Launching a Story With an Inciting Incident

Most stories open with an attention-getting beat that reveals something likeable about the main character or the evil of the uber bad guy that he’ll face. This is followed by a series of scenes that demonstrate what the main character’s normal life is like. But audiences won’t hang on too long when it comes to emotionally flat experiences, so within a short time the storyteller must launch the main story using an inciting incident.

The inciting incident is a dynamic event or fully developed moment that radically upsets the main character’s status quo. The clear and obvious trigger throws the main character’s life out of balance. This action-based circumstance can either happen to the main character or be an unexpected ramification of a decision he makes.

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The inciting incident can be simple like receiving a letter, diagnosis, pink slip, or phone call. In Star Wars, the inciting incident was a hologram of Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan for help. Luke Skywalker was intrigued by her plea and decided that he was going to help her.

A successful inciting incident, not one that is stagnant or vague, drives the main character to make a decision that will change his life forever. The specific event places him on a story path of obstacles that turns his weakness into a strength. The event also raises the central question of the movie for the first time. In the case of Star Wars, the question is, “Will Luke help or save the princess?”

The single event must also cause the main character to clearly see that his life is now out of balance for better or worse. He must not only react to this positive or negative change, but he must respond as well. In other words, the incident must arouse a desire in him to restore the balance in his life, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—or all three.

The main character is therefore compelled to pursue his new goal of rebalancing his life. This stimulation becomes both a conscious and a subconscious desire. The subconscious driving force comes naturally for a complex character and shows up in the form of him suffering from an intense internal battle, especially if his conscious desire is in direct opposition or conflict with his subconscious desire.

Some writers refer to this internal battle as reflecting the character’s wants versus his needs. Many times the human condition causes us to chase after our wants, only to learn that we got what we needed instead. This righting of the unbalanced internal desire presents itself in a plot twist on screen—allowing for a realistic ending, while still pleasing the audience.

The key to developing an inciting incident is to make sure it launches a compelling character goal that will hold the audience’s attention and drive the story. The goal must be something that the main character can’t discard, because if he does, lots of innocent people will suffer—developing empathy within the hearts of the audience.

The trigger must do more than make the main character care. He must take action. If he merely cares, the story will fail to cause the audience to care, hindering the film’s box office results. This makes the inciting incident an important factor in developing a feature length story. Unfortunately many independent filmmakers treat inciting incidents as an insignificant piece of the story and wonder why their film doesn’t keep the audience’s attention for its duration.

© Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

Confident Creations

© Peter Kim - Fotolia.comI recently coached a young filmmaker who wrote a short story that demonstrated a significant amount of confidence in his work. The artistic choices were bold and he didn’t allow any inexperience to slow his approach. The script was resolute in his desire to thrill the audience. The boldness of the character alone was enough to capture the audience’s attention as he struggled to discover what had happened to him.

This confidence in one’s art comes from practice and exploration. There is no other teacher that can raise the tone necessary for the proper development of a story. An internal boldness must surface in order to birth a vision of magnitude.

“The more you practice, learn, and make discoveries, the more confident you will be!” —Tim Delaney, Concept Development

Confidence is not the sole key to successfully developing a story. All creations need to take on a life of its own and transform throughout, as the plot points are ticked off, heading diligently toward the climax.

However, the backbone of any good story rises from the creator’s viewpoint and must stay intact, yet flexible. In this case, the filmmaker chose to shoot a short film in order to entice investors or distributors to bring a feature version of his story to the silver screen. He purposely left out the ending of the short story to enhance the audience’s desire to see the feature to find out how things end.

While raising a central, unanswered question certainly seeds a desire for more, it doesn’t prove that the filmmaker knows how to tell a complete story. If I were investing, I’d watch his short film and realize that he has a beginning, middle, and no ending. I’d feel ripped off and wonder if the feature will also leave the audience hanging or unsatisfied.

His choice isn’t uncommon. There is a trend in filmmakers leaving short films open ended. While it’s unsettling to the audience, it shifts the focus from the director’s ability to tell a story to his ability to make something look and feel cool. Many young filmmakers are more interested in the look and feel of a project than in giving the audience a resolving end to the story.

Unfortunately, films with only a beginning and middle do poorly at the box office. Even short films with solid endings outperform “impact films” 10 to 1. One reason is that a person won’t tell others about a film that doesn’t resolve. Very few will watch the film a second time because the impact is only good at the first viewing. All subsequent viewings require a satisfying ending.

The film or the creation must be crafted with skill and confidence to be effective, but it also must have an ending to elicit ticket sales. Otherwise, the audience will be much smaller and the film seldom watched more than once.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

Easter Movies to Watch and Avoid

This Easter season will once again bring an influx of faith-based films to a theater near you. Several of the films will gear up with tremendous hype and false marketing, not out of choice, but rather out of ignorance—blind to the promotional materials not matching their films.

Since I’ve already endured the bad films, there’s no reason why you should find yourself suffering, too. Here are a few tips of what to watch and avoid.

I-CanI Can Only Imagine—WATCH

(March 16, 2018—I’ll give it 4 out of 5 stars)

Out of all the faith-based films being released this season, I Can Only Imagine is the one worth seeing. The film tells the true life story of how the band Mercy Me got started and how the title song became the number one Contemporary Christian hit single of all time.

The best part of the film was watching Dennis Quaid (The Rookie; The Parent Trap; Yours, Mine and Ours), known for happy protagonist roles, play the antagonist—showing off his true acting chops. In fact, his performance was so good that I bought into his creepiness and got a little weirded out, wondering what in his life he might have drawn from to pull off such a nasty character. Quaid’s performance alone is worth the ticket price.

That’s not to say the entire film was great. The story had a hard time getting started and the director clearly struggled with how to end the film, resulting in three back-to-back endings. The standard practice for creating a clean ending is done by making sure all of the subplots resolve prior to the start of the ending sequence. If you only have time to see one Easter movie, pick this one.

PaulPaul Apostle of Christ—AVOID

(March 23, 2018—I’ll give it 2.5 out of 5 stars)

All of the eggs were placed in this big budget Easter basket and stars Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ, Person of Interest) who plays Luke. With so much at risk, there will be a lot of promotional money thrown at the public to launch this costly production. Unfortunately, the funds didn’t show up on the screen. And the story… you’ll be confused during the first 30-40 minutes as you try to figure out what the film is about.

The secret… the film is a story about Luke, but it’s being promoted as a story about Paul. The main character that interacts with the supporting characters is Luke, and Paul is only used as the archetype or the wise counsellor—the Obi-Wan Kenobi, if you will. The story takes place in Paul’s last week before his beheading, a time when he has Luke write his final letters.

There is a tremendous amount of artistic license taken in the film, so don’t expect to drink in the moments as if you’re watching the reenactment of Scripture. The reality of Christian suffering is softened with all the bad scenes taking place off camera. And, the number of people nodding off during the screening I attended was massive. Can you say boring and confusing? Don’t waste your time on this one.

Gods_Not_DeadGod’s Not Dead 3—AVOID

(March 29, 2018—I’ll give it a generous 3 out of 5 stars)

God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness never gets the audience to care about the main character. Nor does the audience know why the film is supposed to be important. In other words, this is a TV movie that’s been placed on the silver screen in hopes of it becoming an event film for Easter. Or, the producers are trying to force the trilogy to become a franchise, even though it’s not trending in social media or at the box office (Film 1 $60MM, Film 2 $20MM, Film 3 TBD).

The film gets close to touching on some important issues, but it never takes the time to explore any of it in a depth useful for the audience.

While the budget is supposed to be bigger than its freshman and sophomore counterparts, the story wasn’t properly crafted for the big screen. The film used small screen story structure and stereotypical character development. Within the first five minutes of the film you know how the story will end. In a case like that, the director must get the audience desiring to see how it will unfold, but he didn’t.

Tomb_Raider_(2018_film)Non-Religious Films Competing for Audiences

The films with the greatest chance of drawing in families, regardless of controversy, are the following:

  • Tomb Raider—March 16, 2018
  • A Wrinkle in Time—March 23, 2018
  • Ready Player One—March 30, 2018

These movies are all being promoted as event films for the entire family, but be careful to discuss the stories after watching, so no one accepts the liberal messages without due consideration. The studios know that making high quality, popular films is ideal for delivering their agenda and changing the culture, so expect an attempt for clear, easy to swallow messages being salted into the movies.

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Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

 

Selecting The Best Story Angle

The Angle of StoryI have a friend that found an incredible story that’s worthy of being developed into a screenplay. When he first told me about the true events, he talked about it from the perspective of the children. After chatting on the phone with the family, he shared the story again, but this time from the mindset of the mother. When he introduced me to one of the children, I heard the story from the father’s viewpoint. It was clear that the real life elements, or story beats, were significant enough to impact everyone in the family, giving us several choices in how to develop the motion picture.

After analyzing the information presented, I broke the elements down by each potential story angle to determine which one was best for the film. The categories I used included emotional beats, high stakes at risk, and entertainment value for the audience. The weighting of each category helped determine from what angle the story would be told.

EMOTIONAL BEATS

Film is an emotional medium that requires a story with passionate and poignant twists and turns. While beginning filmmakers think the story must first drive home a valuable message, it’s the emotional throughline that earns the right for the filmmaker to speak a message into the audience’s lives through the B-plotline. Those who try to craft the message within the action plotline soon find their story meanders or falls flat. The action plotline must take the audience on an emotional roller coster ride to properly make use of the medium. The film should therefore be from the perspective that drives the main character through a series of actions that heighten the emotional appeal and the story’s consequences.

Some of the films with clear emotional beats include: Les Misérables, Star Trek 2009, The Blind Side, The Darkest Hour, Schindler’s List, and The Wizard of Oz. These stories were well developed and crafted for the screen. The films were visual and hit every story beat that takes an audience on a journey of exploration. The stories argued both sides of a specific message in a way that enticed the audience to side with the filmmaker’s beliefs.

HIGH STAKES AT RISK

The character with the most to lose typically finds themselves in circumstances that amps up the volume of the emotional beats. This is critical to drive the story to its climatic conclusion. While stories typically have comic relief or temporary lulls in the action, so the audience can catch their breath, the story must be driven by choices that turn into physical and visual action. A “talking-head” plotline, where the main character spews forth nothing more than teachable moments, does not move the story forward or raise the stakes. The throughline must overcome the rule of diminishing returns, which is only possible by raising the stakes.

The rule of diminishing returns relates to the weakening of the audience’s buzz. The college student who gets his first car is excited to drive a secondhand clunker because its his. When after graduation he gets a normal car, he finds it difficult to get excited if he has to drive a clunker again. After a wonderful promotion and driving his upscale company car, the newly married driver struggles to find the excitement in driving the minivan on weekends. With every increased excitement, comes the rule of diminishing returns that makes it harder to generate the same buzz experienced in past events.

P.T. Barnum was a showman who used the rule of diminishing returns to his advantage. Everything he did had to increase its shock value to draw in an audience during the depressed era. Curiosity drove the people to purchase tickets over and over again as Barnum kept increasing the amazing acts within his show. Film is the same way. The audience must be taken on a journey that continues to amaze. The good news is that a director can use techniques to reset the audience’s expectations before every emotional increase so his story doesn’t get out of control.

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE

At today’s high ticket prices and costly cable packages, audience’s demand their monies worth. They want to be taken on a journey that they’ve never been on before or introduced to a character that they can learn about for the first time. To accomplish this goal all stereotypes must be dropped by the filmmaker. He also must find ways of allowing his unique character to directly impact the plot based on his or her choices. The audience must find the story fun in order to watch it a second time, or stirring enough for those who like to have a good cry. A great story with fantastic production values are always at the top of the box office list or award categories—due largely to the embedded entertainment value.

The Oscar nominated film, The Shape of Water, takes the audience on a alien-like journey in time during the Cold War. The audience is also introduced to a compassionate, mute woman. Her unique circumstances and personal drive grabs the audience’s attention, whether they agree or disagree with her life choices. While the film is a far left propaganda piece, it’s entertainment value drives curiosity among conservatives who may revisit their political views after watching the filmmakers perspective.

Developing a cinematic story with great emotional beats, high stakes at risk, and emotional value, earns the filmmaker the right to speak into the audience’s life. The result is consideration by the audience of the filmmaker’s argument, but only when the picture is properly developed using the above proven elements.

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Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

Developing A Cinematic Story

Developing A Cinematic StoryIndependent filmmakers are known to dive into projects without fully developing their story. Some come up with a cool scene idea and toss together a film to facilitate what’s in their mind’s eye for that 2-3 minute segment. The words that flow from their lips two years later is something like, “It didn’t quite turn out the way I pictured.”

The reason is elementary: Film is an argument, and the scene didn’t attempt to address anything worth arguing about.

The first place I’d check out, if given a new time machine, would be that large room where the Constitution of the United States was argued. I can imagine a group of passionate men fueled by their ideals on freedom of speech and religion, and the increasing weight of taxation without representation. It was a venue of the greatest arguments in the history of our country.

Great films cover both sides of an argument. The development process determines how the filmmaker will visualize the argument and lead the audience from a general understanding of the topic to his perspective. But most independent filmmakers can’t tell you what their film argues, which gives insights into why their film will fail at the box office.

A couple months ago, I watched an independent film that will fail during its release this summer because the story’s argument wasn’t explored with the audience, but rather was covered over by 22 unrelated messages. In fact, the argument was so underdeveloped that it took me the first 45 minutes of the film to determine who the main character was and his goal.

Here are a few guidelines that I’d like to suggest to new filmmakers for their consideration during the development phase of their motion picture:

  1. Determine what your film will argue.
  2. List all key points of the argument from every vantage point or perspective.
  3. Determine what view you’d like the audience to hold when leaving the theater.
  4. Select the strongest or most widely-held opposing argument for your antagonist.
  5. Create an 8-step flowchart that moves a person from an opposing viewpoint to your perspective, starting with their belief and ending with yours.
  6. Brainstorm a character that can best move the audience from the start box to the end box of the flowchart in a way that leads the audience to embrace his process.
  7. Based on the above, write a premise that can drive the action or movement of the film.

A simple way to develop a premise is to use an outline similar to the following:

[Title] is a [genre] about a [hero] who, after [big beat that happens to hero], wants to [hero’s desire] by [hero’s plan], which becomes increasingly difficult because of [obstacles/complications].

This quick formula will get your story launched in your mind’s eye and help you to immediately see if the story can be further developed. Here is a sample using The Fugitive that I tweaked for readability.

The Fugitive is a thriller about an innocent doctor who, after being sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife, escapes to find the real murderer, which becomes increasingly difficult with a determined Marshall hot on his trail.

Once you have your argument and premise, the next step is to determine how to weave the two ideas into a compelling story. The throughline will drive the audience’s interest, and the visual depiction of the argument will alter their perception of culture and their future life choices—that is, if the story is well crafted.

A well-designed argument that takes a person from a common view to your perspective is entertaining and can help audiences make culturally significant life changes. Since the motion picture is an argument, it’s easy to see why films have driven our culture for over a hundred years.

Our rich history of cinema suggests that filmmakers must learn how to properly develop their stories for the silver screen. To help encourage filmmakers move in that direction, I’m going to pull together some steps worth sharing in future blogs.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

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Film Marketing Shifts to Becomers

CJ presents workshopLast weekend I taught a four-hour workshop on the 7 Secrets of Impacting a Film’s Story. The room had filmmakers from several genres present including far right Christian and far left LGBT. One of the Q&A topics that came up was all too familiar: Why are faith-based films so bad?

I gave the first obvious answer about how Christian filmmakers focus so much on the message that they leave out the story. I also defined story based on story structure standards:

Action + Emotion = Story

(By the way, to achieve action a film must have conflict, which faith-based filmmakers fear and avoid.)

Then I pointed out the second most obvious answer about how the message must be lightly salted into the B-plot rather than dumping massive doses into the A-plot, as Christian filmmakers love to do – Reducing their audience to a handful of religious Baby Boomers.

I also pointed out that Blue is the Warmest Color, a lesbian film, did a great job of lightly salting their message into the B-plot. The film received great acclaim and touched millions of Millennials internationally.

The filmmakers who know how to structure and salt their message within the story are the ones who will change the future of our planet. Those few, are also on top of the latest marketing trends, while most “Christian markets” are now 12 years behind the trends. It used to be ten years behind, but the latest marketing push for Christian films included 12-year-old techniques.

The “Becomers” are the fastest growing marketing segment within the Millennials. They are the ones now coming into power and will determine the fate of our planet over the next 20-40 years. I have yet to find a single Christian filmmaker who is addressing this group, yet the LGBT groups have been researching and seeking them for the past two years.

The Gen-Xers have dissipated from marketing models and were split. They either ended up lumped in with Baby Boomers or mixed into the Millennials. As a group, they were depowered and only had a short-term presence driving the business market. This resulted in shifting control to the Becomers.

The Becomers are the older Millennials who are currently positioned to change the marketplace in all industries. They are the ones who don’t attend church. They believe in truthful facts, but don’t care about it unless there is a narrative that guides their acceptance of the facts.

In other words, to get them into church required a very different approach that Baby Boomers wouldn’t fund or accept, as it would change their religious experiences. Some pastors created new churches aimed solely at Millennials and grew strong, but those congregations were mostly void of controlling Baby Boomers.

This dichotomy between church groups arises from marketplace conditions and decisions, which is the same issue now driving faith-based films. The Baby Boomers control the budgets, the Christian filmmakers are ignorant about the Becomers, and the combined groups are having fun creating films that don’t impact society. These new films have little ability to stand the test of time based on societal norms.

The trend is getting worse. Baby Boomers are now funding ten times more irrelevant films, while convincing themselves that they are making a difference in our culture. However, the LGBT groups continue to make a smaller quantity of films that make a significant impact in our culture. The differences are limited to how a message is crafted within a story: subtly or overtly.

The “how” can easily change if and when new Christian filmmakers, that understand story structure, step up to the plate. Unless, that is, current Christian filmmakers scare away the audience by promoting one thing, while delivering another – A new common and unethical, yet self-justified, practice.

The key is that the new breed of filmmakers must understand the Becomers and how to market to them. Then again, I have five screenplays written for Becomers and cant’ find any Baby Boomers to fund the projects, so maybe having understanding isn’t enough.

Of course, I’ve been told that if I change the stories to fit the faith-based market I’ll get funded, but then it would no longer attract the Becomers and sway their future to something more wholesome and moral. So, my scripts collect dust and I continually get told that I need to conform to the “right” way of writing screenplays, you know, the way it was done 12-15 years ago.

Wake up!

Those days are over and bringing back old strategies is foolish. Don’t you know the parable about the wineskins? It won’t work. Instead, learn from the LGBT producers who are succeeding at changing our world. They know exactly who the Becomers are and how to reach them. And most Christian filmmakers I’ve met don’t even know the Becomers exist or that they are being given control of the market’s future.

Okay, that’s enough. Let me know if you’re interested in funding a film written for Becomers that will introduce time proven morals into the lives of those coming into power.