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Story Math: Inciting Incident + Break Into Act 2 + Climax = Satisfaction

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Sometimes story structure “rules” get blasted for being too rigid, or for promoting formulaic stories. But… don’t you think that complaint misses the point?

The only purpose of story structure is to organize story elements to create an effect on the audience.

That’s it.

As you have probably experienced, sometimes you run into a story that was written “by the beats” and it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t keep your interest. It has no soul.

And we certainly don’t want that.

But that generally happens when a story is written by the numbers, checking off the list of structure to-do’s, without a real understanding of why story structure works, how it creates the desired effect.

The more you understand the connections between story elements and how they work together to create the audience’s experience, the easier it is to construct effective stories.

It all adds up to audience satisfaction

Today we’re going to add one more tool to your toolbox: the Inciting Incident + Break into Act 2 + Climax equation. (That’s right, more story math!)

Here’s a quick visual guide to where these elements occur in the timeline of your story:

There’s a natural question-answer relationship between these three story elements that adds up to a satisfying experience for the audience. When these elements line up, they draw us into the story through curiosity (question) and then close the loop so our brains can relax (answer).

(By the way, this equation works whether you’re inventing your story from scratch, or you’re adapting a novel or other IP, or you’re turning real life events into a screenplay or novel.)

The Inciting Incident – Break into Act 2 relationship

A few weeks ago we talked about the relationship between the Inciting Incident and the Break into 2, and today we’re going to expand on that story math. But first a quick recap:

The Inciting Incident presents a problem (or sometimes an opportunity) that the protagonist must contend with (which is established soon after if it’s not immediately apparent when the Inciting occurs). The Break Into 2 solidifies the protagonist’s solution, the plan they’re about to embark on in an attempt to address the problem/opportunity.

Movie examples:

Little Miss Sunshine

  • Inciting Incident: Aunt Cindy calls with news of Olive’s place in the Little Miss Sunshine contest. (problem/opportunity)
  • Break Into Act 2: The family hits the road, determined to get Olive to California so she can compete. (chosen solution)

Die Hard

  • Inciting Incident: Terrorists arrive at the Nakatomi building. (problem/opportunity)
  • Break Into Act 2: John McClane begins trying to save the hostages from the terrorists. (chosen solution)

Bridesmaids

  • Inciting Incident: Annie’s best friend Lillian announces her engagement and asks Annie to be Maid of Honor. (problem/opportunity)
  • Break Into Act 2: Annie commits to getting along with wealthy, perfect (competitor for Lillian’s friendship) Helen, in order to be Lillian’s Maid of Honor. (chosen solution)

The Ring

  • Inciting Incident: Rachel is asked to investigate the mysterious death of her niece. (problem/opportunity)
  • Break Into Act 2: In the process, Rachel becomes cursed and now she REALLY has to solve the mystery to save her own life. (chosen solution)

With that in place, now let’s expand our view a bit. Let’s zoom out and look at the big picture, and another relationship that exists in any tight, cohesive story.

Story math: Inciting Incident + Break into Act 2 + Climax = Satisfaction

When the Break into Act 2 shows us what the protagonist is trying to accomplish in this movie (the chosen solution), it creates a question in the audience’s mind: Will he succeed?

This question is what we’re tracking through Act 2. We’re hoping for him to succeed, and dreading what will happen if he fails. And everything that happens in the story plays on that hope-fear push-pull. That’s how the story keeps us riveted.

Agreed? Okay. So, you have a question created at the Break into Act 2. The Climax of the story, then, answers that question. That’s where the audience knows whether the protagonist ultimately succeeded or failed and how everything shakes out.

Remember, story structure is all about the effect you’re trying to have on the audience. And that effect pretty much boils down to capturing and keeping their interest, and then delivering a satisfying resolution to the experience. This question-and-answer dynamic naturally does that.

So, if it’s helpful, you can think of the relationship between these three elements as:

  • Inciting Incident: Something happens that causes the audience to ask, What’s he going to do about this?
  • Break into Act 2: The audience sees/understands what the plan or chosen solution is. The Inciting Incident question is answered, but a new question forms. Ah, THAT’S what he’s going to do… But will he succeed?
  • Climax: The Break into Act 2 question is answered as the audience sees/understands whether the protagonist has succeeded. The audience either gets what they’ve been hoping for, or not. Yes, he succeeded… or No, he failed…

And sometimes it’s not JUST a yes-or-no answer and instead you’ll see a Yes, but… or No, but… which can be bittersweet or otherwise tonally-satisfying, or more emotionally satisfying because of the lesson it carries. Like, “Yes, he defeated the antagonist, but… he had to sacrifice something important to make it happen.”  Or, “No, she didn’t win the contest, but… she found her true calling in the process.”

Story math movie examples

So let’s look at our examples again, and build out our whole question-answer story framework:

Little Miss Sunshine

  • Inciting Incident: Aunt Cindy calls with news of Olive’s place in the Little Miss Sunshine contest. (What are they going to do about this?)
  • Break Into Act 2: The family hits the road, determined to get Olive to California so she can compete. (Ah, that’s what they’re going to do, but will they succeed??)
  • Climax: Olive dances her heart out and the rest of the family joins in – looking foolish but having a great time. (No, they didn’t get the “win”, but… the whole family got something even better: a new appreciation for each other and a new perspective on just what it means to be a winner or loser.)

Die Hard

  • Inciting Incident: Terrorists arrive at the Nakatomi building. (What’s he going to do about this?)
  • Break Into Act 2: John McClane begins trying to save the hostages from the terrorists. (Ah, that’s what he’s going to do, but will he succeed??)
  • Climax: John McClane frees the hostages, including his wife, and they take down terrorist/thief Hans Gruber. (Yes, the protagonist succeeded and we got what we were hoping for!)

Bridesmaids

  • Inciting Incident: Annie’s best friend Lillian announces her engagement and asks Annie to be Maid of Honor. (What’s she going to do about this?)
  • Break Into Act 2: Annie commits to getting along with wealthy, perfect (competitor for Lillian’s friendship) Helen, in order to be Lillian’s Maid of Honor. (Ah, that’s what she’s going to do, but will she succeed??)
  • Climax: Annie finds the runaway bride, saves the wedding, and stands beside her best friend as Maid of Honor. (Yes, she succeeded and we got what we were hoping for!)

The Ring

  • Inciting Incident: Rachel is asked to investigate the mysterious death of her niece. (What’s she going to do about this?)
  • Break Into Act 2: In the process, Rachel becomes cursed and now she REALLY has to solve the mystery to save her own life. (Ah, that’s what she’s going to do, but will she succeed??)
  • Climax: Rachel realizes the only way to beat the curse is to pass it along to someone else. (Yes, she succeeded, but… the way she achieved it is a wicked twist that’s fitting for the genre!)

A screenwriting theory of everything

Sometimes it’s maddening just how interconnected everything in a screenplay should be. You make one little change and there’s a ripple effect. One element isn’t quite aligned and the whole thing feels off.

But these connections can also be tools to help you create a cohesive story that works from every angle – and creates engagement in your audience.

So please don’t check the story structure boxes just because I said so. (Ha! Like you’d do that…) Instead, look at how the elements work together to give your audience a satisfying experience. And use the built-in answer-question dynamic between these three story elements to create the framework to support it.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe