John Yorke's New Book. Plus: Win A Three-Day Course With Him!

Some writers worship at the altar of script structure, toiling over their inciting incidents and midpoints, while others go out of their way to shun that kind of thing.  The latter bunch often worry that overly prescriptive structural tenets will limit their creativity and reduce their work to formulaic pap.

John Yorke has written a book which makes a great case for the whole Structure Vs No Structure debate being based on a false dichotomy.  We all, John argues, end up adhering to fundamental, ingrained story principles, whether we consciously do so or not.  The man's an expert on this stuff, being the Managing Director of Company Pictures and the former Head of Channel 4 Drama and Controller of BBC Drama Production.  He also founded the BBC Writers' Academy in 2005, where he gained something of a reputation for being a story structure evangelist.

Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story, the new Penguin book, suggests that John's reputation is far from the whole story.  While he is clearly fascinated - okay, obsessed - by what makes stories work and the underlying patterns which unite them, he doesn't insist that you have to do X on Page Y.  He's certainly not one of those gurus.  He does argue, as I said, that certain story shapes are inevitable, but as his introduction states, "It's important to assert that writers don't need to understand structure.  Many of the best have an uncanny ability to access story shape unconsciously, for it lies as much within their minds as it does in a nine-year-old's.  This isn't a book advocating its conscious use.  Its aim is to explore and examine narrative shape, ask how and why it exists..."

John Yorke, yesterday
What follows is fascinating and might well blow your mind.  John's thoughts about the writer's instinct are very much in tune with my own: the more story we absorb and the more story we create, the wiser and more informed our judgement calls become.  The good news is that storytelling instincts are arguably innate: John cites the example of a nine-year-old boy improvising a very short story which nevertheless followed classical storytelling structure.  For writers, what matters even more than the original idea is the way in which they choose to execute that idea.  There may be infinite ways to do it, but experience and instinct will help us pick the one which feels right.  That's why, when veterans like Russell T Davies or Tony Jordan are up against a deadline and have their basic story idea, they'll know almost immediately how to frame it, how to break it down and how best to serve it.

Into The Woods is highly recommended even for those who have read every Syd Field, Robert McKee and Christopher Vogler book in the universe, not just because of its authority and insight, but because it strives to uncover why classical storytelling structure exists, its surprisingly long history and its relationship to the ways in which human beings decode the world.  John's writing style is nicely conversational and it's great to see more recent examples from TV and film - Line Of Duty and Attack The Block, to name but two - cited alongside the usual suspects like Macbeth and The Godfather.

John is launching a brand new online Storytelling For Television course as a companion piece to Into The Woods.  Running for 16 weeks from September, it can be undertaken by anyone anywhere in the world and aims to offer "practical ways of applying the theories of the book to create compelling stories".

As it's been a while since an important new book on writing emerged, I'm in a celebratory mood.  Competition time! One lucky reader of this blog will win a two-and-a-half-day course with John Yorke in person.  You'll be part of a nicely compact group of writers receiving tuition from John at a London venue to be decided, over dates in June also to be decided.  Furthermore, three runners-up will win a copy of Into The Woods, courtesy of Penguin Books.

HOW TO ENTER THE COMPETITION

John Yorke, lecturing at the BBC Writers' Festival
Getting into the spirit of John's book, simply write a Comment below, summarising your favourite Inciting Incident* in a film or TV drama.

The Comments on this blog are moderated, so if you post an entry which doesn't describe an Inciting Incident, I'll spare your blushes by DESTROYING it.  Try again later!

Your chosen Inciting Incident is solely needed to earn you entry into the competition. The winners will be randomly selected from entrants.  In two weeks, at 8pm on May 1 2013, I'll randomly draw one course winner and three runners-up from the entries in Comments below.

Some small-print-type stuff: if you win the day course, you'll need to make your own way to and from the London location, at your own expense.  Only one entry per person, please, no anonymous comments and only one person can win the course place.  You must be 18 or over to enter.  I considered excluding writers I know personally from entering... then realised that I know so many that it'd be hard to know where to draw the line!  So I hope you'll trust in the strictly randomised nature of the draw, which I'll probably accomplish with Twitter's aid.  I thank you.  If it turns out you're unable to attend the course when contacted by Penguin Books in May, we'll draw another winner. Right, I think that's it.

Good luck!

Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story is out now via Penguin Books, available in paperback and Kindle editions.  You can read full details about John's Professional Writing Academy course here.

* What's an Inciting Incident, you say?  It's the Act One event which kickstarts the story, throwing the protagonist out of their normal world and comfort zone. It's not to be confused with later turning points: in the technical scriptwriting sense of the term, each story has only one Inciting Incident. Neither should it be confused with loglines - I'm just looking for the ONE incident, not a summary of the whole story (so there's no need for spoilers of what comes later.)  "It might be useful to see [an Inciting Incident] as the subject of a film's trailer," writes John in Into The Woods.  "It's the moment the journey begins... If all stories are a quest, then the inciting incidents are like this - an invitation to begin the journey.  They say to the protagonist, 'This is your goal'."

Here are a few examples of Inciting Incidents.  Please describe your own favourite in this fashion and format when entering the competition.
  • A young boy is found dead on the beach of a small Cornish town (Broadchurch, ITV1)
  • A former CIA operative's daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers (the film Taken)
  • A group of supermarket/hospital workers win the Lottery (The Syndicate, BBC One)
  • A hacker becomes obsessed with the meaning of cryptic references to "The Matrix" on his computer (the film The Matrix, strangely enough)
Get to it!

UPDATE at 8pm, May 1, 2013: THE WINNERS!

It's been a fun competition, albeit one which underlined how some folk are prone to confusing loglines, turning points or just plain scenes, with inciting incidents!  I admittedly let a few 'fuzzy' entries slip through the net, because I'm a soft touch.

The ever-so-handy website random.org was used to select the following winners:

DAVID SCULLION is the lucky winner of the John Yorke course!  Well done, David.

Three splendid runners-up prizes of the book Into The Woods... go to EMMA HILL, LEILA EADIE and COLIN FRANGICETTO!

Congratulations, winners!  Please write to me here, giving me your full name, postal address, phone number and email address.  Rest assured, these details will only be used for the purpose of a lovely person from Penguin Books getting in touch to tell you when the course is (Rick) or sending you John's book (Emma, Natalie, Leila).

Commiserations to all who entered but came away empty-handed.  Thanks for some excellently varied inciting incidents.


* * *



66 comments:

Adaddinsane said...

The film "The Green Hornet" may not have been the greatest film in the world but it has an astonishing inciting incident - because it is such a tiny event.

Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) is a rich wastrel, every morning someone makes him a wonderful cup of coffee, with amazing coffee cup art.

When his father dies lazy Britt fires most of his father's personal staff - and the next morning he gets a terrible cup of coffee.

And it's the terrible cup of coffee that kicks him into positive action - to find the person who made the good coffee (Kato, Jay Chou) which creates the relationship that becomes the crime-fighting duo.

Iain Coleman said...

Brond (Channel 4, 1987)

Robert (John Hannah) is out jogging in the West End of Glasgow. He stops for a rest on Kelvin Bridge, looking down at the river as he catches his breath.

A few metres along the bridge, a young boy is also looking down at the water.

Brond (Stratford Johns) comes walking along the bridge. Without breaking stride, he tips the young boy up and over the side of the bridge. As he passes Robert, he gives a cheerful wink.

Robert, horrified, looks down at the river. There's no sign of the young boy.

DAVID BISHOP said...

Leon (1994, written by Luc Besson)

The opening ten minutes show Leon as a foreign hitman for hire in NYC. He effortlessly takes out half a dozen gun thugs to get a message to a drug dealer on behalf of another mobster.

Returning to his apartment, Leon encounters Mathilda, a young girl and neighbour. Not yet a teenager, she hides a cigarette she's smoking as Leon approaches. He asks why, notices she has bruises on her face - Mathilda is being abused at home.

Leon is a killer, but in that brief moment he forms a connection with Mathilda, an empathy that will change both their lives.

Justin Hayward said...

Neverwhere, BBC 1996 (Gaiman and Henry)

The entire setup with Richard Mayhew and Door, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar right at the start above and below London leading up to the point where Richard can no longer be seen by 'normal' people due to contact with Door had such an effect that it's stayed with me since I first saw it and recently purchased it on DVD. What a writing pair - Lenny Henry and Neil Gaiman!

Andrew Mills said...

A group of terrorists storm a building (Die Hard)

Mia Darlone said...

The people's Princess has been kidnapped with the ransom demand being the current Prime Minister must have sex on National TV....with a pig.

(Black Mirror:The National Anthem, Channel 4).

Pete Darby said...

Princess Bride; The bride to be of the heir to the throne is kidnapped by a mysterious stanger...

Rick Hughes said...

Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997)

Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), escaping the police, falls through the roof of the taxi driven by Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). Barely alive, she pleads for help. Dallas, surrounded by trigger-happy police, has a choice... give her up or help her escape. Being a kick-ass kinda guy, he opts for the latter.

Simon Monks-Meacock said...

An underachieving chemistry teacher decides to manufacture meth-amphetamine to provide financial security for his family when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. (Breaking Bad)

Sylvia said...

Silence of the Lambs, when Clarise is sent to interview Hannibal Lecter. I particularly like this because it isn't a huge thing - they killed my mother and stole my farm - but just an opportunity for the woman to get ahead in her career. And yet we know from the moment they begin speaking that nothing will ever be the same again.

drama_mc said...

Rachel McAdam
Life on Mars episode 1 Matthew Graham

We start in the modern day with super-slick DCI Sam Tyler who's so by the book he tells his girlfriend and fellow police officer ‘what use are feelings in this room?’ But after she's abducted he's in his car, David Bowie is playing and he has a near miss. He gets out of his car and the emotion floods out, He stops, steps back and SMASH.

The rest is 1973.

Natalie Lancaster said...

In the Hunger Games the inciting incident is the Reaping. When young Primrose Everdean’s name is called out, her older sister, Catniss, volunteers to take her place.

Michelle langan said...

Two small-time gangsters find their day taking an unexpected twist after they retrieve a briefcase for their boss (film, Pulp Fiction)

Jack Green said...

Two teachers follow a pupil after school to a junk yard and believe she is being held against her will in an old police box that feels alive! - Doctor Who, 1963

Blaise Hesselgren said...

A group of children playing hide and seek find a doorway (cupboard) into another world (The Lion Witch and Wardrobe. Same premise as being John Malkovich and a thousand other stories).

colin said...

An ex CIA analyst has his personal memoirs mistaken for "some super secret spy shit" and is haphazardly blackmailed by some knuckleheads from a local gym.
-The film, Burn After Reading
colincirca@gmail.com

Jane said...

A young Clown fish swims over the drop off at the coral reef to prove a point to his Father; he's then abducted by divers. His Dad must go on a dangerous search in the ocean to get his son back - 'Finding Nemo'

DeeTour said...

A woman's happy life is torn apart after a brutal attack on her and her partner, leaves him dead and her living in constant fear. (The Brave One).

David Scullion said...

Falling Down (1997) - Ebbe Roe Smith

Perhaps the most (terrifyingly) relatable inciting incident of all - William 'D-Fens' Foster (Michael Douglas) gets so frustrated with being stuck in a god-awful traffic jam during a boiling summer, he decides to literally leave his car… and this simple act of defiance against society sets off a devastating and worryingly-understandable set of consequences.

I often find it’s the tiny inciting incidents – rather than the tsunamis or asteroids – that can have the most impact. I love a ‘spiralling further and further out of control’ script…

David Baillie said...

A fly is caught in the mechanism of a printer, causing a fatal misprint in a warrant for the arrest of one Archibald Tuttle.

(Brazil)

Andy Evans said...

An exciting new toy (Buzz Lightyear) arrives and temporarily replaces an old favourite (Woody), causing jealousy, confusion and high jinks setting off Toy Story.

Chris said...

From "Edge of Darkness"

Ronald Craven's daughter Emma is shot dead. As policeman with a shady past, he believes the bullet was meant for him - a revenge attack gone wrong. But while sorting through her personal belongings he discovers a gun, a Geiger counter and evidence that she broke into a high security nuclear plant. He realises he was not the target and sets out to avenge her...

Rob W said...

A star falls and lands in a magical kingdom - catching the attention of two warring princes, a coven of witches, and a lovesick boy who works in a shop.

Film, Stardust, 2007. And the book Stardust, I suppose. I like the sheer kitsch of it, but also that it links three plots with a single heartbeat. Sets the story out in a second. Nice.

johnkell said...

One of the best American cancelled-after-four-episodes cult classics, Wonderfalls:

A deformed toy wax lion speaks to shop assistant Jaye Tyler, telling her not to give a refund to an angry customer. She ignores it, the customer is mugged the instant she walks out of the shop with her refund, and the lion just says "told ya".

Scott Davenport said...

Gladiator (David Franzoni - 2000)

Roman General Maximus is charged by his ageing Emperor and mentor, Marcus Aurelius, to return Rome to the people. When the Emperor is murdered by his morally corrupt son, Maximus' failure to recognise the new Emperor leaves his life, and those of his family, hanging in the balance.

Liz Holliday said...

Aliens mistake the aging actors in a defunct science fiction tv show for the characters they portray - and enlist their aid in dealing with their fierce interstellar enemies. (Galaxy Quest)


Barbara Kennedy said...

Someone reads from the Book of the Dead unleashing all kinds of demonic mayhem. (Evil Dead 1981, Evil Dead 2013)

Jade Alexander said...

In a seemingly innocent American suburb, Jeffrey Beaumont takes a shortcut home- only to discover a severed human ear hidden in the grass. (Blue Velvet, 1986)

jamestyler said...

Let The Right One In (2008, John Ajvide Lindqvist)

The opening 10 minutes show Oskar - a pale, androgynous 12 year old boy who is often attacked by bullies at school. Oskar dreams of being tough and cold-blooded enough to take on his enemies.

One evening, while out stabbing a tree with his hunting knife alone, he comes across a young barefoot girl called Eli who doesn't feel the cold and has a manner gentler and more beguiling than that of any of his classmates.

She tells him he should confront his fears, attack those who attack him harder than they “or even he“ can imagine.

Paul Woods said...

Good Will Hunting:

Mathematics Professor Gerald Lambeau catches Will Hunting writing on a whiteboard that contains a mathematics problem that Lambeau has worked on for two years. He follows Will down the corridor thinking he is guilty of graffiti but Will escapes. When Professor Lambeau returns to the board, however, he is astonished to discover that Will has solved the mathematical problem.

Michi said...

A Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by the emperor's corrupt son. [The Gladiator]

davidmelkevik said...

A guy munches a carrot at a bus stop when a heavily-pregnant woman staggers past being chased by a man with a gun. The guy, annoyed, goes to the woman's aid... (Shoot'Em Up, 2007)

KeelyW said...

Bonnie and Clyde, the beautiful Arthur Penn film, written by partnership Newman/Benton, with a bit of help from Towne.

Clyde tries to nick Bonnie's mum's car - and instead of being repelled, Bonnie wants in.

Angela Jobson said...

A vampire walks into a bar.

Not unusual as vampires are now living openly, but this small town has never had a vampire inhabitant before. His arrival leads to a waitress to discover that she is not human and neither is the owner of the bar, in fact nothing in this world is as it may at first appear. (Trueblood)

Radica said...

A teenager is chased through the streets of contemporary London, his heart beating out of his head. The man chasing him find him and shoots him dead, clinically with no hesitation. State of Play BBC One, 2003.

Ben Latcham said...

Shortly after starting his job as a filing clerk, an uptight puppeteer finds a portal into the brain of Hollywood actor John Malkovich.

debbiemoon said...

In Bruges is a great example of an inciting incident that takes place before the movie starts, and which we don't fully understand for at least half the movie. We discover very quickly that Ray has in some way botched a contract killing, and been sent to Bruges to lie low, but the what and the how, let alone the consequences headed in his direction, are hidden from us for a long while...

Frank Short said...

David Lynch's film "Mulholland Drive" weaves a rather incoherent narrative, so incoherent that one particular scene in the first act seems to have little if anything to do with the rest of the plot, yet it still leaves a powerful impact.

A man is in a diner with his friend describing a recurring nightmare he has in which they are both in the same diner being terrorised by a horrifying figure who resides round the back.

His friend advises him to confront his fear and go round to the back of the diner to see that there is no-one actually there. He does so, and as he approaches the back alley the dark figure suddenly emerges and literally scares him to death.

I think this scene could work as a standalone short film.

Piers said...

Let's go for Lethal Weapon 2 (for my money the best in the series).

Like Pitch Black (another favourite of mine), the film begins in the middle of the Inciting Incident - when what was supposed to be a simple drugs bust turns into a seven-minute car chase through the streets of Los Angeles complete with automatic weapons fire, an escape by helicopter, and the discovery of a fortune in gold coins in the boot of the car being chased.

You could argue for the (off-screen) moment when the chase begins as being the Inciting Incident, or for the moment when the krugerrands spill from the trunk.

But I'd call it for the totality of the car chase, both on- and off-screen.

Michael said...

A twister spirits a young girl away to a magical land where she kills the first person she meets, a wicked witch (film, The Wizard of Oz).

(An interesting inciting incident, in that it comes at the end of the first act - no wonder I used to get bored of all that sepia bullshit, it was all just set up!)

Sally Hales said...

A teenage girl gets pregnant (juno)

David said...

Edge of Darkness

A senior police officer is confronted on the steps of his home by a face from his past. His daughter runs forward and takes a shotgun blast in the chest.

Leila said...

A neglected and bored girl finds a door leading to a parallel world filled with different versions of her family and neighbours [Coraline]

Stephen Marsh said...

The Wire. Now I think about it, this might be mentioned explicitly in John's book, but I don't remember. Wire-esque phrases added for colour.

For my cheese, the inciting incident is the moment in episode one, in the courtroom, when the Barksdale crew get D'Angelo off the hook.

I also think that's a great example (if I do say so myself) because the five-o as a whole (if not McNutty) have a great section of uncertainty and debate. At first, nobody is going to do anything - right up until the team is put together to end the Barskdale reign in the towers.

SallyB said...


A small town waitress falls in love with a vampire called Bill. True Blood.

Dogprophet said...

A fully armoured Knight on horseback, crashes out of a young boy's wardrobe (the film Time Bandits)

Thorn Davis said...

My favourite is Robocop's catastrophic boardroom demonstration, because it's performed with such style and subtlety that it's not until after multiple-rewatches that you realise that this is where the story starts.

You're reeling from the black humour of a business presentation that contains a screw-up far beyond a faulty Powerpoint presentation, and so you only absorb the following conversations on a semi-conscious level. An ambitious young executive capers up to his boss and declares "We've placed prime candidates in high risk areas... all we have to do is wait til some poor schmuck volunteers...". Cut to Murphy, who's fate has just been sealed.

So what makes it so great?

1. It doesn't even feature the protagonist. Murphy's story actually begins miles away from where he is, yet from that point onward his destiny is fixed. A lovely expression of the forces we never see or know about or understand that shape our lives.

2. It's totally f---ed up and totally believable at the same time. Sure, the machine gun slaughter is demented, but this inciting incident is at its heart driven by something as mundane and relatable as an over-reaching young executive trying to get ahead in a major corporation.

3. You don't realised it's happened. By disassociating the inciting incident from the protaganist, and hitching it to a mad moment of grand guignol, the film slips its story beats under the radar. I'm a big fan of those stories that are so slickly constructed that its not until the third or fourth viewing that you realise that *this* is the inciting incident, or *this* is the grasping the handle moment. Robocop's story happens to you without you realising it, meanign that you can't hear the grinding of gears, and you stay in the moment.

Hilary Hadley Wright said...

A bomber pilot who ought to have died survives, screwing up heaven's head count (the film A Matter of Life and Death).

MDuffy said...

The Sure Thing: College Freshman Gib tries to persuade classmate, Alison, to 'help with his homework' by throwing himself fully clothed into a swimming pool. It works, until he tries some of his 'smoother' moves, earning her enmity and setting them both on the path from the East Coast to LA - her to see her long-distance boyfriend; him to hook up with a 'sure thing'.

I know it might seem that Gib's quest for a Sure Thing is what sets him on the road to LA (and inadvertently finding himself in a car share with Alison), but if he hadn't stuffed up their burgeoning romance at the outset, they'd be together; she wouldn't be going to see Jason, he wouldn't be looking for a cheap hook up and no-one would be taking a car share to LA with the unfortunate Mary Ann and Gary Cooper ("but not the Gary Cooper who's dead").

The quest for the Sure Thing is a MacGuffin.

Phil Jones pwjones@hotmail.co.uk said...

A restless charmer in his early thirties is in a dark, hip club somewhere in Paris. A little worse for wear, he deliberately kisses someones girlfriend before casually making an exit alone.

Out he stumbles into the early dawn and starts up his moped.

We see over his shoulder as he makes his way through the chic suburb and its empty intersections, until, BLAMMO!!! He gets blindsided by a speeding bus and we are literally thrown into the annual summer vacation of his nearest and dearest in Little White Lies.

In his absence his friends secrets and lies unravel with both comical and heartfelt consequences.

Jonny Morris said...

A plane crashes on a mysterious tropical island. (Lost)

Fakesensations said...

Two out-of-work actors feel unusual, and decide to go outside (Withnail & I)

psibreaker said...

A man hands in his resignation to an important job.

It's not the most exciting of Inciting Incidents, but two series of The Prisoner are dedicated to the unspecified powers that rule the Village trying to find out just why he resigned.

Sparrow said...

Watchmen: "One of us died tonight."
(A man is thrown through a window to his death.)

(Also, London in June ain't gonna happen, but I'd like to enter for a copy of the book.)

Saima Mir said...

The reluctant son of a mafia boss seeks revenge when his father is gunned down. The Godfather

Vicky Hinault said...

A bank robber follows the woman he took hostage on his last job and asks her out on a date (The Town)

Charley Miles said...

Chief Brody (fresh to a small-town community from the big bad city where he's been fighting all kinds of crime) finds the crab covered corpse of a girl on the beach. - LOVE that a horror film can have such a character driven inciting incident! (Of course, it's Jaws!)

Julien Deladrière said...

A SETI scientist intercepts a message from another world. (Contact, 1997)

Emma Hill said...

Michael - a strait-laced military hero - enters the criminal underworld, when someone tries to kill his mafia boss father. (The Godfather).

Sian Lawson said...

28 days later: Man wakes from cycle-accident induced coma to find apocalypse happened without him.

Simon Underwood said...

A Texas oilman is sent to remote Scotland to close a land deal. (Local Hero, Goldcrest/Warner Bros.)

Simon L said...

A man finds a case full of money belonging to a drugs cartel. (No Country For Old Men)

Frank Saunders said...

A billionaire weapons manufacturer is kidnapped by terrorists and forced to build them his most devastating weapon in exchange for his life. (Iron Man)

Stephen O'Brien said...

After Libyan terrorists kill his scientist friend Doc Brown, teenager Marty McFly tries to escape by driving off in Doc's time-travelling DeLorean and inadvertently ends up travelling back to 1955. (Back to the Future)

Nick Fogg said...

The homeward bound crew of the Nostromo are woken prematurely from hypersleep to respond to a distress call. Alien

Millerem said...

A policewoman is shot in the present day and regains consciousness to find herself in 1981.

(Ashes to Ashes, BBC 2008-2010)

And in a similar vein...

A policeman is involved in a potentially fatal road accident, and awakes in 1973.

(Life on Mars, BBC 2006 - 2007)


... Both excellent, but I'm predominantly an Ashes to Ashes fan!