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.

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