When we are watching a movie or TV episode, if the screenwriter has done their job, we are not thinking about the story beats and how they relate to one another. A well-written movie makes the audience get so involved in the story and characters, we’re not stopping to analyze anything.
If you’ve gotten screenplay coverage on your script and the reader noticed plot or story issues, it’s often a sign that there’s some kind of a plot hole or an unmotivated beat that’s not authentically connected to a character. So, what’s the best way to write a script with a well-rounded story where you are setting up everything you need to set up and making sure you are paying off all of your setups?
Here’s one big screenwriting tip:
Your inciting incident and your climax are a pair. Think of them as a unit, as a duo, as a couple you never want to see breakup. And what that means exactly is that those two beats in your story should be completely connected. In fact, if they are not connected and are not cause and effect, you need to rethink the structure of your story.
If this seems like an abstract concept, do not fear! I’ll elaborate more on this pair. Just to clarify, the inciting incident is the event that sets your story in motion. Without the inciting incident, you have no story. This event presents the main conflict your protagonist will be up against. The climax, by definition, is the moment the main conflict gets resolved and the protagonist either achieves their goal or fails. The climax is often depicted as a showdown between protagonist and antagonist.
This connection between inciting incident and climax is often the most clear in action films since villains are introduced in the inciting incident and killed in the climax. Whatever the situation is that you put your protagonist in around the inciting incident, it will have to be resolved at the climax.
A very clear example is the movie DIE HARD. In DIE HARD the inciting incident is the gang of thieves breaking into the building and holding everybody hostage. In the climax, John McClane (Bruce Willis) kills the leader of the gang, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).
But what about other genres where your climax won’t be a huge explosion, a well choreographed fight or some other elaborate set piece?
What if your showdown with your antagonist is whatever internal struggle your protagonist is going through? The same concepts still apply, you just need to look a little closer to see those elements at play.
In BRIDESMAIDS the inciting incident is Lillian (Maya Rudolph) getting engaged and asking Annie (Kristen Wiig) to be her maid of honor. The entire movie is about the rivalry between Annie and Helen (Rose Byrne) for the position of Lillian’s best friend. This rivalry is resolved in the climax as the women join forces and find Lillian who is missing on her wedding day.
Inciting Incident in GOOD WILL HUNTING:
In GOOD WILL HUNTING, the protagonist Will (Matt Damon), the janitor, is caught solving the complex math problem Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) put on the board for his students at MIT to try and solve. This starts Will’s journey of overcoming his past and using his high intellect to move beyond extreme poverty. The climax of that film is the most memorable scene of that film; the moment Will has a breakthrough in therapy by hearing his therapist (Robin Willians) utter the words “It’s not your fault” over and over until Will breaks down crying. In a movie about internal struggles which manifest as self-sabotaging behavior, the antagonist is Will’s anger and his showdown with the antagonist plays out in therapy.
Take a look at this key scene in the film:
Climax in GOOD WILL HUNTING:
If the climax of any of the examples previously given were something else, odds are we would feel like we stumbled into the wrong movie. If the climax of your screenplay is not directly related to the inciting incident, you need to go back to the outline stage and figure out how to make that work. Keep that in mind when you’re outlining and don’t let this important couple lose that special connection. And if you need a professional script reader’s eyes on your work-in-progress screenplay, check out WeScreenplay’s Screenplay Feedback Services.
Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.