I just finished reading “Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction” by William Bernhardt. It’s the first book in a series called the “Red Sneaker Writer Series.” It was a great book and I plan to read the others.
In case you don’t want to read the whole thing, I’ll tell you my favorite takeaway from the whole book:
The Inciting Incident is a crucial part of any story. It radically upsets the protagonist’s life and turns the normal world upside down. The Inciting Incident is so critical that it inevitably leads to the Climax of the story.
So any story worth it’s salt goes like this:
Inciting Incident -> Mounting Action and Conflict -> Climax
The structure is basically the same for a Dr. Seuss story or a Tolstoy Novel or any Romantic Comedy on the big screen.
I like using “Breaking Bad” as an example, because so many people saw the show, and because it has such an incredibly satisfying story arch.
So in “Breaking Bad”, what is the Instigating Incident? It’s when Walter White first contacts his former student Jesse, and enters into the drug world. How do we know this? Because before this, Walter White’s story was just a normal one. It could have been me or you or anyone. He was a teacher, a family man, he had some successes and failures in life. Even his cancer illness did not make him extraordinary as a character.
But once he enters into the drug world, he becomes a different character altogether. We know this is the instigating incident of the story because, it is so profound and so world-changing, that it’s bound to lead directly to the climax.
Even though the climax happens so many episodes and seasons later, it’s all a direct causal result of that first time Walter and Jesse cooked crystal meth together.
Subconsciously as readers and viewers we understand all of these aspects of story structure. We’ve seen them played out a million times. We are invested in Walter White because we want to see what happens. Until he either succeeds or fails miserably, we will keep watching. After he succeeds or fails miserably, there’s no reason for the show to go on.
If the writers want to continue the story arcs of other characters, like Saul or Jesse, they’ll have to do so in another series.
When the Climax solves the problem that the Inciting Incident originally caused, that's when the credits roll.