As promised, here are the ways I’ve been coming to understand some of the basic building blocks of story–with a certain Tale as Old as Time as example. 🙂
1. The Inciting Incident
I first heard of this concept in a screenwriting class in college. This event is what gets the story going. It does not directly drive the entire story, and may not even be closely related to the bulk of the plot, but it gets the ball rolling. It usually happens at the very start of the story, but occasionally before the story begins, and always at least near the beginning. In Beauty and the Beast, I believe it is when Maurice, Belle’s father, is taken captive into the Beast’s castle. While Maurice’s captivity doesn’t last for much of the story, it gets the key events of the story rolling and leads to the (drum roll please)…
2. Key Incident
This event drives the story, leading to the major thrust of the plot—in this case, when Belle becomes the Beast’s captive in her father’s stead. Usually it happens 20-30 minutes into a movie, or ¼ (give or take) of the way into a book. If you imagine a one-sentence introduction to a story, the key incident would follow the “but when”—as in, “Despite being thought odd, Belle lives a peaceful life with her father in their tranquil French village, but whenher father is taken captive by an alarming Beast and Belle sets him free by offering herself as prisoner in his place, her life takes a turn that will leave her changed forever…” Okay, that was a spur-of-the-moment try, but you get the idea. Randy Ingermanson of the famous Snowflake Method calls the Key Incident the First Disaster—James Scott Bell calls it the First Doorway of No Return, I believe. All names for the same thing, helpful in their own ways.
In most stories, this happens about half-way through, some kind of turning point that pushes the story in a new direction and keeps things from getting boring—avoiding the dreaded “sagging middle.” In plays and musicals, I’ve noticed it tends to happen just before Intermission—to make sure the audience comes back to see the rest, I presume. In Beauty and the Beast, it would be when the Beast frightens Belle and causes her to run away, then follows her and rescues her from the wolves, leading to her tending to his injuries and a new tenderness and understanding between them. It’s a necessary development in the plot of the story—something significant hasto push Belle and the Beast from enemies to friends, and eventually falling in love, or the story couldn’t happen.
4. Third Disaster/Second Doorway of No Return
Most often truly a “disaster” of Randy Ingermanson’s three, this event commits the main character—and the story—to the ending, setting the tale on a relentless march toward the climax. The reader or viewer should feel a big “uh-oh” coming on at this point. (Well, conflict is the stuff of story, right?) In Beauty and the Beast, it would be when the Beast sets Belle free to find her father, a selfless change in his character which leads to the villagers learning about the Beast and setting out in a mob to kill him.
This is the point when the conflict reaches its absolute height, when it doesn’t appear things could get any blacker and a way out seems almost hopeless. But of course, as readers and viewers we hope and trust that it somehow isn’t—which is why we’re on the edge of our seats. And, in the most beloved and classic stories, hope does win out against all odds. In Beauty and the Beast, the climax comes when Gaston fights the Beast and fatally wounds him…and Belle whispers to the apparently dying Beast that she loves him, unknowingly breaking the spell and restoring the Beast and all his servants to what they were—or more than that, what they were intended to be, since he has changed from a selfish young prince to one with a noble and tender heart.
This is the “happily-ever-after,” or, sometimes, bittersweet ending. At any rate, the key conflict in the story is somehow resolved. This section is usually quite short, as once the central question is answered, little reason remains to stick around. In Beauty and the Beast, we see the servants returned to their fully human state and the joyous wedding of Belle and the Beast—oops!—Prince. 🙂
Part of me feels I should have seven points for a nicely rounded biblical number :), but I can only think of six. Can anyone think of a seventh important element I’ve omitted? Please comment and share!