Inciting the Inciting Incident

I was eager for feedback from the writers’ circle last week and when I got it, I found it more confusing than helpful. “Your inciting incident arrives too late.” “Your character has a limited arc.” “Very marketable.” “Too ‘meta’.” “Great dialogue.” “Too much dialogue.” “Dialogue isn’t very strong.” Etc.

Many of these notes flew as a direct contrast to notes I got on my previous draft from a different set of writers. It all took some time for me to let it sink in. I don’t have a great deal of experience with receiving notes, but I’m beginning to get a feel for ’em – even when they contradict themselves.

Some notes, from certain people are exactly precise. Other notes from other talented writers, are off the mark, but upon closer look, seem to speak to a story problem on a much deeper subconscious level. Other notes can be dismissed outright.

Figuring out the difference between the three categories seems to be the trick – and it’s best not to lump a note into a particular category until some time has passed. It takes a while for the fog to lift.

My epiphany moment arrived last night on the couch while watching the pilot for Sleepy Hollow with Jazzy. Nothing in the pilot itself resembled my pilot for Room 31, but Sleepy Hollow’s episode and series’ inciting incident landed at the 4 minute mark (or page 4 in script terms).  

I realized that all the mishmash of notes I’ve been receiving for my pilot all came down to the timing of my inciting incident.

I stopped the episode and began to talk this out with Jazzy right there on the couch.

My pilot has two such incidents – one for the series, and one for the episode. They land about 20 pages apart, with the first arriving on page 22. How do I get one of ’em to land by page 4?

My thoughts then turned to the pilot for Boardwalk Empire. Like my pilot, the series moves slow, savouring the nuances of the environment. House of Cards is also a slow mover. Both these series are critically acclaimed. I strongly believe that I need screen time to bask in the nuances of the environment I created for my characters, otherwise all context is lost, and my theme falls short of the mark.

However, this is television. I have thirty seconds to capture your attention. I have two minutes to keep it. I have to pull out all the stops to make sure you come back after the commercial break.

It’s worth noting that both Boardwalk Empire and House of Cards have no commercial breaks. Still, the structure of both pilots grip you from the outset.

Boardwalk accomplishes this by jumping ahead in story time. There’s a gunfight over a truckload of booze – the ‘Canadian Club’ incident. It’s an event that sets the whole series in motion, and its tentacles reach forward, all the way into the conclusion of Season 2.

We see it, but we have no context for what it all means. The story then jumps back in time, to four days prior to the event. The story moves at a slower pace from there, basking in the world the writers painted for these characters. The audience is held captive knowing that some kind of big moment in everyone’s lives looms large on the horizon.

I need to do the same thing with Room 31. Let’s see the event that launches the series land on page 4. Jump back in time, then let the context of that event carry the story forward. I think a compelling tension between the present and the future can be created by having us know what’s going to happen before any of the characters do. It’ll be like watching a train wreck unfold in slow motion, and we, the audience, are powerless to slow the foreboding inertia.

It all adds up to one more layer of conflict.

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