Coming to a Decision)
I ended the last chapter of Covalent with the main character coming to an important decision. Previously Cace had been scolded by Aylme for his visits to the Ether. She felt these excursions were too dangerous and asked him to stop taking them. He never actually agreed to stop, but it was clear that he respected her and wouldn’t betray her wishes lightly.
This thread was interrupted, though, when the two children discovered Rolar, passed out at nearly dead from a strange intoxication. It was a traumatic experience, and all of the children were shaken until Rolar soothed them with the promise that so long as they kept watching out for each other, they would never fail. Rolar pledged to fight for Aylme and Cace, and Aylme for Cace and Rolar.
With that Cace came to the decision I mentioned earlier. He decided that he would fight for the other two as well, and that meant going back to the Ether and solving its secrets. To do his part to save the others he would just have to defy Aylme’s instructions.
Having this scene of Rolar’s endangerment was important, because I didn’t want Cace to just shrug off Aylme’s request. I made his determination be the result of an intense need so that the audience could agree with what he was doing.
That’s the way things work in the 1953 film Shane as well. The overall plot of this movie is very simple: a retired gunslinger comes to a new town, trying to find a peaceful life. He starts to care for the people there, and when those people are threatened he sets aside his peaceful ways to gun down the villain, then rides away.
Shane doesn’t want to fight, but in the end he does fight. Of course the movie could have forced him into the fight in the first five minutes, but then there wouldn’t have been any story. The story is in how powerful forces pull at him, he resists for a time, but ultimately must give in.
First the man he is staying with, Joe Starrett, tells him how a cattle baron, Ryker, is trying to force all the homesteaders off their legal land. He hears the stories…but does nothing about it. Then he is insulted in town by Ryker’s men, they pour a drink on him and try to egg him into a fight…but he does nothing about it. He and Joe Starrett later get into a brawl with that cattle baron’s men, but still he keeps his guns sheathed. Another rancher, Torrey, is taunted into a fight and gunned down in the street by another gunslinger Ryker has hired…but still Shane does nothing about it.
But then, finally, a trap is set for Joe Starrett, and it becomes clear that sooner or later Ryker must die or Joe will…and Shane knows that it will be Joe. This, at last, is a cross he is not willing to bear. This, at last, make Shane decide to become the gunslinger once more. Like Cace, his decision is brought about at the moment of highest intensity so that the audience will approve his decision.
But where this would be the inciting incident of most westerns, it is the concluding one in Shane. After Shane finally makes his decision there is only one scene left and the movie is over. It is less a story of what the man does than of what finally gets him to do it.
In the Middle)
The Big Country does things differently from Shane, but also differently from other westerns. In this 1958 Western, sailor James McKay arrives in Texas to marry the daughter of the powerful ranch owner and cattle baron Major Henry Terrill.
No sooner does McKay arrive than he is hazed by a group of local ruffians, led by Buck Hannassey. This offense is the inciting incident of the movie. The Terrills hear of it and immediately set off to even the score with the rival Hannassey family. McKay, though, is strictly opposed to the whole thing. He’s frankly too honorable of a man to care about a few drunks being rowdy. He doesn’t condone their behavior, but he came to no serious harm, and he knows that retaliation will only lead to escalated violence.
And so McKay’s unwillingness to be incited against the Hannasseys creates a rift between him and the Terrills instead. Bit by bit he becomes disillusioned with them, including with the daughter he had been intending to marry. He starts a campaign to protect both of the feuding families, including the Hannasseys, which offends the Terrills deeply and McKay calls off the wedding and leaves the ranch. McKay then watches as an outsider while the two families continue their downward spiral, until they meet in a ravine and finally kill each other.
The hazing that occurred at the beginning of the film incited the families to violence, but McKay’s arc is one of standing firm against that pull, rejecting every reason to contribute to the senseless killing. Throughout the picture he does fight when necessary to defend himself and others, but then he moves on, never getting caught up in the vengeance spiral of the others.
McKay came to a determination, just as Shane did, and just as Cace did. And the similar theme in all of them is that they are in opposition to what other people want, or even what they personally want. This is what gives the inciting moment its impact, it is a forceful declaration against outward influence or inward hesitation. It is breaking free to do what must be done, not what is wanted to be done. This opposition inherently causes drama, which is the lifeblood of every story, the very reason why the story is told.
And I will be leaning into that drama with Covalent. Of course Cace’s determination to travel into the Ether is going to be a point of escalating contention between him and Aylme, and even within himself. But whether he and she or Rolar wants him to or not, it is what he must do, he has been incited into it.