“Most of us have some old pain or hurt that we don’t think about all the time, but which is always vulnerable on some level of awareness…To humanize a hero or any character, give her a wound, a visible, physical injury or deep emotional wound.”
The Writer’s Journey
Because it’s probably never been done before, allow me to compare the 2003 indie film Pieces of April to the 1982 classic blockbuster E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. I’ll flesh that out in a moment.
I’ve heard it said that everyone has a personal wound—and it’s usually a wound from a mother or father. In Pieces of April the wound is from the mother. But the prodigal child April (Katie Holmes) decides that she wants to cook Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment —perhaps due to the fact that her mother Joy has cancer.
We don’t know exactly how that arrangement went down since the movie starts Thanksgiving morning with the plans already in place. And at the 15 minute mark April realizes she has a problem—a dilemma. Her oven isn’t working.
This is how writer/director Peter Hedges writes the key conflict scene in half a page:
INT. APRIL’S APARTMENT – KITCHEN AREA
April finishes writing “Mom” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card she has decorated. Beat as she looks at it. She tears it in two. Then writes “Joy” on the Thanksgiving-themed name card.
She glances up at…
A small clock on her dinning room table which reads 8:00.
April crosses to the turkey pan sitting on the counter, lifts the pan and carries it to the oven. She opens the oven.
She’s about to slide the turkey in when she stops. Beat. She reaches in, feels for heat. Her hands touch the sides of the oven. Her hands touch the metal roasting rack.
She checks the temperature knob. It’s been turned to 375.
She stares in confusion, then it hits.
Oh, no. No –
A nice simple scene about a broken oven. Normally it wouldn’t be that big a deal, but Hedges raises the stakes by adding that it’s Thanksgiving morning, that April’s mother has cancer, and her family is expecting her to let them down. As I said it Part 1 it’s the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.
Now what could that possibly have in common with E.T.? Well, the Steven Spielberg directed movie (written by Melissia Mathison) opens with space aliens already on earth. Their space ship planted firmly in the San Fernando Valley. But that’s not the inciting incident, that comes at the seven minute mark when E.T. gets left behind when the space ship leaves without him.
If E.T.’s on that ship Spielberg & Mathison would have to tell a different story. And on the same note, if April’s oven works then Hedges has to tell a different story.
I labor the point because script readers say one of the common problems in screenplays they read is a lack of a clear inciting incident. Something active that sets the story in motion and ties into the ending.
I know indie films like to be less conventional, but I think Pieces of April is an indie film that works well following this basic screenwriting principle. (Winter’s Bone does as well.) If you’ve ever read 30 pages of a screenplay or watched 30 minutes of a movie and not been sure what the movie is about—it’s probably missing an inciting incident.
P.S. I couldn’t find that oven scene online, so if you have a link please send it my way.
Starting Your Screenplay
What’s Your Problem?
One Clear Dilemma
Telling Smaller Stories
What’s at Stake?
There are no rules, but…
The Major or Central Dramatic Question
Scott W. Smith
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