Month: June 2021

Loglines: The Inciting Incident

One of the key lessons to learn with an inciting incident is that it is out of the main character’s control. It is never an action or decision taken by the hero; it is an involuntary event which is irreversible and forces the protagonist to act. It is the event that kicks everything off. Without this, you are simply watching the character live their “normal” life, and this is not a story. The story comes from the abnormal. Synonyms for the word “incite” are things like “stir up”, “urge”, and “encourage”. This is precisely what you’re doing to the main character – you’re mixing up their life. 

I have two ways I like to consider the inciting incident:

  1. As the event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s life and sets up the goal of correcting this imbalance. 
  2. As a question that the hero tries to answer. Their answer is their goal. 

Note how, in both methods, the inciting incident sets up the goal. They HAVE to be related to each other and the journey between the two is where you have your story. If they are not connected, either your goal is wrong, or your inciting incident is wrong. 

Method 1 restricts itself slightly to a story where the protagonist believes his life is fine. They are proactively trying to return to their “normal life” without realising that they will change. Sometimes, however, the protagonist is actively trying to get somewhere new. 

For this reason, I favour method 2 as I think it can apply to every scenario. The important bit in method 2 is “their answer”. It’s not your answer, it’s not necessarily the right answer, but it’s what you think the character would do to answer that question. This feeds into your character and their characteristic.

I find the inciting incident the hardest part of a logline! There can be so much information that you have to try and cram into 20 or so words that it just seems really daunting to whittle it down to the essential elements. Here are the things which are worth thinking about in an inciting incident:

This time it’s personal

A question that I see frequently in logline feedback is “why this guy?”. Why does he/she/they have to be our protagonist over any other character within this world? Consider the following:

“When terrorists take over an office building (on Christmas Eve)…”

This could be the inciting incident to 1988’s Die Hard (a Christmas classic – don’t @ me). The problem with this is it doesn’t give us any reason why John McClane must be our hero. 

Compare that to:

“When terrorists take over his wife’s office building (on Christmas Eve)…”

Suddenly, we understand why John McClane must be our protagonist. Do we need to know they are separated? Not really because what does it add? A bit of history but that’s it. It doesn’t change the fact John McClane wants to save his wife from terrorists.

I prefer to frame my inciting incidents around a main character for the simple reason that this is their story. It gets a little trickier in ensemble films where a group of characters have a shared goal, however, usually one character is the “leader”. Independence Day (1996), for example, follows a small group of characters trying to save the world from an alien invasion but one character is the guy who calls the shots: President Whitmore, played by Bill Pullman. He’s the president of the United States, so we immediately understand why this guy is our central protagonist. Framing the logline around his character gives the reader a very clear sense of what sort of film will be about. It gives us a personal story within a huge global event, and this lets the reader/audience into the story. It connects emotion to a premise.

Other ensemble films aren’t so easy but considering the themes within the story can help pinpoint a character who embodies the message you are trying to convey. Another option is to choose the character who has the biggest capacity for change, either internally or externally. If you go with the character with the biggest internal arc, the reader can immediately see that this is a more personal story, whereas if you go with the character who can affect external change, it feels more plot driven. 

This gets more complicated if your story is an exploration of a theme. The best example of this is Love Actually (2003). There is no central character, it has a multi-stranded narrative, and it takes an exceptionally talented writer, such as Richard Curtis, to pull this off! I’ll discuss how to logline for multi-stranded narratives in a future post. 

Keep it simple

This one can be tricky. Some stories have a lot going on in the first act and it’s difficult not to get bogged down with expositional events that influence the story. The inciting incident is precisely that though. One incident. Singular. It is usually a remarkably small moment within one scene – Rocky is challenged by Apollo Creed to a fight; Capt. John Miller is ordered to save Private Ryan after all his brothers are killed in action; Sulley accidentally lets Boo into Monstropolis.  Such simple events, but the consequences sustain the 90+ minute runtime.

If you find your inciting incident becoming long and unwieldy, with a chain of events and lots of world building and exposition, try thinking about that one scene which provides the question leading to the rest of the story. Write that one moment down and see if it makes sense on its own. The Lord of the Rings is set in a huge world with a vast history, mythical creatures, fantastical ideas, magic, hobbits, elves, orcs, etc. and if you wanted to write a logline for the whole thing, it could easily become complicated. So… let’s start with the inciting incident for the complete story (without any exposition or world building):

“After discovering his uncle’s old ring is the lost all-powerful magic ring and the dark lord is coming for it.

That’s it in 20 words. If this one simple event didn’t happen, Frodo would never leave the Shire. The important bit is underlined. Without this, as Frodo himself suggests in the film, they could put it away, keep it hidden, and never speak of it again. If we took that bit out, there’s no reason for Frodo to do anything. There’s no urgency; no question that needs answering. With that, we suddenly understand why it must be now! Including the exposition about the ring being his uncle’s also goes someway to explain why it must be Frodo – there’s a sense of familial responsibility and suggests a backstory far greater than we could ever get in this logline… that creates interest whilst still maintaining everything a logline needs to do. 

The other great thing about this inciting incident is, whilst it seems simple, it does so much! It immediately confirms the genre you’ve selected (Fantasy), you get that it’s a good vs evil story, we get a glimpse of the protagonist, we get the antagonist and what his goal is, we get a hint of the stakes (if the dark lord gets hold of the all-powerful ring, it ain’t gonna be good!), and we get the magical MacGuffin that is central to the whole story. 

A couple of things to note in this inciting incident:

  • It’s THE lost all-powerful magic ring, not A lost all-powerful… This makes the ring seem important, not just to the plot but within the world. 
  • It’s THE dark lord, not A dark lord. Make the bad guy sound like the biggest bad guy ever and, similarly to the ring, makes him significant within the world. 

I haven’t mentioned hobbits, or Middle-Earth, or anything a reader wouldn’t understand, and it sets up everything that happens next without reams of world-building and exposition that could bury the plot. 

If a reader doesn’t understand what’s happening in the inciting incident and why this leads to the plot, you’ve lost before you’ve left the gate. So, as much as you can, keep it simple, relatable, and understandable. 

Don’t confuse an exciting incident as an inciting incident

All too often, people mistake a really exciting moment which has massive significance to the story as the inciting incident. The best example is the moment an ordinary teenager gets bitten by a radioactive spider and wakes up the following day as Spider-Man. Yes, this is absolutely fundamental to the story BUT what is the question that this poses to the hero? What do you do when you develop superpowers? Based on everything suggested so far, if he wants to return to his “normal” life, his goal is to get rid of these superpowers. This doesn’t sound like any superhero film I know of. Ok, so let’s say his goal isn’t to go back to normal, it’s to move forward as a superhero. Well then, he becomes his friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. That’s about it. Helping those in need in his community… for 120 minutes. This also doesn’t sound like any superhero film I know of. So, what is the inciting incident? A superhero is nothing without a supervillain and THAT’S the one event that really asks a question of the protagonist. What do you do when a big bad guy with their own superpowers tries to take over the city? You try and stop him because you’re the only one who can. Simple. 

In ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, it’s not when the freak weather events happen, it’s when Dennis Quaid realises his son is stuck in the New York Library and will freeze to death. In ‘Jumanji’, it’s not the discovery of the game, it’s not even when Alan Parrish is sucked into the jungle; it’s when he’s spat back out again in the future and has the chance to end the game… at last! Why? Because they ask a question of the protagonist. Dennis Quaid can’t stop a force of nature, but he can rescue his son. Alan Parrish can’t escape a magical game until someone rolls 5 or 8… it’s out of his hands, so our PROtagonist can’t be PROactive. When he finally does get out though, he does whatever it takes to end the game!

The inciting incident may not be the most exciting incident within your first act, but it’s the one that carries the weight of the rest of the film on its shoulders and sets up a clear goal for the protagonist. If it doesn’t pose a question to the main character, it’s probably not the inciting incident. 

A quick checklist which may help when it comes to crafting your inciting incident in a logline:

  1. Is it one singular event happening to the protagonist which is out of their control?
  2. Is it as short and succinct as you can make it?
  3. Does it mix up the protagonist’s life in some way?
  4. Does it ask a question of the protagonist and set up a clear goal?

If your answer is “no” to any of these, my recommendation is to think a little more about your inciting incident – not so you necessarily answer “yes” to all the above – but simply so you can understand whether your inciting incident is doing everything it needs to. The most important thing is that it is relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. 

Specifi-City: Where loglines thrive

I read a lot of loglines. I love them. I think there is so much skill required to make one which not only provides a clear outline for the plot, but also sparks the reader’s imagination and gets them excited. All too often though, I find loglines lacking specificity – there’s just not enough information for me to really understand what this story is about or worse… there’s just enough for me to think I do. 

I believe there are three main reasons why a writer creates an ambiguous logline:

  • They are worried someone will steal their idea, so they hide elements – usually in an attempt to keep the best bits of their safe and not give too much away – this is also called “burying the hook”
  • They’re confusing a logline with a tagline.
  • They don’t know any better. 

Let’s flash forward. You’ve sent your ambiguous logline off to a big shot producer – one of three (probably more but let’s keep it simple) things are going to happen:

  1. The producer reads your logline but it’s too ambiguous, so they struggle to “see” your movie. Remember, a producer is looking for something they can market and sell. They need to get a sense of genre, tone, themes, budget, etc. and they simply can’t do that if they’re not really sure what’s going on. That’s as far as you go, kid!
  2. The producer reads your logline but there’s nothing that sets this story apart from other films or scripts. You’ve buried the hook! That’s as far as you go, kid!
  3. The producer reads your logline, and they like it! GREAT! They have a clear idea in their head what this story is, so they pick up your synopsis… BUT WAIT! This synopsis is nothing like the story they have in their head. You’ve wasted the time of this big shot producer so guess what? That’s as far as you go, kid!

How can you avoid of these outcomes and give yourself the best possible chance of getting past the logline stage?

Let’s deal with burying the hook first. 

You’ve had an idea for a story and there’s something totally unique that you’ve never seen done before. It’s brilliant… verging on genius! It could easily make this story an instant classic! So rather than putting that front and centre of your logline and framing EVERYTHING else around it, you omit it completely because you don’t want someone to steal it. The one thing that sets this story apart from all the others… and you hide it. WHY???? That’s the equivalent of Usain Bolt running in flip-flops (he’d probably still win)! 

T. S. Eliot said “Good writers borrow; great writers steal” and he’s not wrong! So, whilst that means someone might pilfer your genius hook and claim it as their own, never forget that nobody (NOBODY) will write this story like you will. This is your hook! Your story! Inside your brain is a tangled web of plot, character, theme, tone which is completely unique to you. This big shot producer knows that! Give two writers the same logline and you’ll get two completely different scripts. The more specific the logline, the closer those scripts will be, sure! But different they will be none-the-less. 

Simply put, burying the hook is the best way to sabotage the best chance you have. 

So, don’t! 

Do you know the difference between a logline and a tagline? I’ve given feedback to writers before, telling them to be more specific, and their response has been they want to save the mystery so someone has to read the script to find out what the story’s about. No no no no no NO! That’s not what a logline is. A tagline is designed to get people interested in seeing the movie. Mystery, intrigue, suggestiveness, all work brilliantly in a tagline. But we’re not crafting taglines. We’re crafting loglines and loglines are designed to give the reader a concise summary of the plot (up to either the midpoint or the beginning of the final act) and provide a sense of genre, tone, themes, budget, etc. Sure, a logline can be used to market the film, or to help the writer during their process, or to get a producer interested, but ultimately it MUST SUM THE FILM UP IN A NUTSHELL! 

If the producer is looking for a contemporary rom-com with a small cast and they’ve got $2 million to spend, they’ll be looking for a script which sounds like it fits this category. If your logline doesn’t give them enough information for them to determine if it meets these criteria because it’s actually a tagline… that’s as far as you go, kid! It could be the best tagline ever, your script might be The Godfather of romantic comedies, but they don’t want to see a tagline. They want a logline! So make it a logline!

Ok, you haven’t buried your hook… congratulations! Now you need to avoid being ambiguous because you simply don’t know any better. This one’s easy! Now you know. 

I’ll break it down a little more though. As mentioned in my “introduction to logline” post, a logline is formed of various components – main character, inciting incident, stakes, etc. Each one of these elements has the potential to send your logline to Ambiguity – the place where loglines go to die! My favourite thing to do to avoid this is simply to ask myself “can I be more specific whilst staying as relevant to the story as I possibly can?” If the answer is yes, then go for it until you can’t be more specific. 

“A man must take care of a sea creature before it eats any more townsfolk”

This is a very (very) bad logline for Jaws. It leaves you asking a lot of questions, doesn’t it?

Instead of “a man” (see my post on character in a logline), how can we be more specific whilst staying relevant to the story? He’s not just a man, he’s the Police Chief. Suddenly that changes how this story feels – he has some power and is looked up to, making the reader understand why he might be the main character. Throw in a characteristic too, like “aquaphobic” or “ex-big-city-cop”, and through specificity you’ve brought this protagonist to life! 

Instead of “sea creature”, why would you not say shark? Of course, you would, unless you were trying to hide that it’s a shark. Can we be more specific whilst staying relevant to the story? Yep! Bruce isn’t just any shark. He’s a Great White Shark! With specificity, we’ve made the antagonistic hurdle that much more difficult but that much more exciting. This has the potential to be a proper battle between man and beast! You could choose to say “gigantic” rather than “Great White”, but even “gigantic” could be ambiguous. Is a 25ft shark “gigantic”? How about a 200ft one? It’s subjective but most people know what a Great White is. 

The action our protagonist takes to achieve their goal is one of the most important components to be as specific about as possible as this is the bit that fills the runtime. “Take care of” in this context most likely means kill but there’s a little more wiggle room in there than I’d like, especially since that’s what Chief Brody spends a large percentage of the 130mins trying to do. If you mean kill, say kill. This is pretty short though, and while this is his ultimate goal, consider (if you have the word count available) padding it out so it sounds like this will take longer than 10 minutes. In this case, you could say “track down and kill”. Now it gives the impression it might not be a quick job.

Our new logline looks like this:

“An aquaphobic police chief must track down and kill a Great White shark before it eats any more townsfolk”

19 words. Plenty of space to do a little more. 

Where is this set? We know it’s a town on the water. Can we be more specific whilst staying relevant to the story? Of course, we can! It’s a picturesque island reliant on tourists. It’s a town which needs the summer crowds to survive the winter. It’s a town run by a mayor who will do whatever it takes to keep the beaches open. 

This is where it gets really interesting, and specificity really starts to tell the whole story. The goal isn’t just to kill the shark. More specifically, it’s to kill the shark so the beaches can stay open, and the tourists come spending the money to keep the town alive over the winter months. It’s a political struggle as much as a Man vs Nature tale. Isn’t this more of a story about a lawman who fled the stressful and violent big city to a quaint little island community in search of a more peaceful existence and found sharks both in and out of the water?

“An aquaphobic Police Chief who’s relocated from the big city must track down and kill a great white shark who’s eating the swimmers on the shores of their small-town island community before it scares the Summer money away.” (38 words)

 It’s not perfect, but we have a very clear protagonist, a clear goal with clear stakes, and using words like “big city” and “small-town” demonstrates some of the themes which build this story up. There are also clear suggestions to the politics at play without overshadowing the Man vs Shark struggle that will pull the punters in. 

Arguably, both my first and last version of this last logline would make people think of Jaws, but if the film never existed, which would give the reader a better idea of the story they were about the read? Which would give you a clearer vision of the film? I really hope it’s the latter!

In summary, try to be as specific as you can while still being relevant to the story. Take the time to consider each element carefully and how the specifics of each component can work together to create an engaging and exciting logline that does everything it’s supposed to do. 

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