the opportunity leads to unforeseen conflict.

Or to put is more simply: Longstanding problem, intimidating opportunity, unforeseen conflict. So this is the set-up for most romances:

  1. Longstanding Problem: Loneliness (or dissatisfaction with current relationship) intensifies
  2. Intimidating Opportunity: A new love interest out of the hero’s league appears.
  3. Unforeseen Conflict: Someone is opposed to the match (sometimes another lover, or a parent, or the actual love interest, who isn’t interested).

Here’s most noirs:

  1. Longstanding Problem: Hero becomes more desperate for money
  2. Intimidating Opportunity: Hero gets roped into committing a crime
  3. Unforeseen Conflict: Cops close in and/or hero finds out it’s a set up.

There are many reasons why this is a stronger conception of story than the traditional Jaws “contented guy gets a problem, then solves it and returns to contentment” paradigm. Here’s some problems with the idea of an “inciting incident”:

  • It de-emphasizes the importance of change.
  • If you define the inciting incident entirely in the negative, then the hero rarely has enough motivation to get through the story. “Return to normality” is a weak motivation. The hero isn’t really trying to gain anything, just return to zero.
  • The hero isn’t proactive enough, they’re reacting to events instead of choosing to act upon them.
  • One reason that many movies bog down in the second act is that the hero has already jumped in with both eyes open by the end of the first act. A problem arrives and they understand the danger of it right away, but now they have to wait until the third act to defeat it. So what’s the second act for?
But if we use a “longstanding problem, intimidating opportunity, unforeseen conflict” paradigm, we can turn the “inciting incident” formulation on its head. Heroes should not start out happy, they should start out with an old problem. The catalyst that starts the story shouldn’t be the appearance of a problem—just the opposite: it should be the appearance of a scary opportunity to solve that problem. The conflict shouldn’t be the reason the hero acts, but an unforeseen complication. This is stronger in many ways:

  • The focus is on change.
  • Now they have a much stronger motivation: this journey is one that they’ve needed to take for a long time. Their goal is to change their life for the better, not just return to zero.
  • Now the hero is more active: they are proactively choosing to seize an opportunity that they’ve spotted, rather than merely reacting to a problem (which is something that anyone would do).
  • So now what is the second act for? For realizing the unforeseen true nature of the conflict! This only works if the first act shows what seems like a positive (though scary) opportunity, without realizing how much conflict it will cause.

As with any paradigm, it’s all well and good to say that movies should do this, but does this actually apply to movies you’ve seen? We’ll look at that tomorrow…


James Kennedy said...

Brilliant. You just helped me with exactly the problem I'm having right now with my manuscript.

I honestly don't know how you keep churning out so much good advice, so rapidly, at such a high level of quality. I love this blog.

Matt Bird said...

Aw shucks.