One Conflict: One Story

Every screenplay must have one inciting incident—the initial conflict that happens that sends the protagonist on his or her journey to transformation. In other words, the protagonist is thrown from his or her normal every day world into a challenge or obstacle. This conflict is what shifts them into a new world, so that his or her old world is no longer the same. This conflict is what begins the story and causes the protagonist to act. You also want to remember that conflict is essential, but all conflict must be connected to the initial conflict for the story to work.

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Weak and/or unfocused conflict is problematic. If your story does not have a strong external conflict (the obstacle that comes between the protagonist and their goal), the script will not move forward, and then you will struggle to keep things exciting. Your story begins with the inciting incident, and if this is not clearly defined, you don’t have a story (ouch).

Here is a good checklist to follow:

  1. What’s your story’s external (plot) conflict?
  2. What is your protagonist’s emotional conflict?
  3. How do we see your hero battle the external conflict?
  4. Are the external conflict and the emotional conflict connected? How so?
  5. How do you dramatize the protagonist’s struggle with his or her emotional conflict?

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“The Inciting Incident always leads us to the Key Incident, which is the hub of the story line, the engine that powers the story forward. The Key Incident reveals to us what the story is about. All films can break down as such. The Key Incident will generally be the plot point at the end of Act One, but not always. One such example is Ordinary People. The entire screenplay revolves around the key incident of the drowning, which occurs before the story begins but is pieced together and finally seen in its totality at Plot Point II.” – Syd Field

The inciting incident is the beginning of your story. If you don’t have a clearly defined inciting incident, you don’t have a story. The inciting incident throws the protagonist from “the normal everyday world” into a challenge, an obstacle. Something shifts in his world so that his world is no longer the same. If you don’t flag a major shift (with huge dramatic stakes and passion), then you likely don’t have a story.

The inciting incident cues the audience/reader about what type of journey we’ll be going on. But, the journey is pointless if you don’t get your hero over the finish line…he or she must complete his or her goal. Generally, this happens somewhere between page 5 and 7. If by page 5, the theme is not stated CLEARLY, who your protagonist is, and what is his or her need (issue), with a goal in site, you’re going to have an issue with arching the story, the character and the resolution. In short—that will pose a MAJOR problem.

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