A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. And your life is a story.
I don’t know about you, but I sure hate the conflict part. Some people seem to thrive on conflict and the stimulation of heated back and forth exchanges, but it makes me want to hide under the covers.
Donald Miller, author of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, attended one of screenwriter Robert McKee’s infamous weekend workshops and quotes what McKee said about conflict and character development:
‘You have to go there. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.’ He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before.
‘You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this.’
He got louder. ‘Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.’
His voice was like thunder now. ‘You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.’
Sigh. I wish it didn’t have to be that hard.
That’s why screenwriters have to introduce “inciting incidents” into a screenplay, because characters have to be forced; they don’t choose to move or take action. Humans naturally seek stability and comfort so they need an inciting incident or they won’t enter into a story.
The inciting incident is how you get a character to do something; it’s the doorway through which they can’t return.
Unlike with creating scenes, it’s harder to create our own inciting incidents. They are usually forced upon us. I hate that part too.
When daughter #2 was diagnosed with type 1/juvenile diabetes at age 4 that was an inciting incident… it wasn’t any easier when daughter #1 was diagnosed with it seven years later…each job loss and financial difficulty was an inciting incident I could have lived without… marital strain and other relationship conflicts were inciting incidents I gladly would’ve taken a pass on too.
Like anyone else, I’ve spent my share of time on the “I can’t take it anymore” ledge.
Yet without inciting incidents there isn’t a story. Dang.
But, ultimately, the view is a lot better from the ledge than it is from under the covers, I guess.