WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

THE SPARK OF LIFE


Your story has to start somewhere, right?

You have a protagonist - a really great character that you have created and just can't wait to get them involved in a story. You've come up with a whole bunch of great scenes, too... but how do you get your story started? You need one of those things screenwriting gurus call "the inciting incident". Can you just come up with some random event that kicks things off? All you need is something to get your protagonist into trouble, right? Something that creates a conflict so that you can use all of those cool scenes you've come up with. Can you just flip through a newspaper and find an inciting incident?

Nope. That's the scene that sparks the whole story - the entire rest of the script will be about that scene. If you think about chase thriller movies like MINORITY REPORT and BOURNE IDENTITY those scenes that trigger the chase end up being what the story is really about - they are thematic. Those movies are not about the chase scenes, they are about destiny and identity... the elements created by the inciting incident. That event is the spark of life for your screenplay... and that spark determines everything else in the story!

In MINORITY REPORT what gets the hero on the run is the system which sees crimes in advance - it is never wrong - and it sees that the hero will kill a man. That not only sets our hero on the run, it's also what creates the theme and every single scene that follows. It's not just an excuse to get the story started - it's the scene that CREATES the rest of the story. The spark of life.

The reason why they are after the protagonist, the goal for the protagonist (the way he will prove he's innocent will be in that scene), the theme, and the emotional conflict for the protagonist. That's the whole danged story! You have to come up with the inciting incident that uses the themes that YOU want to explore. That way you're telling YOUR story and not some random story that has nothing to do with your protagonist and your scenes. That spark of life is the CAUSE OF THE CONFLICT and that makes it the CAUSE OF THE STORY. You can't just pick something at random out of a newspaper, you have to carefully select the incident that will spark the story you want to tell.

The spark of life in THE FUGITIVE sets up the entire rest of the movie. Everything comes from the scene where his wife is murdered and that WAY his wife is murdered.

1) The one armed man is sent to kill Dr. Richard Kimble - but he's not home. So the one armed man kills Kimble's wife....

2) Kimble comes home, fights with the one armed man... who escapes.

3) Kimble's wife dies... and all of the evidence points to Kimble as the killer. He is the only one who saw the one armed man.

4) The rest of the film is Kimble searching for the one armed man who killed his wife. He is the only one who believes the one armed man exists.

5) No one will believe Kimble about the one armed man... and therein lies the theme - Lt. Girard doesn't believe Kimble... but grows to believe him as the story goes on.

6) When he finally discovers one armed man, he also discovers that he (Kimble) was the intended victim... because he discovered the false data in the drug research.

So the murder of his wife and the method by which she was killed is what CREATES the rest of the story in THE FUGITIVE. The thing that sets the story in motion - the Inciting Incident - is too important to leave to some random idea. The spark of life in a rom-com is the thing that brings them together AND keeps them apart - that's going to be the most important thing in your entire script! It's fate in SERENDIPITY, it's that road trip in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, it's the wedding in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING. You really need to give it a great deal of thought because it is the thing that creates the rest of the story and contains the theme the whole script will be exploring. That is the scene that gives your story life so treat it with the reverence it deserves.

Since that spark, the inciting incident, is what *creates* your story, your story can't really start until we've had that spark, right? Before the spark is before the story. Pre-story. How much pre-story can we have before the audience begins to fidget in their cinema seats and wonder when something is going to happen?

THE INCITING INCIDENT

The inciting incident is that element that creates the conflict... and story is conflict, so you can't really have a story without one. There are two theories on inciting incidents: character and story, and we look at both in my TERMINATOR book.

The Character version has the inciting incident be when the conflict reaches the protagonist... when the protagonist is forced to deal with the conflict, struggles with the conflict, and eventually must solve the conflict (or maybe the conflict “solves them” and the bad-guys win if this is a tragedy). This version opens with the protagonist in every day life and follows them until the conflict reaches them... which may be a quarter of the way into the story. Unfortunately, in poorly structured stories it is often even later.

The Story version has the inciting incident when the conflict is created, even if the protagonist isn’t involved yet. Because we begin with the conflict and then see the protagonist in their every day life, tension is created as the conflict grows closer and closer to the protagonist and eventually engulfs them. We still get all of the character scenes, but now they are more exciting because we know that conflict is out there.

I prefer the Story version, because it ensures that we get to the conflict quickly and don’t have a couple dozen minutes of boring character stuff where there is no conflict.

THE TERMINATOR is a great example of the Story version, because it begins with the introduction of the antagonist (the Terminator) and that gives us instant conflict. A strange electric storm and the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) appears - naked - rises up, walks to look over all of Los Angeles below. The naked Terminator walks up to the three punks (one is the late Bill Paxton, who was a regular in James Cameron films) at the Griffith Park Observatory playing with a coin operated telescope, what’s wrong with this picture? “Nice night for a walk, eh?” The Terminator repeats that. “Wash day tomorrow? Nothing clean, right?” The Terminator repeats that as well, and since they’re on the subject, “Your clothes... give them to me, now.” One of the punks pulls out a knife, “Fuck you, asshole!” The Terminator punches his hand *into* that punk and lifts him off of his feet... then drops him to the ground. He gets the clothes. A version of this scene plays out in most of the movies - the “birth” of the Terminator.

Had we used the Character version, we might have started our story with Sarah Connor, waitress; and shown her life... she goes to work, she has a roommate, she gets stood up on a date, she goes out for pizza alone, she sees on the news that someone is killing women named Sarah Connor... and now we have a conflict.

But that pizza parlor scene happens over 26 minutes into the film. Do you really want to watch 26 minutes of Sarah’s life without any real conflict? Okay, there’s that kid in the restaurant she works in who puts ice cream in her pocket, and she then gets stood up on a date, and her pet lizard gets loose... but those are not the type of conflicts that make a story. Sarah is a normal person leading a normal life... a boring life. The problem with focusing on her normal life for the first quarter of the story is that it is boring. Mundane. The sort of life that the audience lives. Heck, if they wanted to see that, they could have saved buying a ticket and stayed at home.

If you look at the basic concept of this film it is all about the Terminator being sent back in time to kill Sarah, not about Sarah’s day-to-day problems. So the Story version of Inciting Incident is the only thing that makes sense... and the Character version is usually where Act 2 kicks in. We want to start our story when the conflict starts... and that’s when the Terminator arrives and does his unusual clothes shopping.

So when is our inciting incident? Well, technically it is probably in 2029 when Skynet decides to send the Terminator back to kill Sarah. Before the movie even starts! But for purposes of this story, it’s when the Terminator shows up to hunt Sarah - which is the beginning of the movie... or maybe when Kyle Reese grabs a phone book and looks up Sarah Connor eleven minutes into the film. That’s when we know that this typical young waitress is actually the center of the storm that is coming her way. And in that 10 minute range is about right for an inciting incident.

This brings up another basic element of how this story works... and how all stories work. If story is conflict and the antagonist brings the conflict... the antagonist is the most important character in your story. There *isn’t* a story in this film without the Terminator. The first three films in this series are about an assassin from the future sent back in time to kill our protagonist, and the relentless chase and action which ensues. If you remove those three different Terminators, what’s the story? The big problem with the fourth film was that there was no antagonist... and it just meanders. No matter what the genre, a story needs an antagonist or a force of antagonism that creates the conflict and drives the story.

A story needs an active antagonist (or force of antagonism) - who is the villain, what is their plan? In most action and thriller scripts, the villain's plan is what fuels the plot. What Sarah Connor’s goals are isn't nearly as important as what the Terminator's goal is - to kill every woman in Los Angeles named Sarah Connor. Even Kyle Reese's goal - to stop the Terminator - is a reaction to the villain's plan. You can't stop what hasn't started or what doesn’t exist! If you removed the villain's plan, Reese has no reason to go back in time (and John Connor would never have been born - what a conundrum!) This makes the villain or antagonist or force of antagonism the most important character in your script.

Because the villain's plan is the fuel for the story, that plan has to be something that makes sense. It must be well motivated and *understandable*. On the surface, killing every woman in Los Angeles named Sarah Conner seems crazy... but we learn that one of these Sarahs will give birth to John Connor, who will lead the attack against Skynet in the future. So killing all of these women named Sarah Connor is an act of self preservation for the Terminator. That's a motivation we understand - it makes sense. If the villain's plan doesn't makes sense, neither will your story. The key to a great villain is having them fully fleshed out, even if that flesh is over a metal ectoskeleton. Though the audience may never consciously stop to think about the Terminator’s motivation, it makes sense on a subconscious level. I always say that you don’t have to tell the audience what the antagonist’s motivation is, but the writer has to know in order to keep the character consistent. We have to know what makes our characters tick.

Some structure methods like Hero’s Journey use the character version of Inciting Incident and spend the first quarter of the story in the protagonist’s normal life... and though that might work on some stories where the protagonist has an exciting normal life, it doesn’t work well if the protagonist is as ordinary as their ordinary world. The same year that TERMINATOR was released, we met Axel Foley in BEVERLY HILLS COP in his ordinary world... with a character scene showing just how relentless and possibly crazy Foley is when catching crooks. If the character is interesting enough you can start your story showing their normal life.

We need to open our stories in an exciting and involving way or we will lose the audience and the reader... and if we have lost the reader there is probably never going to be a reader! So it is important to hit the ground running - to begin any story regardless of genre with something that will hook the reader. It doesn’t have to be a naked killing machine from the future, it could be a girl who has never really been kissed dreading her upcoming 16th birthday, or a gadget salesman looking for the perfect gift for his son in a Chinatown curio shop (to name two other hit films from the year TERMINATOR was released). We want to get to the “good part” of our stories as quickly as possible. If you have an ordinary character in an ordinary world, like Sarah Connor, waiting 25 minutes or 25 pages before anything interesting happens is liable to make the audience walk out or the reader stop reading. So in most cases, starting with story not only makes the script more exciting to read, it makes the normal life of the protagonist more involving. When we see Sarah Connor as this waitress with roommate problems leading her boring life, we wonder how she will ever survive this killing machine from the future! The contrast tool kicks in. We know how dangerous the conflict is because that was introduced first... and *this* is the person who must defeat that conflict? Now every boring part of her life reinforces how much danger she is going to be in when the story and character intersect 26 minutes into the film. Starting with the story conflict creates suspense during the scenes where the character is introduced.

As I point out in the “Hook ‘Em In Ten” Blue Book - what makes AMERICAN BEAUTY work is that we know from the first minute that the protagonist will be killed in one year - that this is the last year of their life. That turns a normal character into a fascinating character. This guy is gonna die! Knowing that the Terminator is killing everyone named Sarah Connor turns her from someone like you or me into the most interesting character on earth. Why her? That creates mystery as well as suspense around the character. Why is this killing machine from the future coming after a waitress with roommate issues? By starting with the conflict, we actually increase the interest in the character and make the story *more* character focused.

That’s just the beginning of the first film, the book looks at theme and action scenes and characters and everything else in the all five films in the TERMINATOR movies and previews the new film DARK FATE. We want to start our story when the conflict starts... and that's when the Terminator arrives. THE FUGITIVE doesn't begin with a half hour of Kimble and his wife living their every day life and then have her killed on page 26, it begins with conflict... and the specific conflict that sparks the rest of the story!

That spark of life not only creates the begining of your story, it creates the end and everything in between.



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Script Secret Store SCRIPT SECRETS STORE From Typing Monkey coffee cups to messenger bags to T shirts - everything a screenwriter needs to look sharp while working on that Oscar nomination! Get your Script Secrets Coffee Cup today!

BILL'S CORNER

My nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines, several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
...............................BILL'S CORNER


Available Scripts

E BOOKS PAGE

bluebook E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there will soon be novels.
E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES

BOOKLETS & PRODUCTS

bluebook FIRST STRIKE BLUE BOOKS
Each Blue Book is 48 pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
Seventeen Blue Books now available!

THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING OUT OF PRINT!