Tuesday, November 29, 2011

THE 9 CHARACTER ALIGNMENTS


I usually do not present theories by other dramatists in this blog, but I have recently incorporated the concept of Character Alignment into my dramatic method, a concept I find helpful enough to pass on. The Nine Character Alignments is a development and analysis tool that defines any character (or any real human being, for that matter) by placing them in one of nine categories defined along two axises: Good vs. Evil, (how likely a character is to behave altruistically, versus how likely he or she is to cause others harm,) and Lawful vs. Chaotic, (the degree to which a character values strict law and order versus the freedom to do whatever one wants, whenever one wants).

These categories break down as follows:



The interesting thing is that this approach did not originate in dramatic theory. It came from, of all places, role-playing board games such as Dungeons & Dragons. In these games, players create their own in-game characters governed by specific moral and ethical guidelines. However, as evidenced by the examples below, it seems these gamers stumbled upon a very simple shorthand for understanding human behavior, one that can be easily applied to dramatic storytelling to create characters audiences can quickly identify and understand.

This article provides only a basic overview of these alignments. For more comprehensive coverage, visit http://easydamus.com/alignment.html

(AUTHOR'S EDIT 3/29/13
This article has gotten a lot of attention over the last couple days, so I have chosen to provide some clarifications based off of questions I have received.



First of all, these are not strict categories. They are fuzzy around the edges. Whether certain characters fit into one or the other is open to personal interpretation on your particular views of what constitutes good or evil or what you think qualifies as law-abiding or law-defying behavior. In other words, each person’s view of the nine alignments is ironically influenced by that person’s own personal alignment in real life.



Second, these alignments merely explain how characters see the world. It is how they judge situations through their own eyes. However, this point of view does not place strict limits on every single action the person takes. A Good person may momentarily give into temptation and take a morally questionable action. A Chaotic person may from time to time concede to society’s laws as he or she struggles internally with the question over how to best overcome conflicts. But it is that person’s personal view of the world – his or her alignment – that decides whether the character feels satisfied or guilty about the action in retrospect.



Third, Good/Evil and Lawful/Chaotic are two separate, unrelated factors in how a person sees the world. To look at it like algebra, one is “x” the other is “y”. But each combination of variables creates very different modes of thought and behavior. Part of the confusion is in the terms “Lawful” and “Chaotic.” Most people think of lawfulness = goodness, and chaos = badness. So instead, it is better to think of Lawful vs. Chaotic as “Collectivist vs. Individualistic.” A Lawful person sees a society as millions of people bound together as one unit. In order for that unit to prosper, it is essential that everyone follow agreed upon rules of behavior. Therefore, a Lawful Good character believes that it is of supreme importance to maintain and enforce the purity of these rules in order for them to bring about the greatest good. Anyone who operates outside the rules is seen as a troublemaker who should be punished. A Chaotic person, in complete contrast, sees themselves and others as completely independent individuals that should have the freedom to think as do as they see fit without the interference of outside rules. Therefore, the methods a Chaotic Good hero uses are not based on what society says is proper, but by their own personal judgment. When they fight for good, it is for the life, love, and happiness of individual persons, not for abstract social concepts such as “morality” or “justice.” If this means they must blow up buildings or chop off heads to overcome evil, then so be it.



To illustrate, think of a hypothetical conflict between two heroes, Superman and Batman (I know this has been done a number of times in comics already, but I am not referencing any specific story). Superman cares most about protecting social stability. That’s why, when he sees Batman circumventing the law and undermining stability by doing things his own way, Superman believes Batman to be in the wrong. Batman, on the other hand, may see the system that Superman so strongly supports to be corrupt, inefficient, or incapable of delivering the swift justice criminals deserve. He believes Superman’s viewpoint actually does harm. Therefore, he resents any control from outside. He knows he is doing what is best and no one is going to tell him otherwise. Both characters are Good, but conflict due to the fact that they have very different ideas over what “good” actually means, and how to best achieve it.)

THE GOOD ALIGNMENTS

Characters in the morally good alignments (Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good) feel driven toward actions altruistic in nature. They see the world in terms of right and wrong, and believe it is their duty to do what they see as right. They will often go out of their way to help or defend others, even at personal cost. Characters in these categories can be easy defined as heroic.


LAWFUL GOOD



The Lawful Good are the white knights, the Eagle Scouts, the real hero-heroes of the story world. They not only believe in doing what they consider morally right, but feel it necessary to uphold concepts such as truth and justice, while at the same time preserving the sanctity of the law. Lawful Goods are moral idealists who see the rule of law as essential to the health and happiness of all. Therefore, those who defy the law must be punished. However, if the rule of society should become corrupted or grow to contradict moral ideals, the Lawful Good character will feel compelled to fight against society to put things right. Even in these cases, the Lawful Good will still prefer to fight from within a morally-approved system and will continue to follow rules in order to lead by example. The Lawful Good are honest and forthright, and will never intentionally harm another. The only times when harming another is okay is if this acts is unavoidable in order to protect oneself or others, or if necessary to protect the greater good, such as defending one's country in war. All in all, the Lawful Good live by the Golden Rule.

Examples:
Superman
Luke Skywalker - Star Wars
Maximus - Gladiator
Marge Gunderson – Fargo
Forrest Gump
Frodo Baggins – Lord of the Rings
Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – (500) Days of Summer
Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) – Saving Private Ryan


NEUTRAL GOOD



The Neutral Good also wish to do what is morally best for society, but are much more flexible in the methods they use to accomplish the greater good. While the Lawful Good believe in an abstract, idealized view of morality, the Neutral Good follow a more of a personal view of right and wrong. They do all they can to achieve what they think is right. They generally support society's laws, but unlike the Lawful Good, they are willing to bend or even break the rules if they see those rules as unjust, or if a greater and quicker good can be achieved by cutting corners. The Neutral Good will not harm the innocent, but will harm evildoers when the act is justified. They are honest and will keep their word, unless it is to an evildoer. The Neutral Good are pragmatic in their heroics, doing whatever needs to be done (within limits) in order to achieve the greatest good.

Examples:

Indiana Jones
Spider-man
John McClane – Die Hard
Rocky Balboa – Rocky
Po – Kung-Fu Panda
Jack Bauer – “24”
Jason Bourne – The Bourne Identity
Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) – The Sixth Sense


CHAOTIC GOOD



The Chaotic Good are rebellious heroes, often charismatic outsiders who see the system they live in as corrupt, incompetent, or immoral. They reject the rules of their society and see it as their duty to work outside of the system to accomplish the greater good. They are often loners at odds with societal norms, and value personal freedom above all other ideals, as opposed to the stability that comes from the strict rule of law. For the Chaotic Good, the ends justify the means and are more than willing to break the law to protect the innocent or provide the greater benefit to all mankind. Despite their lawlessness, the Chaotic Good act by strict personal moral codes. They will not harm the innocent and will act out of self-defense, but are much more willing to attack evildoers without warning when doing so is justified.

Examples:

Batman/Bruce Wayne
Robin Hood
Neo – The Matrix
Tony Stark – Iron Man
The Dude – The Big Lebowski
T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia
The Bride – Kill Bill


THE NEUTRAL ALIGNMENTS

Characters in neutral alignments, (Lawful Neutral, True Neutral, and Chaotic Neutral) tend to see themselves as decent persons, but will generally not go out of their way or take any personal risk to promote the greater good. They are more concerned with themselves and their own personal lives than society as a whole. Stories with neutral protagonists may have main characters who are morally ambiguous, morally conflicted, self-concerned, or “everyday” men and women struggling with the wants and needs of daily life.

LAWFUL NEUTRAL



The Lawful Neutral are not concerned as much with Good or Evil, but with Right and Wrong. They believe a strong society requires strong rules, and those rules must be followed to ensure stability and well-being of all. Lawful Neutrals tend to see the world in black-and-white. If something is legal, it is okay. If it is illegal, it is bad and should be avoided. The Lawful Neutral believe that rules should be enforced universally and will generally not care about the ethical gray areas enforcement may create. Lawful Neutrals tend to be self-disciplined and gravitate towards areas of civic responsibility or authority. They fit in well with society and tend to be loyal and honest. However, the Lawful Neutral will rarely take any extra effort to improve society's well-being or take any risk if it means personal discomfort- especially if these actions may disrupt stability. The Lawful Neutral will not harm the innocent, but are willing to take morally ambiguous actions against supposed evildoers if it is for the benefit of social control.

Examples:
Jake Gittes – Chinatown
Dwight Shrute - “The Office”
Ripley – Alien
Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) – Amadeus
Woody – Toy Story
Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) – Election
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) – Inception


TRUE NEUTRAL



True Neutrals are chiefly concerned with what is best for themselves at the particular moment. Their decisions are based mostly upon self-preservation and the desire to bring happiness to their own lives. Though they may be sympathetic to the less fortunate, they have no strong desire to do good for others, nor to do others harm. Neither do they have strong feelings about law and order. Instead, they simply accept the law as long as it does not interfere with their daily lives. Most people encountered in real life are true neutrals, going through life concerned mostly with their personal problems. Most True Neutrals see themselves as good persons, and will act ethically in most situations, but only because they believe ethical actions will benefit them more than unethical. True Neutrals are also highly law-abiding, but their obedience comes from fear of punishment rather than any ideological belief. Despite this, True Neutrals are prone to temptation. If they can gain greatly from breaking a law and believe they can escape punishment, True Neutrals will be tempted to do so. True Neutrals believe in moral reciprocity: Do unto others as they have done unto you.

Examples:

Rick Blaine – Casablanca
Marlin – Finding Nemo
Ben Stone (Seth Rogan) – Knocked Up
Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) – Office Space
Miles (Paul Giamatti) – Sideways
Jack (Edward Norton) – Fight Club
"Blondie" (Clint Eastwood) – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


CHAOTIC NEUTRAL



Chaotic Neutrals care for their personal freedom above everything else. Like the Chaotic Good, Chaotic Neutrals see themselves as rebels or outsiders, but unlike Chaotic Good, they are motivated only by self-interest. Chaotic Neutrals are the centers of their own world. They have little to no respect for authority, and will defy the law if they believe the benefit will outweigh the punishment. It is difficult for Chaotic Neutrals to trust others and may not keep their word. They often have a disrupting influence on their environment. However, morality and ethical behavior is not uncommon. Chaotic Neutrals will often feel conflicted between their desire for personal freedom and the needs of those they care about. Like True Neutrals, Chaotic Neutrals follow moral reciprocity. They are good to those who are good to them. A Chaotic Neutral may harm an innocent person, but will feel remorse. In contrast, they feel no remorse for harming those they consider enemies.

Examples:
Tyler Durden – Fight Club
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow – Bonnie & Clyde
Will Hunting – Good Will Hunting
Homer Simpson - “The Simpsons”
Renton – Trainspotting
Ferris Bueller – Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) – (500) Days of Summer


THE EVIL ALIGNMENTS

Evil alignments (Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil) are not only solely concerned with themselves, but they are ready and willing to harm others to achieve personal gain. Unlike the neutral alignments, there is no debate other whether an act is ethical or unethical, nor is there remorse after the act is committed. Though not all antagonists fall into evil alignments, it is impossible for a hero to successfully occupy these categories since a moral audience cannot brings themselves to anchor themselves to a person of such unethical behavior.

LAWFUL EVIL


Most world dictators can be considered Lawful Evil. The Lawful Evil generally seek to attain and hold onto positions of power, wealth, and authority, and will do whatever it takes to do so. The Lawful Evil operate by rules, generally believing in the values of order and stability, but are motivated solely by personal gain. In fact, they will often use the law as a tool of ruthless ambition. Ironically, the Lawful Evil see themselves as good persons. They often think of themselves as acting for the betterment of society. Only, to make an omelet, they must break some eggs. And this is how the Lawful Evil see the innocents that are crushed in their wake -- as mere broken eggs, acceptable losses necessary to achieve an ultimate end. Lawful Evil have little compunction against killing when necessary, but will generally not do the killing themselves, or will at least keep it quick and painless. Despite this, the Lawful Evil are the most ethical of villains. They follow a personal code of honor and will generally keep their word. Though the Lawful Evil commit unethical actions, they always justify those actions with a logic that makes it seem necessary.

Examples:
Darth Vader – Star Wars
Magneto – X-Men
Mr. Burns - “The Simpsons”
Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) – Touch of Evil
Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) – Office Space
Agent Smith – The Matrix
Doctor Zaius – Planet of the Apes


NEUTRAL EVIL


This is the alignment of most career criminals. Neutral Evils do whatever they can get away with. They are concerned solely with self-gain and do not care if they must break laws or harm innocent people to get what they want. They see the world divided into two camps: the smart and the suckers. Suckers follow the law. The smart do whatever they can get away with. Like the Neutral Good, the Neutral Evil are very pragmatic in their actions. They do whatever seems the smartest at the time. They will rarely commit evil simply for the sake of evil, and will not take foolish risks that have a high chance of capture. They form and betray alliances as it suits them. They keep and break their word as convenient. They will do whatever it takes to get ahead. The Neutral Evil will harm the innocent, and may do so for pleasure. The Neutral Evil may also help others if there is some sort of reward. Unlike the Lawful Evil, the Neutral Evil are indifferent to concepts like honor or discipline, and will use such ideals only when self-serving.

Examples:
Hans Gruber – Die Hard
Virgil Sollozzo – The Godfather
Biff Tannen – Back to the Future
Lord Farquar – Shrek
Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) – The Departed
Lex Luthor – The Superman franchise
Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) - Fargo


CHAOTIC EVIL


These characters are the worst of the worst. The Chaotic Evil will cut a path of death and destruction after whatever their greed, lust, or wrath drives them after with no regard for either the rule of law or the welfare of others. Assuredly psychopathic in nature, the Chaotic Evil are incapable of feeling sympathy for others. Nor do they wish to, since they see others as mere playthings and pawns to fulfill their sick desires. The Chaotic Evil will kill readily and will often do so for enjoyment. They think of themselves as above both law and morality, and believe anyone who follows either is a sap. They see the world as being made up of sheep and wolves. Those who have the power to take what they want should do so, and not feel the slightest twinge of conscience.

Examples:
The Joker – The Dark Knight
Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) – Schindler's List
Norma Desmond – Sunset Boulevard
The T-800 Cyborg (and T1000 in the sequel) – The Terminator
Hannibal Lecter – Silence of the Lambs
Jason Vorhees – Friday the 13th
Noah Cross (John Huston) – Chinatown


CHARACTER ALIGNMENT AND CHARACTER ARC

Some characters will shift their alignment as their character arcs progress. Not all characters will shift. Only those whose arc deals with a trait relating to Good vs. Evil or Lawfulness vs. Chaos. Characters may move -

Up: Oskar Schindler in Schindler's List (Lawful Evil to Lawful Good)
Down: Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (Chaotic Good to Chaotic Neutral)
or, Sideways: Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) in American Beauty (Lawful Neutral to Chaotic Neutral)

I have yet to see a character shift diagonally, such as from Chaotic Neutral to Neutral Good. Such a move may be impossible to achieve. Perhaps this is because the cinematic form demands simplicity in character arcs, meaning only one major trait transforms over the course of the story. A diagonal move would require a character to change in both his or her capacity for good/evil, as well as his or her views of law/chaos. It would seem such a move would require two separate character arcs, which would end up muddying and confusing the story.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Inciting Incident Ignorance


The inspiration for this month's first article is a thread I encountered on a somewhat popular screenwriters' message board (which shall remain nameless) a couple months back. The topic started simply enough, with one user asking for someone to identify the inciting incident of one of the most popular and widely-seen movies of all time, Star Wars. It seemed to be a question that needed only one or two responses from a knowledgeable reader and that be it. But instead, this thread stretched on for well over TEN PAGES. The mind-boggling thing was that most of the answers were absolutely wrong. Every moment over the first half of the movie, from its opening shot to actions that occur an hour into the film, was confidently brought forward by one user or another to be the inciting incident. The fact that there is so much widespread confusion over a concept so simple and fundamental to the cinematic narrative shines a light on why so many, -nearly all- spec scripts are so poorly put together that they bear no chance of ever being produced as a successful feature film.

I put the blame once again on the glut of screenwriting books on the market, and the confusing array of inaccurate bullshit they have spilled across the writing community over the last dozen years. Most aspiring writers assume that just because a book has been published, the author must be an expert and his or her information is accurate. This is often not the case. Since so many books lead their readers in contradictory and inaccurate directions on something as fundamental as the inciting incident, I must once again assert that most of the books on the market do the screenwriting community far more harm than good.

In this article I intend to clear the confusion by laying out once and for all what exactly is this “inciting incident”, what it does, and where is should occur.

WHAT IS THE INCITING INCIDENT?

Let's start by reviewing the basics:
  1. A STORY is defined as “a structured series of events about a character dealing with a PROBLEM, all unified by a premise.” - For the purposes of this article, the most important part of this definition is the problem. All stories at their simplest levels revolve around characters struggling with, and trying to overcome a single, particular story problem.

  2. Cinematic stories carry out their narratives through a structure known as the STORY SPINE. The Story Spine is composed of five elements: a. the Story Problem, b. the main character's Story Goal that once achieved, will overcome the problem, c. the Path of Actions the character takes to reach that goal, d. the Main Conflict that stands in the character's way of doing so, and e. the Stakes that force the character to continue pursuing that goal despite the resistance created by the conflict. - Everything in a story must relate to these five elements. If a story does not contain a spine with all five elements it will be incomplete and will fail in its execution.

Until a Story Spine has been established, the story has yet to properly begin. The story cannot yet truly advance because there is not yet any clear direction for it to go. The drama is still in the runner's blocks, waiting for the starter's pistol. Until the spine is established, the cinematic story is still in its setup sequence, the opening of a film where the storyteller communicates all important information needed to orientate the audience before the real action begins. The setup sequence is like setting up the pieces on a chess board before play begins. A piece is being put here or there, but the conflict of the game has not yet begun. The inciting incident is the moment play begins. It is the starter's pistol that leaps the story off its blocks and sends it on its path towards the finish line.

The inciting incident is defined as the moment where the Story Problem invades the protagonist's status quo life in such as way that it forces him or her to do something about it. From this point on, every story event centers on the protagonist's attempts to overcome that problem. The inciting incident is an events that works to officially start the story by setting up the Story Spine and all five of its elements. The Story Problem presents itself to the protagonist. Because of this, the protagonist forms an idea of what kind of Story Goal he or she must achieve to overcome this problem, and what is at Stake should he or she fail. The protagonist then decides what first steps must be taken down his or her Path of Action. This action incites the Main Conflict to resist his or her actions.

The inciting incident has not officially occurred until the story has reached the moment where at least some aspect of ALL five elements of the Story Spine have been established. This is likely the source of much of the confusion that can arise over what specific event in a particular story officially constitutes the inciting incident. In some stories, an event occurs that establishes all five elements of the spine immediately and simultaneously. In others, there can be a slight delay between the establishment of the Problem, the Goal, to the first step of the Path of Action, etc... This leads us to our second question:

HOW DO WE KNOW WHEN THE INCITING INCIDENT HAS OCCURED?

The inciting incident has not yet occurred until three qualifications have been met:
  1. The Story Problem exists.
  2. The protagonist becomes aware of the Story Problem.
  3. The protagonist decides to do something about that Story Problem.

      1. The Story Problem exists.
Given the definition of “story” presented above, it goes without saying that a storyline cannot begin to form until a problem arises. Before this happens, the narrative is just a bunch of people carrying on with their daily lives. However, there are many films where the source of the Story Problem presents itself immediately. Sometimes it arises in the first scene, sometimes it already exists before the movie has begun. But this does not mean that the inciting incident has already occurred.

The Story Problem of Star Wars is that the galaxy is ruled by an evil empire, an empire on the verge of crushing a virtuous rebel army that is the good people's only hope for freedom. But the moment the audience receives this information is not the inciting incident. Darth Vader then conquers Princess Leia's ship and take her prisoner. This is also not the inciting incident. Princess Leia has given R2D2 a secret mission and launched the two droid to Tatooine, where they promptly get lost. This is not the inciting incident either. Why? Because neither Princess Leia nor R2D2 are the story's protagonist. The Story Spine is all about the direct opposition between the protagonist and the source of the Story Problem/Main Conflict. The protagonist of Star Wars is Luke Skywalker. Luke Skywalker has not even appeared on screen yet. This means that all these events are nothing but setup.

      1. The protagonist becomes aware of the Story Problem.
Finally, Luke Skywalker enters the narrative when his Uncle Owen purchases the Princess's two lost droids. Though part of the Problem has now entered Luke's life, this is still not the inciting incident. Luke is still completely unaware that a problem exists or that his life has in any way changed.

But once the protagonist becomes aware of a problem, that still does not mean the inciting incident has occurred. I am personally currently aware of many dramatic problems. I am aware of the national debt crisis. I am aware of the drug cartel wars killing thousands in Mexico. I am aware of the civil uprising in Syria. But this by no means suggests that I am currently engaged in a dramatic struggle to fix any of these problems. Even though I am aware of these problems, I personally do nothing about them and continue with my daily life because these problems have not yet done anything to impact the status quo of my life in a way that would motivate me to take action. This is the same situation that exist for a protagonist at this stage.

To give an example, Lester Burnham begins American Beauty with his Story Problem already in place. His problem is that his life; with his family, his work, and his view of his own status and worth; is unacceptable to him. From the opening moments, we understand that Lester is very aware of his problem. But this does not mean that the inciting incident has occurred. Lester has yet to take any action against the problem. Instead, he just mopes through this status quo, suffering under the problem's weight. His story adventure does not start until the moment something occurs in which:

      1. The protagonist decides to do something about the problem.

American Beauty does not reach its inciting incident until the moment Lester first sees his daughter's teenage friend Angela. The lust he feels at this moment creates the “awakening” in him that motivates him to create change in his life and overcome his Story Problem out of a desire to obtain Angela.

It is important to note that the inciting incident occurs at the moment the protagonist decides to take action against the problem. Whether or not the protagonist takes physical action at that very moment is inconsequential. It is the change in the protagonist's consciousness that is important. In many stories, the protagonist may make this decision, but does not immediately have a chance to act. His or her first actions towards the his or her Story Goal may have to be slightly delayed due to the logic of the narrative. Yet still, the inciting incident has occurred. A change has been made within the will of the protagonist so that he or she is now ready, willing, and able to take action when the opportunity arises.

Given these three qualifications, what then is the real inciting incident of Star Wars?

After the droids are purchased by Uncle Owen, Luke is ordered to clean them. While performing this mundane task, Luke triggers a fragment of message recorded by Princess Leia before she was captured by Vader asking for help from Obi-Wan Kenobi. Since Luke has already expressed a desire to join the Rebel cause, he is highly intrigued by this mysterious message. He can see that a problem exists (this woman seems in desperate trouble) and, due to his Rebel sympathies, Luke feels a strong desire to find out more about the message. This is the official inciting incident. Luke's desire to do something about the message leads him on the first step of his Path of Action ( to find Obi-Wan Kenobi), which then leads him forward into every other event of the story.

Much of the confusion over the identity of Star Wars' inciting incident comes from the fact that, though Luke desires to take physical action to find Obi-Wan, he is not the character to actually make the first move to do so. Instead of Luke boldly hitting the road to find Obi-Wan, he is led to him indirectly when R2D2 runs away. This course of events turns out to be a necessity of character, not plot. Luke may want to take action, but as the story begins, he is not the type of person to be so bold. He is forbidden to act by his Uncle and can do nothing to argue. In stories where the protagonist starts as passive or powerless, he or she often need a push from an outside character to set him or her on the path of adventure. R2D2 running away was simply a way to get Luke on his Path of Action while maintaining the integrity of his character. Situations like this are why it is the moment the protagonist finds a desire to take action that predicates the inciting incident, not the moment when that action is actually taken.


INCITING INCIDENT IGNORANCE AT WORK

One of my biggest surprises of 2008 was the movie Taken. My surprise was not because such a small film performed respectively at the box office. I was surprised that such an amateur screenplay was produced in the first place. Taken's script is a joke, highlighted first by the writers' inability to understand their own inciting incident.
 
Taken is the story of a father's attempt to rescue his daughter after she is kidnapped while vacationing in Paris. The simplest way to pinpoint an inciting incident is to ask what the story's main conflict is about, and then identify the moment that launches that conflict. Given the premise of Taken, this would have to be the moment the kidnapping occurs and the father decides to rescue her. But instead, the writers thought the inciting incident to be to be the moment when the daughter asks to go to Paris. If Taken's story was all about a father who feels sad that his daughter has gone abroad, this might work, but it is not. The daughter leaving for Paris is nothing more than another piece of setup. It does not begin the story's main conflict and definitely does not launch the Story Spine. The real inciting incident (the kidnapping) is then placed extremely late in the narrative, at the end of the first act, resulting in a movie whose opening 30 minutes are nothing but a snorefest with few events of real significance. This mistake threatened to lose the entire audience before the story could even start.
 
Taken faltered because it failed to identify which event belonged where in its structure. On the other hand, I am shocked at how many screenwriting books are so ignorant that they confuse the inciting incident with the first act turning point entirely. I have seen many that state that the inciting incident does not occur until the end of the first act- 30 minutes into the film! Let me say that another way. These books believe it to be good screencraft to keep audiences waiting for a full half hour until something worth a damn happens. This is longer than an entire television sitcom. Any book that believes and audience will sit and wait for that amount of time before the conflict engages and the story finally begins proves it does not know what it is talking about. If you want to bore your audience and make them wonder why in hell they are sitting through this crap, go ahead and take these books' advice. Otherwise, throw the damn things out a window.

To see the effects of a long-delayed inciting incident, take a look at 2002's Minority Report. Minority Report is the futuristic story of a detective tasked with arresting pre-visioned murders before they can happen, who himself becomes framed for one of these murders. Given this premise, the inciting incident is clearly the moment when the detective finds he has been fingered for murder and decides to take action. Only this inciting event does not occur until FORTY minutes into the film! It takes forty whole minutes for the real story to begin! Everything before this moment is nothing more than a long, tedious setup filled with techno-babble, long-winded exposition, and a lot of Tom Cruise waving his fingers around. The final film could have been greatly improved if only its storytellers had recognized their inciting incident was misplaced and done some simple editing to move it to its proper position. That way, the audience did not have to wait through forty minutes of this “action-thriller” before that action finally began.