When it comes to the construction of a solid story, there seems to be some confusion over how it actually begins. In an attempt to generalize and make easily accessible the idea of the initial plot point, many have reduced meaningful storytelling to a generic assumption that can cause confusion among new writers.
Often referred to as the Inciting Incident, this first plot point is typically described as the moment when the Protagonist’s world is turned upside-down, forcing them to react and engage in the story. At first glance, this principle sounds reasonable and helpful in the creation of a story.
Assumptions That Beg Questions
Robert McKee describes it as something that “radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” Blake Snyder calls it the “Catalyst” and describes it as a life-changing event that happens to or is witnessed by the Protagonist. John Truby defines it as an exterior event that causes the hero to take action. But what about a film like How To Train Your Dragon, where the assumed “Protagonist” (Hiccup) is the one who upsets the apple cart that is the world around him?
The Problem With Dragons
In How To Train Your Dragon, problems begin when young Hiccup inadvertently wrecks havoc on his hometown of Berk. As a result, the Vikings watch helplessly as many of the dragons escape with talons full of Nordic livestock. Nothing happens that Hiccup reacts to. A bomb doesn’t explode, a meteor doesn’t crash to the ground. There is no external incident that Hiccup is reacting to. In fact, the way it is presented it seems like raids like this happen on a pretty consistent basis.
If Hiccup had stayed put like he was told, the marauding dragons would not have made off with a majority of the Viking’s supplies and things would have continued on as they always have. His act of disobedience ignites the story’s central inequity and inspires the drive to train new recruits. But if Hiccup is the instigator of the story’s problem, how can the Inciting Incident be something that happens to him?
Confusing the Protagonist with Main Character
The problem lies with the popular notion the Main Character is also the Protagonist. These two concepts of story are not always one and the same. The Main Character represents the audience’s eyes into the story. The Protagonist is an objective character archetype whose main function in a story is to solve the Story Goal. In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup is the Main Character. His father, Stoick, is the Protagonist.
Protagonists are motivated to pursue the Story Goal and to consider the importance of doing so. Antagonists are motivated to prevent or avoid the Story Goal from happening and inspire others to reconsider their own motivations. The former sounds exactly like Stoick, the latter Hiccup. But wait…Hiccup as Antagonist?
The Central Inequity Creates The Story Goal
Hiccup’s opening attempt at glory breeds chaos, inspiring Stoick to pursue a new course of action. This new course, or Story Goal, can be described as Training the next generation of dragon killers. Why isn’t the Goal to find a new way to live with dragons? (thus securing Hiccup as Protagonist). Well for one, that motivation doesn’t really arrive until further along when the Second Act begins. Protagonists are motivated towards the goal from the very beginning of the story’s problem. Secondly, he isn’t so motivated to pursue a new way as much as he is to learn as much as he can in order to avoid having to kill dragons. Objective character functions are unchanging and consistent throughout the entire story. Understanding that, it is clear that Stoick is on a course of pursuit throughout, while Hiccup is motivated to avoid it.
In essence then, those original interpretations of the Inciting Incident were correct--the event does upset the Protagonist’s world, requiring them to pursue a course of action to resolve it. Their error was in assuming that the Protagonist is always the Main Character.
The utility (or futility) of the Central Dramatic Question
The central inequity is often referred to as a dilemma facing the Main Character: How can Hiccup learn to destroy these beasts at the same time he is befriending their most deadliest ally? While this question is interesting from an audience’s point-of-view, when it comes to writing a story, it becomes a little less than useful. Instead of thinking of it as creating a Central Dramatic Question, the Inciting Incident should be seen as something that sets up the story’s drive to resolve its central problem.
Thinking of this inequity as a Central Dramatic Question only becomes helpful after the fact, when looking at the story from the perspective of the audience. This is why many look to the works of story gurus and see them as counter-productive or unnecessary during the process of writing. On the other hand, thinking of this inequity as a problem that wishes to be solved becomes significantly more productive when sitting down to write. Suddenly the author knows what problems are at hand and can devise scenes that explore the best way to resolve them.
What an Inciting Incident really is
David Mamet comes closest when he speaks of “disordering events.” If stories are all about solving problems, then it only makes sense that there should be some genesis of that problem, some point at which the inequity of the story is created. This inequity exists because of the Inciting Incident.
Trying to establish it as something connected to the Protagonist, particularly when there is confusion between Protagonist and Main Character, can only serve to muddy the waters of effective and meaningful storytelling.
Without the Inciting Incident, there would be no story
Inciting events can come from anywhere and from anyone. Defining precisely what the reason for this initial spark is and the result of its introduction into the story can go a long way towards clearing up any inconsistencies within previous understandings of story. All this event must do is create the problem within the story at large. Whether it is something that happens to the Main Character or something they brought upon themselves, all that matters is that an inequity is created that every character in the story finds themselves wanting to resolve.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The Inciting Incident--or more precisely the first Story Driver--is tied to the Objective Story Throughline. As this is the domain of the Protagonist, it only makes sense that he or she would have some reaction to this initial upset. That much is clear and explains where this notion that it must be something the Protagonist reacts to comes from. But the purpose of such a dramatic device isn’t so much to make a connection between the Objective Story and the Protagonist as much as it is to set the initial inequity in motion. That is the purpose of the initial plot point. All else follows from this change.