As a long-time fan of Robert McKee’s book Story and having attended one of his weekend seminars, I’ve admired his analysis of the film Ordinary People feeling as though he’s one of the few to identify and articulate the roles of the central and subplot – but admittedly always felt something wasn’t quite right with regards to his reading of the inciting incident. Re-reading the passages lately and re-watching the film, I think I’ve found where my issues reside and the resulting piece is an attempt to provide some deeper understanding.
“The INCITING INCIDENT radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.” — Robert McKee, from his book Story (New York, NY: HarperCollins) p. 189
Every story has to start somewhere. We’re onlookers, peering into the lives of individuals who have complete lives and stories before we happen upon them – and it’s only a matter of time before something happens to drive the story forward. As any author should well know, there’s a reason why we choose to start a story where we do and its almost always on the cusp of something happening, as McKee states, that radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.
That event, the story’s inciting incident, is also likened by some as the moment we go from the frying pan into the fire and is often readily apparent to the audience because of the shift in focus to rising complications (the recent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a good example wherein one of the simians, Ash, is shot by a human, upsetting the balance between species who struggle to deal with the consequences for the remainder of the film).
But there are some films where the incident is deliberately misleading, as in A Beautiful Mind, that it’s completely misinterpreted – or in the case of Ordinary People, unassuming and subtle to the extent it’s often misidentified altogether.
As the film opens we’re introduced to Conrad Jarrett singing in a high school choir, his behavior suggestive that all is not right with a blank stare straight ahead between quick glances at the lyrics before suddenly awakening sweaty from a nightmare with bursts of short breaths. Meanwhile, Conrad’s parent’s, Beth and Calvin, enjoy a night out watching a play which cleverly hints at the central plot’s problem via dialogue on stage:
Husband (re: coffee): “Two lumps?”
Wife: “No, one.”
Husband: “So I don’t know everything about you. I don’t know who your favorite movie stars are and I can’t remember the name of your favorite perfume. I’ve racked my brain and I can’t remember.”
Wife: “It’s funny. It’s ‘My Sin’.”
Husband: “But I do know for the last twenty-four years, I’ve never been out of love with you.”
These scenes, accompanied by the montage of tranquil scene set to Pachebel’s Canon in D major, provide the calm before a storm that takes its time building up before unleashing its devastating effects. But as McKee notes, we’re actually in between storms, both literally and metaphorically, as the events to the story’s subplot have taken place prior to the start of the film:
“ORDINARY PEOPLE carries a central plot and a subplot that are often mistaken for each other because of their unconventional design. Conrad is the protagonist of the film’s subplot with an Inciting Incident that takes the life of his older brother during a storm at sea.” Ibid., p. 204.
McKee does an excellent job delineating the subplot from the central plot here and while some may decry the subplot’s inciting incident happens before the movie, it is indeed fully realized in the present tense as part of Conrad’s nightmares as a flashback. Though we’re not given the full details of exactly what happened, its placement gives us all the context we need and the precipice to jolt Conrad into taking action (seeing Dr. Berger).
“The central plot is driven by Conrad’s father, Calvin. Although seemingly passive, he is by definition the protagonist: the empathetic character with the will and capacity to pursue desire to the end of the line.” Ibid., p. 204.
Sounds good to me. So where does McKee place the inciting incident for the central plot?
“Beth puts a plate of French toast under her son’s face. He refuses to eat. She snatches the plate away, marches to the sink, and scrapes his breakfast down a garbage disposal, muttering: ‘You can’t keep French toast.’
Director Robert Redford’s camera cuts to the father as the man’s life crashes. Calvin instantly senses that the hatred is back with a vengeance. Behind it hides something fearful. This chilling event grips the audience with dread as it reacts, thinking: ‘Look what she just did to her child! He’s just home from the hospital and she’s doing this number on him.” Ibid., p. 205.
This is where I feel McKee goes slightly amiss, taking liberties by stating Beth “hates” Conrad and that Calvin instantly senses it. He then goes on to apply a posteriori knowledge to these early events, prescribing it to the audience’s reception when in actuality, the audience isn’t yet aware Conrad has made a suicide attempt, nor are they privy to his returning from the hospital.
The characters themselves are obviously very well aware of their backstories, thus the way they act/react to one another giving us, the audience, a sense of what lies beneath their somewhat “ordinary” appearances. Likewise, Calvin’s reaction to Beth’s trashing the French toast is one of incredulity and shock – not the subjective reading of one’s world crashing McKee offers – but it does provide an impetus for the audience to further clue in to the issues bubbling under the surface.
When Conrad bemoans later that Beth hates him, Calvin defends her and Beth herself adamantly denies the perception by screaming “Mother’s don’t hate their sons!” during a confrontation on the golf course. McKee takes some further liberties, going so far as to say she wanted only one child and has always hated Conrad and that he’s always felt it. Whether or not McKee derived some of this from reading the novel the film is based on I’m not sure as I haven’t read it myself, but nowhere in the film are these assumptions even remotely inferred. Instead, they seem more like speculations on the backstory in order to justify the importance of Beth’s trashing the French toast and giving the event more gravitas than perhaps it deserved.
While it’s clear Beth doesn’t love Conrad in the same manner she loved her first born Bucky, the absence of love doesn’t necessarily equate to hate that McKee invokes in his analysis. The fact is Calvin, as he later admits to Dr. Berger in his own private therapy session, knew something was wrong prior to Conrad’s suicide attempt – he just couldn’t, or didn’t want to, put his finger on it. It’s only through the exploration of Conrad’s storyline, and Calvin’s bearing witness to it, that Calvin himself is able to come to a greater understanding about where the problem truly resides as he tries to keep his family from further turmoil. As he eludes to Bucky’s death in the climatic speech, “We would have been alright if there hadn’t been any mess.”
Does that mean McKee is wrong in his interpretation of what the central plot’s inciting incident is? No, not necessarily. A story’s analysis isn’t based on audience reception; rather it’s done once all the empirical data/evidence is reviewed (e.g. the film) – but at the same time, neither should it be based on liberties taken from a subjective reading/interpretation that makes assumptions and draws conclusions.
Could it have been better postulated? Yes, by an objective approach to events that happen on screen – and surprisingly McKee offers a remedy for this early on in his discussion without actually applying it in this particular case when he states that, on occasion, an inciting incident requires two steps: a set up and a payoff. Fortunately, this one-two punch can be seen objectively in both Ordinary People‘s inciting incident and climax (or as McKee states, “obligatory scene,” the event the audience expects to happen before the story can finish as a direct result of the inciting incident itself).
By using the French toast scene as a payoff to the preceding scene’s set up, we get an immediate answer to the question it poses – otherwise the toast down the drain lacks that gravitas it really needs to propel the story forward because it’s merely an act without context and that’s exactly what the set up does (provide context).
The Inciting Incident Set Up:
Upon returning home from the play – a sequence that gives us a hint of the “ordinary lives” of this family – Calvin climbs the staircase and notices something amiss.
Conrad’s awake in his bedroom with the light on after having woken from his nightmare. As we’ll later find out, Conrad has recently returned home from a stint at the hospital after a suicide attempt. Though this backstory is not readily apparent to us, the audience, the light being on has enough significance to Calvin to warrant his concern and force action (he checks on Conor). This set up of shot-POV-reaction gives us insight into Calvin as we sense his concern in what otherwise may seem a rather innocuous scene. Simply put: it’s there for a reason.
But the bedroom light is not the only thing to catch Calvin’s attention.
Beth’s walked right by Conrad’s door without so much as a glance. For the audience, the reasons are unknown just as why we’re unsure of Calvin’s concern – all of which stems from the backstory.
Perplexed, Calvin’s more of a deliberation type rather than one who takes action. As such, he’s left to ponder his thoughts – but his reaction is enough to clue the audience to the waters not being quite as calm as he perceived.
In and of itself, the scene alerts the audience to the possibilities of conflict. We know something’s not right by the sequencing of shots and reaction shots. The trashing of the French toast in the following scene is essentially a dramatic event that validates Calvin’s suspicion all is not right. But rather than “the man’s life crashes” as McKee suggested, Calvin reacts incredulously – much like a man who doesn’t quite understand yet what the problem is, but has just born witness to its symptoms manifesting into problematic behaviors.
The central plot’s climax – the obligatory scene connected to the inciting incident – brings about the final confrontation between Beth and Calvin.
Prior to this is the scene that provides the moment of truth for Calvin. It shouldn’t be surprising that it occurs when the central and subplots intersect with the three principles. This is where the resolution to Conrad’s subplot occurs, but it happens in such a way that harkens back to the inciting incident set up (hint: follow Calvin’s eyes as he deliberates in both scenes. It’s also worth mentioning that the pay off for each happens in the same location: the kitchen, the inciting incident during the sunlit morning and the emotional climax during the dark hours of night).
Conrad’s subplot effectively ends when he’s able to give his mother a hug.
The action provides a successful end to Conrad’s plight, but…
…Beth’s reaction, as viewed by Calvin, answers the question that earlier action of her passing by Conrad’s door and subsequent trashing of his French toast provoked.
Beth turns her head, unable to bear what just happened – in essence revealing her truth.
Calvin’s ultimate realization mirrors the downward, contemplative glance from when Beth walked by Conrad’s door – except this time he knows where this is going, the subsequent scene being the emotional climax to the central plot.
By using McKee’s own suggested approach of a set up/pay off for the inciting incident, we’re given a stronger, objective reading of events: the set up posing the question to the audience (via Calvin’s perspective) and the pay off answering it – still in a very subtle way – without a need to prescribe all sorts of subjective readings that aren’t part of the actual story.