I’ve been struggling with the second half of the first act of Carrion; specifically the inciting incident. According to Robert McKee “the inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” Brian McDonald in his book Invisible Ink describes the inciting incident as a curtain moment. A theatrical term denoting the point at which the curtain is dropped between acts. In theatre you have to get the audience back after the intermission “so acts end on the highest point, when the stakes are at their most desperate.” While both descriptions tell us that something needs to happen at this point in the story. Neither give you any real insight into what needs to happen. Personally I lean towards John Truby‘s interpretation. He calls the inciting incident the inciting event and describes it as a small step that “connects need and desire.” At the beginning of the story “when weakness and need are being established, the hero is paralysed in some way. You need some kind of event to jump-start the hero out of his paralysis and force him to act.” And since starting the redraft of Carrion I’ve been struggling to pin down the event that metaphorically takes Adam out of the frying pan and drops him in the fire. I had a whole slew of things going on in the fifteen minutes that lead up to this event. Adam discovering that Reiner murdered his daughter prompting Adam to take action against Reiner. Reiner making a direct attack on Christine forcing Adam to step in to protect her. I explored an infinite number of permutations based on this scenario. All ending with Christine attacked in some way forcing Adam to step in and save her. In the end it all seemed too complicated; demanding of too much exposition. None of the story-lines I envisaged ever really set up Adam’s desire correctly. It wasn’t until I started to think about this section and where it fits into the story that I started to get a handle on what the inciting event should be. At this point in the story Adam needs to see the kind of attack society is making on drug users. He needs to see first hand what is going to happen to Christine if he does nothing and goes along with prohibition. Once I’d realised this is what needs to happen in this section of the story things started to fall into place. Adam and Reiner are part of the squad that is tasked with picking up drug users. When Reiner is particularly vicious in his treatment of the users Adam gets his first glimpse of the coming storm. But the actual inciting event still alluded me until one morning. I woke up with the phrase “Adam has to choose Christine” in my head. I wrote it down and mulled it over for a while. The more I thought about it the more I realise it is the thing that connects Adam’s need and desire. The thing that takes him out of the frying pan and into the fire. He is given a choice; prohibition or Christine. If he chooses prohibition he is allowing her to die. From that point on Adam’s desire to save Christine really kicks in and the story is under way.
Over the last few weeks I have read both Robert McKee’s Story and John Truby’s The Anatomy Of Story. While reading these two books I have also been working though some ideas for redraft of Carrion. Not sure if it is a good idea to try and assimilate both treaties in quick succession while still writing, but as paid work has cut my writing time in half, I feel the need to keep pounding the keys, or lose whatever momentum I have trained into myself.
Prompted by what I have read, I started to think about the premise of Carrion. Truby assert that the premise “is your story stated in one sentence. It is the simplest combination of characters and plot and typically consists of some event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story.” On the other hand McKee asserts that the premise is simply “an open ended question: What would happen if… ?” For example. “What would happen if a shark swam into a beach resort and devoured a vacationer? JAWS.”
What Truby calls premise, McKee calls the controlling idea. “A controlling idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.” What McKee calls the controlling idea Truby calls the designing principle. “The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole. It is the internal logic of the story, what make the parts hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”
While both notions of premise make sense, Truby’s version sounds to me like the logline, and seems too detailed to be what McKee describes as “the idea that inspires the writer’s desire to create a story.” If Truby is right when he says “if your premise is weak, there is nothing you can do to save the story” I need to seriously rethink the foundations of Carrion.
When I first started work on Carrion. The initial inspiration came from an idea that they, the government, the powers of prohibition, genetically engineered insects to eat drugs. The whole script was written from that starting point. Characters, plot, dialogue, I now realise were built on shaky foundations. With insights I gained reading Truby, I now realise that drug eating insects was too nebulous an idea, and lacks any notion of what’s at stake in the story. With some work, and the help of McKee, I have come to another “what if” question, what if the war on drugs escalates into civil war?
According to Truby this is still not strong enough, and needs to be expanded to include the event that starts the action, some sense of the main character, and some sense of the outcome of the story. While I still have the character of Carrion’s previous draft, I know this draft has a different outcome. What it is I don’t know yet, but I do know I have a lot more work to do.
The thing I’ve realised while writing this is that while both Truby and McKee offer invaluable insights into the craft of screenwriting, neither has the definitive answer, but they are both useful as tools to clarify my own understanding.
I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story. McKee demonstrates a clarity of thought, and a level of certitude about what makes a good screenplay, that focuses your understanding. It took me a long time to commit, and read this cornerstone of screenwriting theory. I do that a lot, wilfully resist the imperative to do something just because people tell me I should.
I do it with films all the time. There are films I avoid just because people tell me I should see them. I did it with The Lives Of Others. I knew it was good, because everyone I spoke to told me it was good, but delaying its viewing made it all the better. Perhaps because all the hype that surrounded its release has died away, and let me see it with a certain freshness.
It could be that I just wasn’t ready. I have never really seen an Ingmar Bergman film. I know I should, but I have never been able to make that commitment. McKee talks about Bergman a lot. He makes the point that a neophyte audience find Bergman’s films difficult. You need a certain amount of life experience to be able to appreciate them.
The reason I haven’t seen one of his films could be something altogether different. In this world of now, where we get everything in an instant, delaying gratification has become something of an art. It’s the only antidote to the constant demand for our attention. I think it’s good it’s necessary to have something you know will pay dividends when you finally get to it, something that you hold in reserve until it is absolutely the right moment.
So next time you are told about a film you must see, perhaps hold off a while. See how much sweeter it is when you finally get to it.