Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Inciting Incident and Story Worthy Problem as Conflict: Can You Tell the Difference?

The Inciting Incident
The Initial Surface Problem
The Story Worthy Problem. 

These are all examples of conflict, but they do different things. Use them in the wrong place and your story is dead in the water.

I've started reading Les Edgerton's Hooked.

I know what a hook is. I understand the concept. I also understand that hooks come in many shapes  . . .

 and sizes. 

(now that I think about it, the items in the last two images, along with having hooks, could also be considered lures--but that's a whole other topic) My point being that hooks don't always have to be in-your-face explosive to be effective.

Thus I was reluctant to buy and read a book devoted entirely to openings. Well, I'm about a fourth of the way into it and I already want to talk about it. In fact, I applied what I've learned so far and created an exercise we can share.

But first, some definitions, from Les Edgerton, (so we're all on the same page:)

  • The inciting incident is the event that creates the character’s initial surface problem and introduces the first inklings of the story-worthy problem.
  • This is the action part of the story, the part that is plot-based. This happens to the protagonist then she does this to resolve it then this and so on.
  • The inciting incident is NOT the protagonist’s current situation, no matter how deplorable or dramatic it may be. 
  • The Inciting Incident is what alters the day to day existence (or situation). This can be something large and obvious or small and subtle.
IMO, small and subtle is usually more powerful.

  • This is the problem that occurs as a direct result of the inciting incident. And while it may seem at  first glance that solving this problem is what the story is really all about, it’s not.
  • Every story is ultimately about solving the deeper, more complicated story-worthy problem.
  • The inciting incident sets the stage for the story-worthy problem, which functions just beneath the surface of the story on a more psychological level. Consider it the driving force behind the initial surface problem as it’s ultimately what the protagonist must reconcile at the end of the story. 
  • A true story-worthy problem is closely associated with the protagonist’s inner self, while a surface problem is merely symptomatic, a derivative of that larger problem. 
  • The inciting incident introduces this problem by either bringing to the forefront a buried problem or creating a new one, thus beginning the gradual revealing process that will encompass the rest of the story as the protagonist’s—and the reader’s—understanding of the true nature of story-worthy problem deepens.
Les also gives us a great example of subtle conflict and overt conflict, using the movie Thelma and Louise:

The Inciting Incident – Thelma is about to ask Darryl if she can go on a trip with Louise. He replies condescendingly, “What?” She decides not to ask and just go. She has never openly defied her husband. This decision leads to the subsequent decisions (road house, dancing, flirting) that leads to the Initial Surface Problem.
The Initial Surface Problem – Harlan tries to rape Thelma. Louise kills him.
The Story-Worthy Problem – Thelma allows all men to dominate and take advantage of her. This she must overcome.

Les gives us some great instruction and follows it up with perfect application. To further cement the concept in my head, I decided to replicate the example with some of my favorite movies. I tried to use older movies to avoid spoilers. If you haven't see any of these and think you may still, then scroll past that example.

Aliens (1986 Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn)

The Inciting Incident – Lost contact with the colonists on LV426
The Initial Surface Problem – Colonists are farmed as alien hosts and the marines get attacked by aliens and get their butts kicked.
The Story-Worthy Problem – Trapped in the base, horde of attacking aliens likely to attack at dusk, emergency venting means the base will explode in 14 hours killing everyone—survive.

Stranger than Fiction (2006 Will Ferrel, Emma Thompson)

The Inciting Incident – Harold’s watch stops working and he hears the narrator say that the act of resetting the watch will bring about his imminent death.
The Initial Surface Problem – Harold must find out the other parts of the story the narrator is telling him in hopes of finding a way to change the ending, thus preventing his death.
The Story-Worthy Problem – Harold must leave the calculations and all the rules and all the precision behind and instead learn to suck all the marrow out of life. If he can do that, then it doesn’t matter if he dies.

The Matrix (1999 Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne)

The Inciting Incident – Mr. Anderson’s computer tells him to follow the white rabbit—and he does.
The Initial Surface Problem – Mr. Anderson is taken into custody by Agents where they plant a bug in him, via his navel.
The Story-Worthy Problem – Mr. Anderson needs to become Neo—the One who can save Zion.

Ladyhawke (1985 Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer)

The Inciting Incident – Philippe escapes the prisons of Aquila.
The Initial Surface Problem – He must help Navarre break into Aquila to kill the evil priest who cursed the knight and his lady.
The Story-Worthy Problem – Break the curse.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 Harrison Ford, Karen Allen)

The Inciting Incident – Army intelligence recruits Jones to find the Ark of the Covenant
The Initial Surface Problem – Finding/obtaining the headpiece for the staff of Ra (from his ex, Marion)
The Story-Worthy Problem – Find the Ark before the Nazis do. Prevent them from using it.

King Arthur (2004 Clive Owen, Keira Knightley)

The Inciting Incident – After 15 years of bondage, Bishop Germanius refuses to release the Knights from their service to Rome unless they do one more task.
The Initial Surface Problem – Save a prominent Roman family from the approaching Saxon army (located deep in the north of England and Woad territory).
The Story-Worthy Problem – Arthur’s journey to find his true self and become King of England (starting by defeating the Saxon army).

Star Trek (2009 Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana)

The Inciting Incident – Commander Pike appeals to Kirk’s ego and conflicting feelings about his father, prompting Kirk to join Star Fleet. “Your father was captain of a star ship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives including your mother and yours. I dare you to do better.”
The Initial Surface Problem – A distress call from Vulcan, all cadets called to duty.
The Story-Worthy Problem – Prevent Romulans from obliterating Earth.

The Hunger Games (2012 Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci)

The Inciting Incident – Katniss volunteers.
The Initial Surface Problem – Don’t die.
The Story-Worthy Problem – Win the Hunger Games and keep Peeta alive.

And as all good lessons go, here's a little homework for you.

Your Story: ________________________________________

The Inciting Incident --
The Initial Surface Problem --
The Story-Worthy Problem --

Do you agree with my conclusions? Let me know in the comments or share Your Story with us.

Again, this is what I've gleaned from only a quarter of the book, much more awaits us. Go forth and procure a copy for yourself.


Unknown said...

I just finished the book and think it's genius. I'm curious if Les Edgerton would agree with your assessments. I'm going through familiar stories and trying to identify the elements to cement the ideas from the book in my head.

Unknown said...

I'm curious if Les Edgerton would agree or disagree with your assessments. I'm not sure of all of them but I've been doing the same thing to try and get a handle on the idea. The problem is: a lot of stories don't seem to start with the inciting incident to me. Have you found the same?

Chris Todd Miller said...

Hey Trevor,

I would love to sit down with Mr. Edgerton and discuss his book. He may or may not agree with my assessments, but regardless, having done this examination has really helped me better formulate my stories.

I have found that some stories wait for a bit to introduce the inciting incident, but it does get introduced. In all of the manuscripts I've edited, I always call out the inciting incident, the surface problem, and the story worthy problem. This approach lends itself better to some genres over others. For instance, some fantasy or scifi novels take some time to do world building before getting to the inciting incident; or perhaps, it's author's preference. Whichever the approach, the best stories always seem to have those three elements, even if they come around later in the story.

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