To Kill a Mockingbird

Book: By Harper Lee.

Inciting Event: There are a few possible Inciting Events here: the discovery of the pennies in the tree outside the Radley house, Scout’s hearing Boo’s laughter from inside the house, and Jem’s nearly getting shot by Boo’s father and then finding his clumsily mended pants on the fence. Really, they’re all part of a piece, but since we have to choose just one as the Inciting Event, I’m going with Jem’s pants, since it’s the big moment that truly influences the children’s (especially Jem’s) perception of their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley.

One of the most interesting things about the structure in this character-driven story is that the Inciting Event is actually a framing device for the Boo Radley subplot, which picks back up in the final eighth of the story. The main plot—the trial of Tom Robinson—is hinted at in the First Act only thematically.

First Plot Point: The children learn that their father, Atticus, has agreed to defend the black man Tom Robinson in a rape trial—and that the town disapproves. This is where Jem and Scout are plunged into the conflict of blind prejudice—which they have only flirted with unknowingly throughout the First Act.

First Pinch Point: Despite their father’s entreaties for them to turn the other cheek when they are twitted for his choices, Jem loses his temper when the crotchety old lady Mrs. Dubose insults Atticus. Jem destroys her flowers, and Atticus makes Jem spend the next month reading to her.

We see the emphasis of the antagonistic force—pointless, cruel prejudice—from Mrs. Dubose. She is a one-time character, who quickly dies and exits the story, but she is a representative of the overall antagonistic force.

Midpoint: On the eve of Tom Robinson’s trial, Jem and Scout follow their father to where he is standing guard outside the jailhouse. A lynch mob arrives, and Scout unwittingly faces them down and shames them into leaving. This is such a subtle, beautiful Moment of Truth: never stated outright, but proven through the actions of a child who doesn’t even fully realize what she is doing.

Second Pinch Point: As the trial begins, Mr. Ewell—the father of the girl is supposed to have been raped—opens his virulent testimony against Tom.

Third Plot Point: Despite Atticus’s eloquent defense and the lack of any clear evidence, the jury finds Tom guilty. The Third Plot Point is made especially personal through Jem’s reaction. He is crushed by the injustice of it and struggles to understand.

Despite winning the case, Mr. Ewell swears to get even with Atticus for humiliating him on the witness stand.

Climax: That Halloween, Mr. Ewell attacks Jem and Scout on their way home from a pageant. Jem is knocked unconscious and breaks his arm. The children are saved when Boo breaks his solitude and kills Mr. Ewell with a kitchen knife.

Climactic Moment: Scout agrees with the sheriff that she will say Mr. Ewell fell on his knife—in order to protect Boo from pointless scrutiny and attention. After spending most of the story trying to figure out a way to get a glimpse of him, she finally understands it is better to let him live in peace.

Resolution: Scout escorts Boo home. Standing on his porch, she reviews the events of the last few years and realizes Boo has been looking out for her and Jem all along.

Notes: This is not a plot-driven story. And yet, note how tight and perfect the structure is, with each event happening on the nose and turning the plot, tightly but gently, just as it should.

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