I’ve been thinking a lot about magazines and movies lately. I recently gave a talk about rich media to the Alberta Magazine Publishers Association. I spoke a bit about disruptive innovations and their impact on incumbent industries. But, it was only after the talk, when I was preparing for another one, that I had an insight into what movies could teach magazines and other traditional media.

The plot of many mainstream movies begins with a few minutes in which the main characters and settings are introduced. But the plot is really jumpstarted by what’s called the “inciting event.” This is the incident that can take our “everyman” on a crash course to hero in seconds flat. Think of Jim Carey finding the mask in The Mask, Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, Elizabeth Bennet meeting Mr. Darcy, or the Titanic sinking in Downton Abbey

In each case, the change of circumstances is profound, impossible to ignore and causes the main character’s nature to be defined by his or her response to the momentous alteration of affairs. It is rare that a main character is unaware of the inciting event, and when she is — as in the case of Great Expectations — it is the exception that proves the rule. 

And, here’s the thing: disruptive innovations almost never create inciting events. Just as a reminder, disruptive innovations are technologies that often come from outside an industry and shake it to its foundations. Think of digital photography and the film industry or cheap digital timepieces and the Swiss watch empire, or even Twitter and contemporary journalism.

In each case, the disruptive innovation was the exact opposite of an “inciting event.” In fact, the hallmark of a disruptive innovation is that the incumbent industry doesn’t see it coming until it’s too late. The first digital cameras were toys that produced laughably bad images. Digital watches were cheap junk, and Twitter? That was just for nerds and West Coast hipsters to share what they had for breakfast.

It was the rare few within established industries who saw the birth of these technologies and many others as their conversion on the road to Damascus.

In the world of screenplay writing, a plot without an inciting event lacks the narrative impulse to drive the film and its main character forward. Jim Carey would have remained a daydreaming dullard, Peter Parker a clumsy chemistry geek and Elisabeth Bennet the miserable spouse of a sycophantic clergyman. They all would have experienced nothing that would have changed the status quo.

So it is with traditional media and disruptive innovations, because inciting events only recognized in hindsight have no power to engender change.

And so my simple, obvious insight is this: the narrative arc of traditional media’s character development in an online world is doomed to bend toward tragedy. It’s not that the character is flawed or evil. It’s just that it had an inciting event in the first few minutes of its own movie and was out of the room getting popcorn.

For them, it never happened. For the rest of us, the movie just dragged on far too long with nothing interesting happening — the unchanging character awakes one morning at the end of the picture, years after the spider bit, rubs his shoulder nostalgically and, as the credits roll, discovers he can shoot webs and climb walls.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Morgennebel/flickr


Wayne MacPhail

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years. He was the managing editor of Hamilton Magazine and was a reporter and editor at The Hamilton Spectator until he founded Southam InfoLab,...