We talk about story being an arc, but in many ways it is more of a circle. A well-constructed story is a seamless whole in which its two halves reflect each other. We see this clearly in classic story structure, and perhaps nowhere more crucially than in the link between a story’s Inciting Event and Climactic Moment.
I often talk about how the Inciting Event in the First Act and the Climactic Moment in the Third Act must bookend each other—or how the Inciting Event must ask a question that the Climactic Moment answers. A few weeks ago in a comment on the post “7 Considerations for Your Antagonist’s Motivations,” Leto asked:
Can you explain a bit more on how the Inciting Event asks a question that the Climactic Moment should be answering in the result of the battle/choice the protagonist makes in the Climax? I still have some issues picturing how the antagonistic force will be the glue that joins the Inciting Incident and the Climactic Moment together and I’d love to read more about this from you.
Structurally speaking, the Inciting Event is what fully initiates the story’s conflict, while the Climactic Moment is what fully resolves it. As such, they frame and define the entire story. Together, they create one of many resonant pairings within a story’s structure, in which the first half sets up and/or foreshadows what is then paid off in the second half.
When viewed like this, you can see how all the major beats are joined in important pairings. Not only do individual beats in the first half set up the beats directly following (e.g., the Inciting Event sets up the First Plot Point), they also set up their mate in the second half (e.g., the Inciting Event sets up the Climactic Moment and the First Plot Point sets up the Third Plot Point). This is also true on a thematic level, in which beats in the first half may symbolically foreshadow images and ideas that are echoed by their second-half partners.
If this sounds daunting or over-complicated, don’t worry. If you understand the function of each of the major structural beats, you’re probably already instinctively pairing them. But if you find your story’s structure isn’t working, it may be because the two halves of your story aren’t offering enough cohesion and resonance.
In future posts, we may look more deeply into all the pairings, but for today let’s examine the link between your story’s Inciting Event and Climactic Moment—and how these two important beats frame your story’s entire conflict.
Structurally Speaking: What Is the Inciting Event?
First, a quick refresher. What is the Inciting Event? Different authors and instructors use the term “Inciting Event” (or “Inciting Incident”) to refer to different things. But structurally speaking, the Inciting Event is the Call to Adventure—the moment when your protagonist is first asked to engage with the conflict in a definite way.
This Call will be resisted in some way:
- The protagonist’s initial refusal to engage.
- The protagonist’s attempts to negotiate a different type of engagement.
- Someone else’s refusal on the protagonist’s behalf.
- Someone else’s advice as to why the protagonist’s acceptance of the Call is unwise.
The idea is to reverse the beat, to create conflict, and to raise the stakes. The Inciting Event is the First Act’s turning point, which means it will usually happen around 12% of the way into the book.
There is some fluidity to this, in that occasionally stories will start deeply in medias res with the Call to Adventure. However, for the sake of pacing, the story will still require a definite turning point halfway through the First Act, which more fully engages the protagonist with the conflict and, eventually, pairs with the Climactic Moment.
Usually, it is not recommended to open your first chapter with the Inciting Event/Call to Adventure since this robs you of the ability to use the first half of the First Act to strongly set up your characters, their Normal World, and the situation that is about to engender the story’s main conflict. The purpose of the first few scenes is to dramatize the character’s Normal World problems, including the Lie She Believes. This is the reason she will engage with the conflict throughout the rest of the story.
Structurally Speaking: What Is the Climactic Moment?
Just as the Inciting Event marks the turning point halfway through the First Act, the Climax marks the turning point halfway through the Third Act. Whatever conflict was introduced in the Inciting Event will be resolved in the Climax, culminating in the Climactic Moment when the final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonistic force decides whether or not the protagonist will reach his plot goal and in what state he will end the story.
Although the story will likely feature a few “clean-up” scenes in a subsequent Resolution, the Climactic Moment is the story’s true end.
(And for those of you who are already wondering, here’s the link to the Second Act Timeline graphic.)
Recognizing the Causal Link Between Your Inciting Event and Your Climactic Moment
You can think of the link between your story’s Inciting Event and Climactic Moment in a few different ways:
The Inciting Event and the Climactic Moment are the first and last moments of significance within the main conflict (even though they are not likely to be the literal first and last moments within the story itself). As such, they bookend the entire conflict. For the story to work, they must be a matched set.
For Example: In Brooklyn, both the Inciting Event and the Climactic Moment involve the protagonist leaving Ireland for America. The Inciting Event kicks off her story of trying to make a new life as an immigrant in New York City, while the Climactic Moment finally resolves her inner conflict between her new life and her old life, as she chooses to leave Ireland behind for good and return once more to her new home in America.
Another way of ensuring that the Inciting Event and Climactic Moment are cohesively paired is to think of the Inciting Event as a question that the Climactic Moment must answer. There doesn’t always have to be a literal question to be answered, but there will always be at least the implicit question of “how will this conflict resolve?” Whatever conflict is resolved in the Climactic Moment—with whatever antagonistic force—is the story’s conflict and must be set up at least by implication in the Inciting Event.
For Example: An explicit question/answer format is most obvious in mysteries, such as Gone Baby Gone, which brings its protagonist into the conflict via a case of a missing little girl and ends in the Climactic Moment with the discovery of what has really happened to her.
- Conflict Begins/Conflict Resolves
Although you can get a little more conscious and elaborate with your pairing of Inciting Event and Climactic Moment, their basic function in all stories must be to signal the beginning and ending of the conflict. In this way, the Inciting Event always asks the question, “Will the protagonist reach her goal?” and the Climactic Moment always provides the answer.
For Example: The Inciting Event in The Martian occurs when astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars. This kicks off his story-long goal of surviving long enough to be rescued. The conflict is resolved and this goal is reached in the Climactic Moment when Mark is finally retrieved by his team.
6 Questions to Help Set Up Your Inciting Event and Climactic Moment
1. What Question Is Implicit in Your Inciting Event?
You may identify an explicit question (e.g., whodunit?), or the question may be generally connected to the protagonist’s goal or desire, or it may have to do with whether or not the protagonist will overcome an antagonistic force that has already been introduced in the First Act. If the antagonistic force has not yet been introduced, the protagonist will meet the antagonist in the First Plot Point as a direct result of his emerging goal. Either way, the protagonist’s desire must prompt a goal that brings him into conflict with the antagonistic force, and this conflict must be cohesive throughout the story all the way to its conclusion in the Climactic Moment.
2. What Answer Is Explicit in Your Climactic Moment?
The Climactic Moment is always definitive—and therefore easy to spot. Sometimes, in fact, it is easier to spot than the Inciting Event. If you’re uncertain whether your Inciting Event and Climactic Moment are linked, consider what is actually decided in the Climactic Moment. Is this outcome set up in some way—even if just through foreshadowing (the weakest option, but still acceptable)—in the Inciting Event?
3. How Is the Antagonist Present in the Inciting Event?
The antagonistic force will always be explicitly present in the Climactic Moment (whether it is personified as a human character or not). However, the antagonistic force will not always be physically on the scene in the Inciting Event.
In some stories, the protagonist may not personally meet the antagonist until the end of the story (if at all), or the protagonist may not directly feel the impact of the antagonist’s opposition until the Doorway of No Return at the First Plot Point.
Regardless, it is still important to at least set up the antagonistic force, by implication, in the Inciting Event. The happenings of the Inciting Event are what will bring the protagonist into direct conflict with the antagonistic force.
4. How Does the Protagonist Come Face to Face With the Antagonist in the Climactic Moment?
The antagonistic force must be present in the Climactic Moment. This is most obviously true if the antagonist is a person. However, that person may also be represented by a proxy (e.g., a lawyer may represent an antagonistic corporation in a trial story, or an enemy army may oppose the protagonist without being personified as a specific human antagonist). In other stories, the antagonistic force will not be human but rather circumstantial (e.g., an uninhabitable planet) or even the protagonist’s own inner drama (as we see in Brooklyn with the protagonist’s inner conflict between her old life and the new—which is briefly personified by the toxic village lady who threatens to “expose” her marriage to an Italian boy in NYC).
5. How Does Conflict Link the Two?
What the Inciting Event sets up and the Climactic Moment resolves must be connected by a solid line of dominoes within the plot. Although your story may feature subplots and asides, the main structural throughline must solidly support the pairing of Inciting Event and Climactic Moment. At the least, you’ll want to double-check that all of your main structural beats (as shown at the beginning of the post) are links in the chain between Inciting Event and Climactic Moment. If you want to go a step further, you can continue to use this pairing as the litmus test for the necessity and effectiveness of every single scene in between.
6. How Does Theme Link the Two?
Finally, you can use the mirror-image resonance of your Inciting Event and Climactic Moment as a way to double-check and enhance your theme.
You can do this explicitly by introducing thematic arguments in the Inciting Event which reach some kind of resolution in the Climactic Moment. Most obviously, this can be done through the Lie Your Character Believes at the Inciting Event compared to the Truth found in the Climactic Moment.
You can also use subtler techniques of symbolism and imagery, which you can introduce in the Inciting Event and then hark back to in the Climactic Moment.
Trying to wrangle a lengthy story into making sense all the way through is one of a writer’s chief challenges. Recognizing the points of symmetry found in a story’s beginning and ending can provide one useful tool in making certain that everything is—quite literally—lining up in your story’s structure.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you identify a link between your story’s Inciting Event and Climactic Moment? Tell me in the comments!
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