The magical trio–Normal World, Inciting Incident, and Call to Action–is what makes your story “go.”
They are the story engine that propels your protagonist into conflict and the unknown and gives your screenplay momentum to carry the audience through.
So, what are they? Let's break it down.
Talking about the normal world often inspires an “Oh, man” moment.
Which means that the normal world is probably not something you’ve given much thought to—but once you do, you say “Oh, man, I knew that.”
It’s so simple, so obvious. How does it work? Here’s how:
The protagonist has a normal world, just as you do, just as I do, just as we all do. It’s where we live. It is our comfort zone. We know this world. Our friends are here. We know the streets. It’s our school, our neighborhood. It’s home.
All of that “knowing” means one thing: the normal world is conflict-free. That’s not good. Because, as you know, we need conflict: all drama is conflict.
So, as the writer, what do you do?
You jolt the protagonist out of her comfort zone, out of her normal world.
Alice dives down the rabbit hole.
Jack climbs the beanstalk.
Dorothy tornadoes Kansas.
Carl Fredrickson floats off to South America.
Sheriff Brody, in Jaws, leaves land for the sea. (By the way, Brody’s afraid of the water. Brilliant!)
Leaving the normal world is both terrifying and exciting. It marks the beginning of a journey!
Build the World: Make it smart, make it fast.
You, the writer, must establish the protagonist’s normal world in Act One. Do it fast. Make sure the audience knows where and what the protagonist’s normal world is.
Why? Because by the end of Act One, you must kick your protagonist out of her normal world Jolt her out of comfort and into . . . conflict.
By the beginning of Act Two, we want to be on the road and in pursuit of the objective. No time to waste.
You might be thinking that the protagonist doesn’t always physically leave their normal world. You’re right. But, frequently the protagonist’s world is irrevocably changed forever, and it’s always for the same reason: force the protagonist out of the known and into the unknown.
The “Inciting Incident” incites action. In one quick beat, the protagonist’s life is turned upside down and changed forever. Life, as the protagonist knows it, will never be the same.
This is the moment is, arguably, when the movie begins. It is also the movie-beat that sets the protagonist in motion.
The Normal World and Inciting Incident are often tied to one another, as it is the Inciting Incident that pushes the protagonist out of her normal world.
In Kramer vs. Kramer, Ted’s wife, Joanna, walks out, leaving him with a child and domestic duties, which he is not prepared to handle. As you can imagine, his life will never be the same.
To leave or not to leave?
You’re right . . . Ted doesn’t leave his normal world (New York City), but . . . his Normal World is no longer normal. In fact, without his wife, it is highly abnormal. So, the result is the same. He might as well have gone to, well, Paradise Falls.
As you can see, the Elements of Story are all tied together. One element bumps into the next, creating a series of event, a chain reaction, otherwise known as story or plot.
Call to Action
This is the protagonist’s moment of doubt and question. Aware that this journey is no small thing, the protagonist hesitates. She pauses and considers the choice. This confirms, for the protagonist and the audience, that the journey might be a rough one.
Ultimately, of course, the protagonist must accept the Call to Action and take the leap. Otherwise, there’s no movie.
The Call to Action has universal appeal. Everyone, at some time or another, has heard the Call to Action and taken the leap in their own lives.
For many, the original encounter with the call to action is the first day of kindergarten. Home is the normal world. It’s safe, comfortable.
Then, suddenly, at the ripe old age of four or five, you’re pushed out of the nest. Your mentors, mom and dad, drop you off and disappear, like Good Witch Glinda floating away in a bubble.
You walk, alone, into a new and unfamiliar (unfamiliar = big and scary) schoolhouse. This new world is full of strangers. It’s smells strange. It’s noisy. It’s terrifying!
It is no surprise that most first-day kindergartens wonder if they’ll live to see the 3:00 pick-up.
Day two is easier. Day three better. Until, eventually, this is your normal world. Just wait, pretty soon they’re going to whisk you off to middle school—another unknown.
Like you as a five-year-old, the protagonist isn’t sure she wants to embark. But, embark she does, and we’re off to the races.
In Jaws, Sherriff Brody’s Call to Action comes in the harshest of terms. He didn’t close the beaches, although he knew he should have. Brody’s refusal to do what was right resulted in the death of the “boy on the yellow raft.”
In the Call to Action, the boy’s mother (dressed in black, coming from funeral) confronts Brody, blames him for her son’s death and then slaps him across the face. Brody, shamed, knows what he must do. Kill the shark!
The Call to Action can be followed by a moment of preparation. Brody and team load onto the boat, readying the ropes, rifles, spear guns, etc.
In war and sports movies, soldiers and players suit-up, put on shoulder pads, helmets, rifles, as they prepare for battle.
You, at five, may have put on your new back-to-school clothes, even a new backpack, as you prepared for the onslaught of those other five year olds and big-bad teachers.
- The Normal world is the protagonist’s comfort zone, home.
- Establish the Normal World quickly in Act One.
- The Inciting Incident turns the protagonist’s world upside down. Life will never be the same.
- The Call to Action—which is frequently tied to the Inciting Incident—is the event that pushed the protagonist to take action.
- Answering the Call to Action means leaving Normal World.