The First Act

Before I get into the next chapter of the story grid, I’m going to deviate a bit to give some important background.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, most stories start with a slice of the protagonist’s life. In the heroes journey this is called “the ordinary world.” The slice of life (or beginning exposition) establishes some very important things for your character.

Who they are.

What is normal (because you can’t appreciate the abnormal until you know what has changed).

What they want.

What they have.

What they can lose.

There’s a reason one of the first lines of the Pixar story spine is “Every day….One day…”

I put together a video talking about what needs to be established in the slice of life for a creative writing class that I’m taking. Note: I know that the scene from Lilo and Stitch is not actually part of the slice of life, but it was either that or the first 15 minutes from Up, and I wanted to be a productive human today.

Once the slice of life is established, the next major plot element is the inciting incident. This is the incident that kicks off the story. This is often tied to the call to adventure, but not always.

Here’s a few of my favorite examples of inciting incidents.

Things happened in the story before each of these events, but for most, that was establishing background. You could argue, for instance, the inciting incident for Big Hero 6 was Tadashi dying, or Tadashi convincing his brother to try nerd school. Or in Frozen, Elsa being born, hurting Ana, getting locked up, or for Wreck it Ralph, the anniversary, the creation of the game, ect. But the difference between those instances and the inciting incident is that they are used to set up the slice of life. Elsa hurting Ana was used to explain why she spent every day locked up and was afraid of her powers, not to explain why she froze the kingdom. Tadashi dying could arguably be considered an inciting incident since Hiro’s personal goal was revenge for his death, but Tadashi dying isn’t what kick starts the story. It’s this moment when he activates Baymax, and Baymax realizes his microbots are active. Until this happened, Hiro didn’t know his brother needed to be avenged. Instead of kicking off the story, Tadashi’s death explains the slice of life. Why every day, Hiro sat in his room, isolated from his friends, until one day….

The inciting incident isn’t what establishes the character’s goals, that’s what the slice of life is for. The inciting incident is the thing that sets them on the path to achieving those goals. In Hiro’s case, what he wants (revenge) and what he needs (to connect with someone and grieve) are two very different things, but this moment is what puts him on the path to achieving both.

After the inciting incident, the story truly begins, and that moment is called crossing the threshold. This is when they leave the ordinary world, their slice of life, and everything begins to change.

Here’s some of my favorite examples.

Character goals tie into act one in a big way, so next week, I’ll be sharing what the Story Grid has to say about establishing character goals.


Writing on Wednesday: The Road Back


Once the hero has completed their quest, they have to return home. The return trip comes with its own trials and tribulations, notably living with what they’ve done, what they’ve lost, how they’ve changed. Sometimes that journey is bittersweet, the home they’ve been striving to get back to isn’t the same anymore. It’s too small. They’ve mastered both world s yet belong to none. Other times, it’s everything they’ve hoped for. It depends largely on their motivation. If they wanted to leave at the start of the quest, they realize there’s no place like home. If they’ve been torn from home, desperately trying to return, it’s the opposite.


My favorite return is in UP because of Carl’s rejection of paradise falls (basically heaven) with Ellie and his return to the joys of life. It’s a great story about moving on. My least favorite return is in Return of the King because it was super depressing.

The return/crossing the threshhold/master of both worlds/falling action/ending is generally the shortest part of the story. It happens fast, disney tends to cover all the steps in a happy montage song. Here’s a great example from Enchanted.

What’s your favorite end of the hero’s journey?

Movie Monday: The Extraordinary World

Last week, I talked about the call of adventure and how the acceptance (or refusal and then forced acceptance) of that call acts as a transition point in the story. After accepting the call, the hero leaves the ordinary world and steps into the extraordinary world. Disney tends to handle this in a song or a dramatic pan out.

Identifying the extraordinary world is as simple as stepping through the wardrobe or leaving the shire to journey to the great beyond. In some cases the extraordinary world is as simple as being not home. In others, characters are taken somewhere magical and amazing.

I’m going to use the same examples as I did in the post, the ordinary world, just for clarity.

In How to Train Your Dragon, the extraordinary world wasn’t a place, it was a realization that changed Hiccup’s entire world view. The realization that dragons didn’t have to be their enemy, that instead they could be your best friend was the extraordinary world. And for huge chunks of the movie, the ordinary world and the extraordinary world were kept separate with Hiccup splitting his time between each one and using the tricks from one to master the other. Things only got messy when the worlds collided. It was a really interesting take on the ordinary/extraordinary world and it made the typical hero’s journey fresh and interesting. Here’s my favorite scene showing the extraordinary world from How to Train Your Dragon.This incidentally also marks the end of the first trial.

In the sequel, the extraordinary world was a place. Further and further from Berk. But again there’s an interesting inversion because the way Berk is presented makes IT the extraordinary world to rest of the archipelago.

In the Croods the extraordinary world is everywhere but their cave. The further away they go, the more extraordinary it gets. In Inside Out, the extraordinary world is everything outside of central headquarters. Same deal with Rapunzel and her tower. Belle’s extraordinary world was the Beast’s castle. In the Swan Princess the extraordinary world was the enchanted lake. UP’s extraordinary world was Paradise Falls. In Wreck it Ralph, it was other games.

When the extraordinary world is a place, the protagonist has one of two goals regarding it. To get out of it and go home, or to get as far from ordinary as they possibly can. The hero’s journey is a journey after all. And most journeys have a destination. However there is one special kind of hero’s journey that’s takes a bit more interpretation. When the extraordinary world is a person.

Whether it’s a manic pixie dream girl or a cat, a magical nanny, or a cat in the hat, these journeys occur when some strange and extraordinary stranger intrudes on the ordinary world and forces it to change to become extraordinary with it. For instance, in Enchanted the the extraordinary world depends on your protagonist. For Giselle, it’s New York. For Robert it’s Giselle and her strange ways wreaking havoc in his slice of life.

In Big Hero Six the extraordinary world was Baymax. It fits all the requirements, Hiro even returns to the normal world at the end of the movie, changed. Monster’s INC’s extraordinary world was our world to some extent, but to a larger extent Boo.

Can you think of any other examples where the extraordinary world was a person?