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Friday, April 4, 2008

The Old Left Hook

By PJ McIlvaine

“Hi Julie, I noticed on your blog you mentioned requests for topics. I did a search and couldn't find anything of real great length on THE HOOK or CATALYIST moment in a script. I think it's obviously underrated and can break material before it’s even begun. " - Daniel

When Julie first asked me to write on this subject, I must admit, I had a brain fart. Staying up three nights straight to plot out a climax (on a script, people, get your minds out of the gutter) will do that to a person. As it turns out, Daniel is a pal of mine, so I e-mailed him to ask if what he meant was what I refer to as the INCITING INCIDENT, or as my good old mother exclaims while she’s watching her Lifetime movies, UH-OH!

Yep, turns out we’re all on the same page, despite all the different catch phrases. Men are from Mars, Women are from Hagen Daaz.

Well, this is my take on the HOOK and/or CATALYST issue. It can be on the first page or the twentieth, the sooner the better most say, but whatever it is, it has to be there, and it better be a good one if you expect to keep the reader turning the page. Otherwise, you might as well pen a boring book report or a methodical grocery list. It has to propel the script, to launch it---the unmistakable, uh-oh moment where you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.

It can be as simple as a woman walking into a bar ( Casablanca ); a bunch of money grubbing tourists trying to outrace each other to find that great big W in the sky (It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World); or when a shallow advertising bon vivant is mistakenly kidnapped (North By Northwest).

When we first meet Rick, the affable bar owner with a shady past, he’s going about his business, meeting and greeting patrons and just generally minding his own P&Q’s. He’s a man without a country. There’s a war going on, the world is in turmoil, but you wouldn’t know it from Rick’s stone faced demeanor. And then, out of the proverbial blue, a woman enters Rick’s Place. We don’t know who she is, where she comes from. She could’ve fallen out of the sky for all we know. But when she walks in and she and Rick lock eyes, its fireworks, it’s an earthquake, it’s an erupting volcano, and all because this beautiful woman walked into a bar. She could’ve have strolled into any bar, any place…but no, she had to walk into Rick’s.

Speaking of earthquakes, what would you do if you were driving along on a lovely afternoon and you saw a speeding car careen off a mountain road? Being the Good Samaritan that I know you are, naturally, you’d stop the car, like a half dozen others, and go attend to Jimmy Durante, broken on the rocks, about to take his last breath, and then he gasps out some nonsensical story about buried money. Everyone stares at him and go yeah, right, and I’m King Henry VIII. He dies, the police arrive, and everyone goes back in their cars and drive away. Yet the old coot’s story tugs and nags and chews and then you realize that the other cars are going faster and faster and you wonder, hmmm, what the hell are they up to? Everyone stops and tries to come to an equitable division of this still to be found money, but it becomes painfully clear that Ethel Merman isn’t going to settle for beans. Jonathan Winters and Mickey Rooney slowly back toward their vehicles and within seconds, the madcap race, the chase, which is going to destroy half of Southern California, is on. Now what if Jimmy Durante’s car hadn’t veered off the road? And what if you hadn’t stopped? It makes me sick to my stomach just to think about it.
Now we’re in Manhattan, it’s a beautiful day on Madison Avenue, and advertising exec Roger O. Thornhill, carefree, insouciant, a confirmed rake after being divorced several times, is on his way to a liquid meeting at the Plaza Hotel. Instead of gin on the rocks, Thornhill is mistaken for a spy and kidnapped and what do you know, this vain and superficial lunk eventually winds up hanging by a nose on Mr. Rushmore and getting married for what appears to be the last time. I’m getting ahead of myself. Back at the Plaza, what if the case of mistaken identity had just been an innocent mishap that only resulted in Thornhill being late to join his mother at the opera house?

I tell you what you’d have...a not very exciting movie.

And yes, there are exceptions that we can quibble about until dinosaurs roam the earth again. For example, in one black and white classic, a case could be made that the hook was when the blonde bombshell hightailed it out of town with forty thousand dollars safely tucked inside her purse. I beg to differ. I say it’s when the blonde bombshell, cold, tired and hungry, turned off the highway and got out at the Bates Motel.

Mother never had it so good.

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Young Kim said...

As someone who has watched Casablanca over a hundred times, I disagree with PJ's analysis of the movie.

The inciting event is when the letters of transit are dumped upon Rick and then his friend, Ugarte, is killed. Now he's stuck with an object that everyone in Casablanca wants.

The main tension is when Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszlo walk into Rick's Cafe.

rayannecarr said...

Thank you for the post - some great examples.

One thing does puzzle me, so please excuse me if I appear extra dim, since I am working on crime fiction as opposed to a screenplay.

The HOOK= should this not be in the opening few minutes/ first pages of the text, causing the reader/audience to sit up and pay attention and ask themselves questions?
This would then be followed by the Set-up.
The Catalyst/Inciting incident would then be the trigger event for the action to start, just as you describe.
Or am I making this too simplistic?
Sorry if I have misunderstood, but I would value your opinion on that interpretation.
Thanks and Regards

PJ McIlvaine said...

Young Kim, I hear you, but I'm still of the same opinion. :)

Rayanne, it can be, but I've read scripts where the set-up comes first, then some type of catalyst or inciting incident.

Each story or script is different and what might be on page 5 in one script might be on page 20 in another. I'm one of those writers who writes from gut and instinct.

Young Kim said...


This is why I disagree with your disagreement.

I think you and I can both agree that the main conflict/central question is "What will happen between Rick and Ilsa?" and that's the sustaining question from the moment that Ilsa walks into his gin joint.

However, what starts the story is the fact that a letter of transit is in Rick's possession. If he doesn't have the letter, Ilsa and Victor go their merry way. So Rick getting the letter and his friend, Ugarte, getting killed is the inciting event to the story.

BUT inciting event isn't always about the main conflict. In Star Wars, the inciting event is the droids escaping with the plans to the Death Star. But that's not the central conflict.

In Chinatown, for example, the inciting event is when Gittes finds out the person who hired him wasn't the Mulwray character.

I agree with your other analyses. However, I can quote Casablanca quote by quote. I know my Everybody Comes to Rick's adaptation by Ira and Julius Epstein. And in this particular movie, I disagree.

PJ McIlvaine said...

Young Kim, in my mind, I always thought of the "letters of transit" as more of a "ticking bomb" than an inciting incident. Thoughts?