Saturday, June 24, 2017

Junowrimo: Elements of Act III

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Okay!! It's the last week - we're into Act III, now! Or maybe you're not that far yet, which is perfectly fine. As long as you're writing, it's all good. The book will be done when it's done.

But if you are into Act III, here are the prompts for that last act.

                         Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

- Alex




ELEMENTS OF ACT THREE

Act Three is generally the final 20 to 30 minutes in a film, or the last 70 to 100 pages in a 400-page novel. The final quarter, and the shortest quarter.

It is often divided into these two major sequences:

1. Getting there (STORMING THE CASTLE)
2. The FINAL BATTLE itself

And it usually contains these elements:

• Either here or in the last part of the second act the hero/ine will make a new, FINAL PLAN, based on the new information and revelation of the second act climax.
• There may be a TICKING CLOCK
• The Hero/ine may REASSEMBLE THE TEAM, and there may be another short TRAINING SEQUENCE and/or GATHERING THE TOOLS sequence
• The team often goes in together, first, and there is a big ENSEMBLE BATTLE
• In this battle, we possibly see the ALLY/ALLIES’ CHARACTER CHANGES and/or gaining of desire
• We also get the DEFEAT OF SECONDARY OPPONENTS
 Then the hero/ine goes into the FINAL BATTLE to face the antagonist alone, MANO A MANO
• The final battle takes place in a THEMATIC LOCATION: often a visual and literal representation of the HERO/INE’S GREATEST NIGHTMARE, and is very often a metaphorical CASTLE. Or a real one!  It is also often the antagonist’s home turf.
• We see the protagonist’s character arc
• We may see the antagonist’s character arc, too (but often there is none)
• We get a glimpse of the TRUE NATURE OF THE ANTAGONIST
• Possibly there is a huge FINAL REVERSAL or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in Back to the Future and It’s A Wonderful Life)
• FULL CIRCLE: Not every story uses this, but often the hero/ine returns to a place we saw at the beginning of the story, and we see her or his character growth.
• RESOLUTION: We get a glimpse into the New Way of Life that the hero/ine will be living after this whole ordeal and all s/he’s learned from it
• FINAL BOWS: We need to see all our favorite characters one final time
• CLOSING IMAGE: Which is often a variation of the Opening Image
All right, let’s look at these more closely.

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist.

And sometimes that’s really all there is to it: one final battle between the protagonist and antagonist. In which case some good revelatory twists are probably required!

By the end of the second act, pretty much everything has been set up that we need to know — particularly who the antagonist is, which sometimes we haven’t known, or have been wrong about, until it’s revealed at the second act climax. Of course, sometimes, or maybe often, there is one final reveal about the antagonist that is saved till the very end or nearly the end, as in The Usual Suspects and The Empire Strikes Back and Psycho.

We also very often have gotten a sobering or terrifying glimpse of the TRUE NATURE OF THE ANTAGONIST — a great example of that kind of “nature of the opponent” scene is in Chinatown, in that scene in which Jake is slapping Evelyn and he learns the truth about her father.

There is often a new, FINAL PLAN that the hero/ine makes that takes into account the new information and revelations. As always with a plan, it’s good to spell it out.

There’s a locational aspect to the third act: the final battle will often take place in a completely different setting than the rest of the film or novel. In fact, half of the third act can be, and often is, just getting to the site of the final showdown. One of the most memorable examples of this in movie history is the STORMING THE CASTLE scene in The Wizard of Oz, where, led by an escaped Toto, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion scale the cliff, scope out the vast armies of the witch (“Yo Ee O”) and tussle with three stragglers to steal their uniforms and march in through the drawbridge of the castle with the rest of the army (an example of a PLAN BY ALLIES). The Princess Bride also has a literal Storming the Castle scene, with the Billy Crystal and Carol Kane characters waving our team off shouting, “Have fun storming the castle!”

A sequence like this, and the similar ones in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, can have a lot of the elements we discussed about the first half of the story: a PLAN, ASSEMBLING THE TEAM, ASSEMBLING TOOLS AND DISGUISES, TRAINING OR REHEARSAL.

I’m not just talking about action and fantasy movies, here. You see a truncated version of this team battle plan and storming the castle scene in Notting Hill, when all of Will’s friends pile into the car to help him catch Anna before she leaves.

And of course speed is often a factor — there’s may be a TICKING CLOCK, so our hero/ine has to race to get there in time to – save the innocent victim from the killer, save his or her kidnapped child from the kidnapper, stop the loved one from getting on that plane to Bermuda…

NO. DO NOT WRITE THAT LAST ONE.

Most clichéd film ending ever. Throw in the hero/ine getting stuck in a cab in Manhattan rush hour traffic and you really are risking audiences vomiting in the aisles, or readers, beside their chairs. This is in fact the most despised romantic comedy cliché on every single “Romantic Comedy Clichés” website out there.
But when you think about it, the first two examples are equally clichéd. Sometimes there’s a fine line between clichéd and archetypal. You have to find how to elevate —or deepen — the clichéd to something archetypal.

Even if there’s not a literal castle, almost every story will have a metaphorical Storming the Castle element. The hero/ine usually must infiltrate the antagonist’s hideout, or castle, or lair, and confront the antagonist on his or her own turf, a terrifying and foreign place: think of Buffalo Bill’s basement in Silence of the Lambs, and the basement in Psycho, and the basement in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The castle can be a dragon’s lair (How to Train Your Dragon), or a dream fortress (Inception), or a church (a million romantic comedies).

Putting the final showdown on the villain’s turf means the villain has home-court advantage. The hero/ine has the extra burden of being a fish out of water in unfamiliar territory (mixing a metaphor to make it painfully clear).

I’ve noticed that in most films, there is a TEAM BATTLE first. The allies get to shine in this one: their strengths and weaknesses are tested, PLANTS are paid off, and allies who have been at each other’s throats for the whole story suddenly reconcile and work together. We also often get the DEFEAT OF SECONDARY OPPONENTS (if we’ve come to hate a secondary opponent, we need to see them get their comeuppance in a satisfying way — think of Fanny and Lucy Steele cat fighting each other in Sense and Sensibility, and Belloq, General Strasser, and Major Toht’s faces melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The TEAM BATTLE is generally a big, noisy SETPIECE scene.

And then, almost always, the hero/ine must go in to the FINAL BATTLE to face the antagonist alone, mano a mano.

So if this is the pattern we see over and over again, how can we possibly make it fresh?

Well, of course — look at books and films to see how your favorite storytellers do it.

Silence of the Lambs is a perfect example of elevating the cliché into archetype. The climax takes place in the basement, as it also does in Psycho, and Nightmare on Elm Street. This basement setting is no accident: therapists talk about “basement issues” —which are your worst fears and traumas from childhood — the stuff no one wants to look at, but which we have to look at, and clean out, to be whole.

But Thomas Harris, in the book, and the filmmakers, bringing it to life in the movie, create a basement that is so rich in horrific and revelatory and mythic (really fairy tale) imagery, that we never feel that we’ve seen that scene before. In fact I see new resonances in the set design every time I watch that film… like Mr. Gumb (Buffalo Bill) having a wall of news clippings just exactly like the one in Crawford’s office. That’s a technique that Harris uses that can elevate the clichéd to the archetypal: layering meaning.

But even more than that: Gumb’s basement is Clarice’s GREATEST NIGHTMARE come to life. Lecter has exposed her deepest trauma, losing the lamb she tried to save from spring slaughter, and now she’s back in that childhood crisis, trying to save Catherine’s life (if you’ll notice,  even the visual of Catherine clinging to Mr. Gumb’s fluffy white dog looks very much like a little girl holding a lamb…)

Nightmare on Elm Street takes that clichéd spooky basement scene and gives it a whole new level, literally: the heroine is dreaming that she is following a suspicious sound down into the basement, and then there’s a door that leads to another basement, under the basement. And if you think bad things happen in the basement, what’s going to happen in a sub-basement?

Comedy characters have a different kind of GREATEST NIGHTMARE. 

Suppose you’re writing a farce. I would never dare, myself, but if I did, I would go straight to Fawlty Towers to figure out how to do it (and if you haven’t seen this brilliant TV series of John Cleese’s, I envy you the treat you’re in for). Every story in this series shows the quintessentially British Basil Fawlty go from rigid control to total breakdown of order in the side-splitting climax. It is the vast chasm between Basil’s idea of what his life should be and the chaotic reality that he creates for himself over and over again that will have you screaming with laughter.

Another very technical lesson to take from Fawlty Towers —and from any screwball comedy or farce — is how comedies use speed in climax. Just as in other forms of climax, the action speeds up in the end, to create that exhilaration of being out of control — which is the sensation I most love about a great comedy.

In a romance, the Final Battle is often the hero/ine finally overcoming his or her internal blocks and making a DECLARATION or PROPOSAL to the loved one. And I’ve noticed that a lot of romances do the declaration in a one-two punch, two separate scenes: the recalcitrant lover makes his or her declaration, even does some groveling, apparently to no avail, and only in a later, final scene does the loved one show up with a declaration of his or her own.

An archetypal setting for the Final Battle in romantic comedy is an actual wedding. We’ve seen this scene so often you’d think there’s nothing new you can do with it. But of course a story about love and relationships is likely to end at a wedding.

So again, if you’re writing this kind of story, make your list and look at what great romantic comedies have done to elevate the cliché.

One of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, The Philadelphia Story, uses a classic technique to keep that wedding sequence sparkling: every single one of that large ensemble of characters has her or his own wickedly delightful resolution. Everyone has their moment to shine, and insanely precocious little sister Dinah pretty nearly steals the show (from Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant!!) with her last line: “I did it. I did it all.”

(This is a good lesson for any ensemble story, no matter what genre — all the characters should constantly be competing for the spotlight, just as in any good theater troupe. Make your characters divas and scene-stealers and let them top each other.)

Now, you see a completely different kind of final battle in It’s A Wonderful Life. This is not the classic, “hero confronts villain on villain’s home turf” third act. In fact, Potter is nowhere around in the final confrontation, is he? There’s no showdown, even though we desperately want one.

But the point of that story is that George Bailey has been fighting Potter all along.

There is no big glorious heroic showdown to be had, here, because it’s all the little grueling day-to-day, crazymaking battles that George has had with Potter all his life that have made the difference. And the genius of that film is that it shows in vivid and disturbing detail what would have happened if George had not had that whole lifetime of battles, against Potter and for the town. In the end, even faced with prison, George makes the choice to live to fight another day, and is rewarded with the joy of seeing his town restored.

This is the best example I know of, ever, of a final battle that is thematic — and yet the impact is emotional and visceral. It’s not an intellectual treatise; you live that ending along with George, but also come away with the sense of what true heroism is.

And the wonderful final battle in The King’s Speech is just Colin Firth facing a microphone and delivering a nine-minute radio broadcast. But we’ve seen him fail this moment because of his speech impediment time and time again in SET UPS; and this time the STAKES couldn’t be higher: it’s his first radio broadcast as King, and he has to convince his already war-weary country to support a war against Hitler.

So when you sit down to craft your own third act, try looking at the great third acts of movies and books that are similar to your own story, and see what those authors and filmmakers did to bring out the thematic depth and emotional impact of their stories (We’ll be doing more of that in the next chapter, too.)

RESOLUTION AND NEW WAY OF LIFE

After the final battle is fought and won, we want to get a sense of the NEW LIFE the hero/ine is going to lead now that they’ve been through this incredible journey.

One of the greatest images of a NEW WAY OF LIFE ever put on film is from Romancing the Stone: the yacht parked in the Manhattan street outside Joan Wilder’s building, and Jack standing on deck waiting for her, with those alligator boots on. It’s a complete PAYOFF of his and her DESIRE lines (and the alligator boots are a great light touch that keeps it all from being too sugary), and a clear indication of what their life is going to be like from now on. Would this have worked as well if that yacht were in a harbor? No way. It’s the extravagance and quirkiness of the gesture that makes it so grandly romantic. It never fails to spike my endorphins, and that’s what these endings are all about.

FULL CIRCLE

Not all stories use this technique, but very, very often at the end of the story the hero/ine returns to the setting of the beginning. And often storytellers use a visual contrast in how that setting appears in the beginning and the end, to show the protagonist’s change in character or attitude. 

In the beginning of The Godfather, Don Corleone is in his study, sitting behind his desk in a chair that looks like a throne, holding court and deciding the fates of his supplicants. In the final moments of the story, Michael Corleone stands at that same desk with his subordinates kissing his ring: he has become the Godfather. Early on in Act I of Romancing the Stone, pathologically shy Joan Wilder attempts to leave her apartment and is immediately set upon by street vendors, and we see how incapable she is of handling people and life in general. In Act III, she has returned from her adventure a changed woman, and we see her walking down that same street in her full Kathleen Turner goddesslike radiance, waving off those same street vendors both regally and casually. 

You don’t have to use this Full Circle technique, but it can work well to bookend a story and depict CHARACTER ARC.  Start to look for it in movies and see how often it’s used! And be aware that these mirroring scenes don’t have to be the very first and very last scenes of the story: often the Full Circle moment comes at the beginning of Act III, or at the start of the Final Battle sequence. This method also works to let an audience or reader know we’re heading into the final stretch, which is always both an exciting and comforting thing for an audience.

We’ll talk more about great endings in the next chapter. But first, try a little brainstorming of your own.

> ASSIGNMENT: Take your list of top ten best endings of movies and books, and write down specifically, in detail, what it is about those endings that really does it for you.


> ASSIGNMENT: What is your hero/ine’s greatest nightmare? How can you bring that to life in your final battle scene?

=====================================================

All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 14.99.


                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 






WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon/Kindle

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


---------------------

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Junowrimo: Act II, Part Two

by Alexandra Sokoloff



While I am moving on to prompts for the second half of Act Two, remember that wherever you are in this process is just fine. Personally I think it would be a little crazy to be into the second half of the second act in just three weeks!

So if you're not this far, just save this post for later.

If you're new to this blog, start here: 

              Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns

A few general things about Act II, Part 2. This is almost always the darkest quarter of the story. While in Act II, Part 1, the hero/ine is generally (but not always) winning, after the Midpoint, the hero/ine starts to lose, and lose big. And also lose very fast. In fact, this is the quarter that is most often shortened if you are writing a shorter book or movie, because it's not all that hard and doesn't take all that much time to pull the rug out from your protagonist.

Just knowing that basic, very general distinction between the two halves of Act Two can be very, very useful.

But getting more specific...

ACT II:2

In a 2-hour movie this section starts at about 60 minutes, and ends at about 90 minutes.

In a 400-page book, this section starts at about p. 300 and ends toward the end of the book.

Now, remember, at the end of Act II, part 1, there is a MIDPOINT CLIMAX, which I'll review briefly because it's so important.

In movies the midpoint is usually a big SETPIECE scene, where the filmmakers really show off their expertise with a special effects sequence (as in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and HARRY POTTER, 1), or a big action scene (JAWS), or in breathtaking psychological cat-and-mouse dialogue (in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). It might be a sex scene or a comedy scene, or both in a romantic comedy. Whatever the Midpoint is, it is most likely going to be specific to the promise of the genre.

And I strongly encourage you as authors to pay as much attention to your midpoint as filmmakers do with theirs.


THE MIDPOINT –

- Completely changes the game
- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
- Is a point of no return
- Can be a huge revelation
- Can be a huge defeat
- Can be a huge win
- Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
- Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems

(More on MIDPOINT).


Act II, Part 2 will almost always have these elements:

* RECALIBRATING– after the shock or defeat of the game-changer in the midpoint, the hero/ine must REVAMP THE PLAN and try a NEW MODE OF ATTACK.

What’s the new plan?

* STAKES

A good story will always be clear about the stakes. Characters often speak the stakes aloud.

How have the stakes changed? Do we have new hopes or fears about what the protagonist will do and what will happen to him or her?


* ESCALATING ACTIONS/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

Little actions by the hero/ine to get what s/he wants have not cut it, so the actions become bigger and usually more desperate.

Do we see a new level of commitment in the hero/ine?

How are the hero/ine’s actions becoming more desperate?

* It’s also worth noting that while the hero/ine is generally (but not always!) winning in Act II:1, s/he generally begins to lose in Act II:2. Often this is where everything starts to unravel and spiral out of control.

* INCREASED ATTACKS BY ANTAGONIST

Just as the hero/ine is becoming more desperate to get what s/he wants, the antagonist also has failed to get what s/he wants and becomes more desperate and takes riskier actions.

* HARD CHOICES AND CROSSING THE LINE (IMMORAL ACTIONS by the main character to get what s/he wants)

Do we see the hero/ine crossing the line and doing immoral things to get what s/he wants?

* LOSS OF KEY ALLIES (possibly because of the hero/ine’s obsessive actions, possibly through death or injury by the antagonist).

Do any allies walk out on the hero/ine or get killed or injured?

* A TICKING CLOCK (can happen anywhere in the story, or there may not be one.)

* REVERSALS AND REVELATIONS/TWISTS

* THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL and/or VISIT TO DEATH (also known as: ALL IS LOST).

There is always a moment in a story where the hero/ine seems to have lost everything, and it is almost always right before the Second Act Climax, or it IS the Second Act Climax.

What is the All Is Lost scene?

* In a romance or romantic comedy, the All Is Lost moment is often a THE LOVER MAKES A STAND scene, where s/he tells the loved one – “Enough of this bullshit waffling, either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.” This can be the hero/ine or the love interest making this stand.

THE SECOND ACT CLIMAX

* Often will be a final revelation before the end game: often the knowledge of who the opponent really is, that will propel the hero/ine into the FINAL BATTLE.

* Often will be another devastating loss, the ALL IS LOST scene. In a mythic structure or Chosen One story or mentor story this is almost ALWAYS where the mentor dies or is otherwise taken out of the action, so the hero/ine must go into the final battle alone.

* Answers the Central Question – and often the answer is “no” – so that the hero/ine again must come up with a whole new plan.

* Often is a SETPIECE.

More discussion on Elements Of Act II:2

Happy Solstice!!

 - Alex

=====================================================

                                        STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $12.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 








WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)










You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here:



Friday, June 16, 2017

JUNOWRIMO: Midpoint

It's a little past the midpoint of the month, so some, not all, of you will be coming up on the midpoint of your books. I am as ever skeptical that you can really get to the midpoint of a book in two weeks... but it's still a good reason to talk about one of the most important elements of any book, film, TV show, or play.



If you're new to this blog, start here:

           Get free Story Structure extras and movie breakdowns


THE MIDPOINT

All of the first half of the second act – that’s p. 30-60 in a script, p. 100 to p. 200 in a 400-page book, is  leading up to the MIDPOINT. So the Midpoint occurs at about one hour into a movie, and at about page 200 in a book.

The Midpoint is also often called the MOMENT OF COMMITMENT or the POINT OF NO RETURN or NO TURNING BACK: the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action.

The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film: a major shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 minutes, not sixty years!).

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we will discuss further in the chapter on Creating Suspense (Chapter 31). A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The Midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and NEW PLAN of attack. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

Let's look at some examples.

As I've said before, a favorite PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION of mine is in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables.

Young FBI agent Eliot Ness is assigned to bring down mobster Al Capone. So far no one in law enforcement or government has been able to pin Capone to any of his heinous crimes; he keeps too much distance between himself and the actual killings, hijackings, extortions, etc. One of Ness’ Untouchable team, a FBI accountant, proposes that the team gather evidence and nail Capone on federal tax evasion. It’s not sexy, but the penalty is up to 25 years in prison. (As you might know, this PLAN is historically accurate: Al Capone was actually finally charged and imprisoned on the charge of tax evasion.)

So the PLAN and CENTRAL ACTION of the story becomes to locate one of Capone’s bookkeepers, take him into custody and force him to testify against Capone. Which they do. (With plenty of action sequences, of course.)

So as we approach the MIDPOINT, Ness’s team has the bookkeeper in custody, the trial is set, and Ness’s men are escorting the bookkeeper to court.

But the movie is only half over. So of course, as very often happens at the midpoint, the plan fails. In a suspenseful and emotional wrenching MIDPOINT CLIMAX, Ness’s accountant teammate, whom we have come to love, escorts the bookkeeper into the courthouse elevator to take him up to the courtroom.    As the doors close, we see the police guard is actually one of Capone’s men.

Ness and his other teammate (a criminally hot Andy Garcia), realize that something’s wrong and race up (down?) the stairs to catch the elevator, but arrive to find a bloodbath – both accountants brutally murdered, and the word TOUCHABLE painted on the elevator in blood.

So the plan is totally foiled – they have no witness and no more case. It’s a great midpoint reversal, because we – and Ness himself – have no idea what the team is going to be able to do next (and also Ness is so emotionally devastated by the loss of his teammate that he begins to do reckless things.).
Not only does the murder of the two accountants (Capone's and Ness's) completely annihilate Ness's PLAN), but the murder of Ness's teammate makes the stakes deeply personal.

But a Midpoint doesn’t have to be a huge action scene. Another interesting and tonally very different Midpoint happens in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the Midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into that chamber with the pendant and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

This scene is quiet, and involves only one person, but it’s mystically powerful – note the use of light and the religious quality of the music… and Indy is decked out in robes almost like, well, Moses. Staff and all. Indy stands like God over the miniature of the temple city, and the beam of light comes through the crystal like light from heaven. It’s all a foreshadowing of the final climax, in which God intervenes in much the same way. Very effective, with lots of subliminal manipulation going on. And of course, at the end of the scene, Indy has the information he needs to retrieve the Ark. I would also point out that the Midpoint is often some kind of mirror image of the final climax; it’s an interesting device to use, and you may find yourself using it without even being aware of it.

(I will concede that in Raiders, you could call the Midpoint a two-parter: Indy’s discovery that Marion is still alive is a big twist. But personally I think that scene is part of the next sequence).

Another very different kind of midpoint occurs in Silence of the Lambs: the “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have only three days before Buffalo Bill kills her. Clarice goes in at first to offer Lecter what she knows he desires most (because he has STATED his desire, clearly and early on) – a transfer to a Federal prison, away from Dr. Chilton and with a view. Clarice has a file with that offer from Senator Martin – she says – but in reality the offer is a total fake. We don’t know this at the time, but it has been cleverly PLANTED that it’s impossible to fool Lecter (Crawford sends Clarice in to the first interview without telling her what the real purpose is so that Lecter won’t be able to read her). But Clarice has learned and grown enough to fool Lecter – and there’s a great payoff when Lecter later acknowledges that fact.

The deal is not enough for Lecter, though – he demands that Clarice do exactly what her boss, Crawford, has warned her never to do: he wants her to swap personal information for clues – a classic deal with the devil game.

After Clarice confesses painful secrets, Lecter gives her the clue she’s been digging for – to search for Buffalo Bill through the sex reassignment clinics. And as is so often the case, there is a second climax within the midpoint – the film cuts to the killer in his basement, standing over the pit making a terrified Catherine put lotion on her skin – it’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes. (Each climax in SOTL is a one-two punch - screen the movie again and see what I mean!).

I recently reread Harlan Coben's The Woods, which employs a great technique to craft an explosive Midpoint: the book has an A story and a B story (well, really, with Coben it's always about sixteen different threads of each plot intricately interwoven, but two main plots). In the B story, the protagonist is prosecuting two frat boys who raped a stripper at a frat party, and at the Midpoint is the main courtroom confrontation of that plot. The storyline continues, but now it becomes subordinate (and of course interconnected to) to the building A plot. This very emotional climaxing of the B plot at the midpoint is a terrifically effective structure technique that is great to have in your story structure toolbox.

In Sense and Sensibility, the Midpoint is the emotionally wrenching scene in which Lucy Steele reveals to Elinor that she has been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars for five years. We are so committed to Edward and Elinor’s love that we are as devastated as Elinor is, and just as shocked that Edward would have lied to her. The Midpoint is even more wrenching because Elinor’s sister Marianne has also just been abandoned by her love interest. It’s a double-punch to the gut.

In Notting Hill, Julia Roberts has asked Hugh Grant up to her hotel suite for the first time, and Hugh walks in to find that Julia’s movie star boyfriend, Alec Baldwin, whom Hugh knew nothing about, is already there with her. We know that Hugh’s GHOST is that his ex-wife left him for a man who looked just like Harrison Ford (Alec is pretty close!), and to add to this blow, Alec mistakes Hugh for a room-service waiter and tips him, asking him to clean up while he takes Julia into the bedroom. Total emotional annihilation.

In a romance, the Midpoint is very often sexual or emotional. But the Midpoint can often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home.

Note that the Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene; it can be a double punch as I just pointed out about Sense And Sensibility, and it can also be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal, a cliffhanger – all or any combination of the above.

One of the great Midpoints in theater and film is in My Fair Lady. Talk about a double punch! There is not one iconic song at the Midpoint curtain, but two: first “The Rain In Spain”, in which Eliza finally starts to speak with perfect diction, and Professor Higgins, the Colonel, and Eliza celebrate with wild and joyous dancing: a moment of triumph. Then when the housekeeper takes Eliza upstairs to bed, Higgins privately tells the Colonel that she’s ready: they can test her out in public. He intends to take her to an Embassy ball and pass her off as a lady to win his bet with the Colonel, which Eliza knows nothing about. Meanwhile upstairs, giddy with happiness, Eliza sings “I Could Have Danced All Night”, and we realize she has fallen in love with the Professor.

Not just two of the greatest songs of the musical theater in a row, but all of this SETUP, big HOPE, FEAR, and STAKES. Eliza is in love with Higgins and he’s just using her for a bet. There’s a huge TEST coming up at this ball, and we saw excitable Eliza fail miserably in her first public test at the Ascot races. There’s a penalty of prison for impersonating a lady, so there are not just the emotional stakes of a possible broken heart, but possible prison time.

Do you think anyone was not going to come back into the theater to see what happens at that ball?

Asking a big question like that is a great technique to use at the Midpoint.

A totally different, but equally famous example: in Jaws, the Midpoint climax is actually a whole sequence long: a highly suspenseful setpiece in which the city officials have refused to shut down the beaches, so Sheriff Brody is out there on the beach keeping watch (as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack!), the Coast Guard is patrolling the ocean – and, almost as if it’s aware of the whole plan, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor, where it attacks and swallows a man and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son (really it’s only frightened him into near-paralysis). It’s a huge climax and adrenaline rush, but it’s not over yet. Because now the Mayor writes the check to hire Quint to hunt down the shark, and since Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”), Brody decides to go out with Quint and Hooper on the boat – and there’s also a huge change in location as we see that little boat headed out to the open sea.

It really pays to start taking note of the Midpoints of films and books. If you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene.

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in my poltergeist novel The Unseen, I knew that I was missing something in the middle, even though there was a very clear change in location and focus at the Midpoint: it’s the point at which my characters actually move into the supposedly haunted house and begin their experiment.

But there was still something missing in the scene right before, the close of the first half, and my editor had the same feeling, without really knowing what was needed, although it had something to do with the motivation of the heroine – the reason she would put herself in that kind of danger. So I looked at the scene before the characters moved in to the house, and lo and behold: what I was missing was “Sex at Sixty.”  It’s my heroine’s desire for one of the other characters that makes her commit to the investigation, and I wasn’t making that desire line clear enough.

The Midpoint often LOCKS THE HERO/INE INTO A COURSE OF ACTION, or sometimes, physically locks the hero/ine into a location.

A great recent example is Inception: at the Midpoint, there’s a big action sequence, ending in a gun battle in which one of the allies, Saito (who hired the team to break into this dream) is badly wounded, and the team discovers that they can’t get out of the dream while Saito is unconscious. They’re stuck, perhaps forever, which forces them to devise a new PLAN.

There’s a not-so recent movie called Ghost Ship, about a salvage crew investigating a derelict ocean liner which has mysteriously appeared out in the middle of the Bering Straight, after being lost without a trace for forty years. At the Midpoint, the salvage crew’s own boat mysteriously catches on fire and sinks (taking one of the crew with it), forcing the entire crew to board the haunted ocean liner. They are physically locked into the situation, now, and their original PLAN – to tow the ocean liner back to shore – must change; they now have to repair the ocean liner and sail her out of the Strait. This development also solves the perennial problem of haunted house – or haunted ship – stories: “Why don’t the characters just leave?”

It’s a great Midpoint scene for all of the above reasons, plus it’s a great visual and action setpiece: the explosion of the salvage boat, the rescue (and loss) of crew members, and the suspense of who will get out of the water and on to the ocean liner alive.

So as you're writing your fingers off, try taking a minute to contemplate what your Midpoint is, and how it changes the action of your book. If you can devise a great setpiece for your midpoint and also somehow destroy your hero'ine's initial plan, you won't have to worry about a sagging middle section, because you and your hero/ine will suddenly be scrambling to figure out a brand new and exiting plan of action to get their desire.

It really is the KEY to Act II.

Alex


=====================================================


If you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.



                                       STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.

 


STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook    $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print  $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries 






WRITING LOVE

Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.


Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)






I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.

You can also sign up to get free movie breakdowns here: