Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Fusion of the Inciting Incident and the Climax

Last week I was discussing plot structure with my students. It was pretty obvious that they knew the basics of it all... the names of the different stages, the little plot structure diagram... Well, they thought they knew all about plot. I had a good handle on it, too, but it seems that every time I teach it, I learn something new.

To make it easier for students to understand, I tried giving my own names to the different stages to make it more student-friendly. Much of this comes from the various screenwriting books I've read, like Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder and Story by Robert McKee. For example, instead of calling the second stage the Rising Action, I call it "Adding Complications." Students find this easier because they sometimes read stories that don't have a lot of action, and fail to realize that action doesn't have to be a series of chase scenes.

I also have found it helpful to call the Inciting Incident the "Problem" and the Climax the "Solution." Basically, the Inciting Incident is the "problem" or event that changes the protagonist's life from what they knew it to be to something different, propelling them into a journey where there is no turning back. It's basically the "Call to Adventure" in the Hero's Journey.

For the first time, I started linking the Inciting Incident and the Climax more directly for the students. What many of them do not realize is that they are directly related to each other. One is the question, and the other is the answer. There is a direct relationship between the two. Many times, when stories seem to fall short, it's because the expectations we form because of the Inciting Incident are not met or addressed. The Climax should answer the question that is raised in the Inciting Incident; does the Hero solve the problem that was raised or not?

This is a key realization for understanding story structure. We cannot just say that the Climax is the highest point of interest or the part with the most action or suspense. The Climax is the answer to the question; it affirms our expectations for the story. If it does not do so in a satisfactory manner, we feel cheated.  Looking at movies, we can see this relationship clearly:
  • Spider-Man: Because Peter Parker received super powers in the inciting incident and later learns that "with great power comes great responsibility," during the climax we expect to see him use his powers responsibly to fight evil and yet triumph.
  • Batman Begins: Because Bruce Wayne witnessed his parent's murder, he must prove in the climax that he can seek justice without resorting to murder himself.
  • Iron Man: Because Tony Stark was kidnapped by insurgents at the beginning of the story, we expect him to face either the insurgents or the person who gave him over to the insurgents during the climax.
  • Bruce Almighty: Because Bruce was given God's powers to show he could do a "better job," we have to see him confront God with his need for help with how to use them.
  • X-Men: First Class: Because we saw Erik Lensherr (Magneto) forced to develop his powers under the cruelty of a doctor working for the Nazis, by the end of the film, we have to see him confront this doctor and make his own life-changing decision: revenge or forgiveness.
  • District 9: Because Wikus was infected with a virus that causes him to mutate into an alien hybrid, we must see him struggle with his conflict between being part human and part alien, keeping in mind that earlier he viewed the aliens as nothing more than creatures corralled into the slums of District 9.
While these are only a few examples, the relationship is clear. The Inciting Incident and the Climax are fused together in a story. When writers, readers, and viewers realize this connection, experiencing a story is far more powerful.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Hero's Journey

It always amazes me how deeply we are connected to stories that we see or read. Something enters our mind and sticks with us. We want to be that protagonist, to live through their experiences and see the world through their eyes. Why is this? What compels us to be so drawn to the hero of the story?

I remember as a kid, I loved watching movies and cartoons, and often pretended that I was the hero, the "good guy" of the story. I remember wanting to be Indiana Jones, to go on his adventures and discover the things that he did. Sure, he had to deal with snakes and melting Nazis difficult tests, but what an awesome hero! He got to find treasures like the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant. He traveled the world. And best of all, he had a whip. While my parents didn't let me have a whip, I found the next best thing: a jump rope sans handle on one end. With my baseball-hat-as-fedora, I would run around using that whip, often with unfortunate consequences. But at the time, I was Indy.

Now, as a writer and a teacher, I understand why we gravitate toward heroes so much. I don't know how I discovered the Hero's Journey, but once I did, I saw how so many of our stories fall into that structure. I don't believe it is intentional, nor is it a cookie cutter method for molding a hero. But I believe there's a reason our heroes face the same kinds of struggles in their journey.

I've used the Hero's Journey as a guide to examining stories, and have not only examined my own writing in light of it, but I've also taught it to my students. It's fun to see the realization wash over them as they start discussing their own favorite films or books, seeing how the pieces all fit together.

Of course, Joseph Campbell is most famous for his The Hero with a Thousand Faces examination of the power of myth. But one book that has been instrumental to me as a writer has been Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey.  In it, he details the stages a hero goes through, and while not all stories fit this exactly, they come pretty close.

Heroes often start out in the Ordinary World, receive a Call to Action through some life-changing event, and usually undergo a Refusal of that Call. They have a Mentor of some sort, and finally decide to take action, entering the Special World, signifying that life will never be the same for them. As they Cross the First Threshold, they gain Allies and make Enemies. They face Tests. They undergo training and go through more minor events as they Approach the result of their call to action. The preparation enables them to face an Ordeal, an event that will make them confront their fears and define who they are, often putting their journey into life-threatening jeopardy. They succeed, and earn a Reward of sorts for their actions, whether it be physical or not. But the reward is fleeting; the journey is not over. The hero must stay committed as they travel The Road Back to the Ordinary World. It is on this road that they will face their biggest challenge, dying in some form (sometimes physically, sometimes, emotionally, and other times spiritually), ultimately ending in their Resurrection as a new person, having demonstrated all that they've learned on the journey. Now, they can Return with the Elixir, some new knowledge or treasure that is the result of their journey.

If all this sounds familiar, that's because it's the way we tell stories. Writers don't sit down with a "Hero's Journey Outline" and plan their stories that way. But through the telling, the story comes from deep in our psyche and forms itself this way. It feels right. I think that's why so many stories are very similar at their innermost core.

I love the Hero's Journey. It's powerful. It resonates with us. In coming blog posts, I will apply this structure to books and films, not to show that stories conform to a pattern, but to demonstrate why these stories are so powerful. And while I still embrace new heroes, I don't try to swing around like Spider-Man or shoot webs. But as I watch Indiana Jones, even today, I often wonder what it would be like to be in his shoes.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Another Writing Blog?

There are so many great writing blogs out there by authors, agents, and editors... so why am I adding my own voice into the vast ocean of online writing?

I have been thinking of writing a blog on my writing for a while. As I become a published author and my books enter the marketplace, I want to have a greater presence on the web where my readers can interact with me more. I want to be able to discuss what I am working on and where my ideas come from. But even more, I wanted to have a place where I can share what I am learning as a writer.

I believe that all great writers get better at their craft. I know that in the time that I have been developing ideas, nurturing them, and writing, I have grown in my knowledge and ability. Often I will have an insight and want to share it. That's one of the great things about teaching middle school Communication Arts. I have the privilege of working with students and showing them ways to make writing easier and more fun. I have seen many students go from having an apathetic or negative attitude toward writing to being excited about it. I explain to them that yes, writing is hard, but it's also very rewarding. To take that small, seed idea, maybe one sentence on a piece of paper or an image that flashes through your mind's eye, and then turn it into a fully-developed story to share with others is exciting.

That's why, after a lot of thought, I've decided to title this blog "Attacking Ideas 101." The title is both active and passive. You can attack the ideas as they come to you, but the ideas are also attacking you, and if you know how to harness them, the possibilities are endless.

Being a teacher has taught me that I am not the only one doing the teaching. I am also learning, as my students teach me. They are part of the Young Adult audience that I am writing for, and they have taught me what works and what doesn't. They've shown me where stories resonate and where they can fall flat. The Young Adult audience is one of the more difficult audiences to write for. To capture their voice, their interests, and their needs is not easy. But it is rewarding. One of my favorite memories is of a former student who read a draft of one of my novels. I had actually given it to her friend, but she stole it and read it. The thing is, I knew this student the year before, even though I never had her in my class. I do, however, remember that she didn't like to read, and could never find a book that resonated with her. I will never forget how she discussed my manuscript with me, and how her friends said she was reading it in class, crying at one point. Something resonated with her, and that is what I want to do with all of my writing.

And so here we are, at the beginning of this blog. As I attack the ideas that come flying at me, writing them down in my notebook or on index cards or any scrap of paper or napkin I have on hand, I plan to use this blog to discuss the techniques I have found to attack them. I'm not an expert; I'm a learner. And what I learn, I want to share.