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On Beginnings

Last week, I discussed endings, specifically screenwriter Michael Arndt’s theory of endings as they applied to works of literary fiction. In addition to his video on endings, Arndt’s website also contains one on beginnings, in which he discusses how he studied various Pixar movies while writing Toy Story 3 in order to understand the best way to begin a story. While Arndt’s theory of endings is, as far as I know, completely unique, his theory of beginnings largely follows the steps of a traditional hero’s journey, a concept that’s been reiterated countless times, from Joseph Campbell to Dan Harmon, and which is now a staple of middle school English classes. Broadly speaking, according to Arndt, in the first quarter of your story, you should establish your character, their world, their particular desire or grand passion, and a flaw that arrises from this particular passion and then by the end of the first act build to an inciting incident that gives them a goal to pursue, ideally as a result of their flaw.

Unlike his lecture on endings, his theory of beginnings I found far too artificial, too constructed, and ultimately too limited in scope for literary fiction. Essentially—and this I think is the larger problem with the whole hero’s journey concept—focusing the story entirely on a particular character’s internal emotions and having the inciting moment of the story be the result of a character’s desires and flaws leads to literature that’s focused too much on the individual at the expense of all the other things that novels are often about—politics, society, the world, etc. Human psychology is only one of several levels of meaning a story can focus on, and the problem with the hero’s journey structure is that, to use the categories Arndt identified in his video on endings, it doesn’t address the philosophical stakes of a story, and doesn’t frame the inciting incident and the protagonist’s goals and decisions with any larger moral or ideological issues.

If we look at the same examples I explored last week when discussing endings, we can see that classic works of literary fiction not only often ignore the rigid stipulations of the hero’s journey but also always invest their hero’s decisions with philosophical or moral stakes rather than simply personal ones. Great Expectations for the most part largely follows the traditional hero’s journey structure, with Pip in his lower-class world harboring a flawed desire to be a gentlemen and a mysterious benefactor bestowing on him a fortune that provides the story its inciting incident. Most importantly, though, it’s not just Pip’s internal desires and flaws that frame this inciting incident—there is a philosophical element to this benefactor’s offer and Pip’s desire to accept, the novel’s larger moral question, established early and often, about wealth and status in nineteenth century England. Without these issues surrounding the inciting incident, the novel might still tell a charming story about one young man learning an important lesson about his own flaws, but it wouldn’t carry that extra ideological significance that makes it such a powerful work of literature.

With The Great Gatsby things get more murky, and identifying the inciting incident depends on whether we consider the novel’s protagonist to be Nick or Gatsby. If it’s Nick, then the inciting incident is Nick and Gatsby’s first meeting, though this doesn’t quite fit with the hero’s journey narrative, as Nick doesn’t really have any passions or flaws that inspire his decision to meet with Gatsby. If the protagonist is Gatsby, on the other hand, we don’t really encounter the inciting incident until half-way through the novel, when Nick learns about Gatsby’s youth and the origins of his ambitions and his love for Daisy. In this case, Gatsby’s hero’s journey’s is presented non-linearly, which leads to a very different experience for the reader. Yet all this is ultimately irrelevant, because whatever the inciting incident, the novel’s beginning is still clearly invested with its larger philosophical stakes—the moral and ideological questions over wealth and status that drive the story to it’s dark conclusion.

Finally, in White Noise, the supposed inciting incident, the airborne toxic event that forces the family to evacuate and come face to face their possible mortality, doesn’t happen until well into the novel. Part One, instead, instead, takes its time to establish the setting and the various characters, including Jack Gladney, his wife, his children, and most importantly, Murray Siskind, Jack’s colleague at the College on the Hill, whose strange postmodern pronouncements about death, philosophy, and American culture give the novel its philosophical underpinnings (“The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city.”). In fact, I would argue that the novel’s inciting incident is not actually the airborne toxic event but rather the arrival of Murray, who Jack notes is an exception to the rest of the college’s bitter faculty and who throughout the novel serves as Jack’s sinister mentor and embodies the novel’s postmodern anti-spirituality. He is the one who introduces the novel’s philosophical stakes, the world’s dominant values ultimately confirmed by the nuns in the novel’s bleak ending, as I discussed last week.

Ultimately, what writers of literary fiction can take away from the hero’s journey story structure is not a literal step by step process of setting a story in motion, but rather a broader idea about the function of an inciting incident. According to the hero’s journey, the inciting incident should kick-start the narrative and should be built not only upon what is externally at stake but also internally or psychologically—the protagonist’s own desires and flaws. But as I discussed last week, Arndt himself argued that a good story has not two but three sets of stakes: external, emotional, and philosophical as well, the last of these being the most important for a novel’s ending. Therefore, the best inciting incidents should focus ultimately on the novel’s philosophical questions, the moral values at stake in the story, the ideology behind the narrative. After all, literary fiction is not solely a depiction of an individual’s experience, but a depiction of an individual’s experience in a world.