Monday, April 13, 2009

What are Act Breaks, Turning Points, Act Climaxes, Plot Points? (Examples)

I thought what I would do this week, to follow up the post on story elements, is to take several movies in a row and identify the Act Climaxes (plot points, turning points, act breaks, curtain scenes, whatever you want to call them) of each, so we can look at what all happens at those crucial junctures.

Also I can get that done faster than an entire movie breakdown, which I will also be doing for all of these examples at some point - but not until I get this !@#%%^! book done.

First, a quick review of what each Act Climax does:

Remember, in general, the climax of an act is very, very, very often a SETPIECE SCENE – there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws.).

Also an act climax is often more a climactic sequence than a single scene, which is why it sometimes feels hard to pinpoint the exact climax. And sometimes it’s just subjective! These are guidelines, not laws. When you do these analyses, the important thing for your own writing is to identify what you feel the climaxes are and why you think those are pivotal scenes.

Now specifically:


- (30 minutes into a 2 hour movie, 100 pages into a 400 page book. Adjust proportions according to length of book.)

- We have all the information we need to get and have met all the characters we need to know to understand what the story is going to be about.

- The Central Question is set up – and often is set up by the action of the act climax itself.

- Often propels the hero/ine Across the Threshold and Into The Special World. (Look for a location change, a journey begun).

- May start a TICKING CLOCK (this is early, but it can happen here)


- (60 minutes into a 2 hour movie, 200 pages into a 400 page book)

- Is 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.

- Can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.

- Completely changes the game

- Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action

- Is a point of no return.

- 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

- May start a TICKING CLOCK.

- The Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene – it can be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal – all or any combination of the above.


– (90 minutes into a 2 hour film, 300 pages into a 400 page book)

- Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is.

- Often comes immediately after the “All is Lost” or “Long Dark Night of the Soul” scene - or may itself BE the "All is Lost" scene.

- Answers the Central Question

- Propels us into the final battle.

- May start a TICKING CLOCK


- (near the very end of the story).

- Is the final battle.

- Hero/ine is forced to confront his or her greatest nightmare.

- Takes place in a thematic Location - often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare

- We see the protagonist’s character change

- We may see the antagonist’s character change (if any)

- We may see ally/allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire

- There is possibly 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)


Okay, for examples, I'm starting today with two of my all-time favorite films, JAWS and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Please feel free to argue my points!

And note all times are APPROXIMATE - I'm a Pisces.



JAWS is a 2 hour, 4 minute movie and I would say the first act climax is that big crowd scene 30 minutes in when every greedy fisherman on the East Coast is out there on the water trying to hunt the shark down for the bounty. One team catches a tiger shark and everyone celebrates in relief. Hooper says it’s too little to be the killer shark and wants to cut it open to see if there are body parts inside, but the Mayor refuses. We know that this isn’t the right shark, and we see that Sheriff Brody feels that way as well, but he’s torn – he wants it to be the right shark so this nightmare will be over. But the real, emotional climax of the act is at the very end of the sequence when Mrs. Kitner strides up to Brody and slaps him, saying that if he’d closed the beaches her son would still be alive. This is the accusation – and truth – that compels Brody to take action in the second act. (34 minutes)

It’s a devastating scene – just as devastating as a shark attack, and a crucial turning point in the story, which is why I’d call it the act climax. Brody is going to have to take action himself instead of rely on the city fathers (in fact, the city fathers have just turned into his opponents).


The midpoint climax occurs in a highly suspenseful sequence 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 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. (This is about 60 minutes and 30 seconds in). Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”). And as he looks out to sea, we and he realize that no one’s going to do this for him – he’s going to have to go out there on the water, his greatest fear, and hunt this shark down himself.


As in the first act climax, here Spielberg goes for a CHARACTER sequence, an EMOTIONAL climax rather than an action one. About 83 minutes into the movie, the three men, Brody, Quint and Hooper, who have been at each other’s throats since they got onto the boat, sit inside the boat's cabin and drink, and Quint and Hooper start comparing scars – classic male bonding, funny, touching, cathartic. In this midst of this the tone changes completely as Quint reveals his back story, which accounts for his shark obsession: he was on a submarine that got hit during WW II, and most of the men were killed by sharks before they could be rescued. It’s a horrific moment, a complete dramatization of what our FEAR is for these men. And then, improbably, the three guys start to sing, “Show me the way to go home.” (I told you – a musical number!) It’s a wonderful, comic, endearing uplifting, exhilarating moment – and in the middle of it we hear pounding – the shark attacking, hammering the boat. And the men scramble into action, to face the long final confrontation of ACT THREE. (92 minutes in).


The whole third act of JAWS is the final battle, and it’s relentless, with Quint wrecking the radio to prevent help coming, the shark battering a hole in the ship so it begins to sink under them, the horrific death of Quint. The climax of course is water-phobic Brody finding his greatest nightmare coming alive around him: he must face the shark on his own on a sinking ship – he’s barely clinging on to the mast - and blowing it up with the oxygen tank. The survival of Hooper is another emotional climax. (2 hrs. 4 minutes).

The interesting thing to note about JAWS is that despite the fact that it’s an action movie (or arguably, action/horror), every climax is really an EMOTIONAL one, involving deep character. I’d say that has a lot to do with why this film is such an enduring classic. . It’s also interesting to consider that in an action movie an emotional moment might always stand out more than yet another action scene, simply by virtue of contrast.




I’d say it’s a two-parter: The lead-in is the climax of Clarice’s second scene in the prison with Lecter. She’s followed his first clue and discovered the head of Lecter’s former patient, Raspail, in the storage unit. Lecter says he believes Raspail was Buffalo Bill’s first victim. Clarice realizes, “You know who he is, don’t you?” Lecter says he’ll help her catch Bill, but for a price: He wants a view. And he says she’d better hurry – Bill is hunting right now.

And on that line we cut to Catherine Martin, and we see her knocked out and kidnapped by Bill.

So here we have an excruciating SUSPENSE SCENE (Catherine’s kidnapping); a huge REVELATION: Lecter knows Bill’s identity and is willing to help Clarice get him; we have a massive escalation in STAKES: a new victim is kidnapped; there is a TICKING CLOCK that starts: we know Bill holds his victim for three days before he kills them, and the CENTRAL QUESTION has been set up: Will Clarice be able to get Buffalo Bill’s identity out of Lecter before Bill kills Catherine Martin? (34 minutes in).


The midpoint is the famous “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. This is a stunning, psychological game of cat-and-mouse between the two: there’s no action involved; it’s all in the writing and the acting. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have less than three days now 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 – he tells her 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… and as she pleads with him, she sees bloody handprints on the walls of the pit and begins to scream… and just as you think things can’t get any worse, Bill pulls out his T–shirt to make breasts and starts to scream with her. It’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes. (about 55 minutes in)


The act two climax here is an entire, excruciating action/suspense/horror sequence: Lecter’s escape from the Tennessee prison, which really needs no description! It’s a stunning TWIST in the action. But it’s worth noting that the heroine is completely absent from this climax. The effect on her is profound, though: She was counting on Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill. Now that is not going to happen (the Central Question of the story is thus answered: No.) – it’s a complete REVERSAL and huge DEFEAT (all is lost). Clarice is going to have to rise from the ashes of that defeat to find Bill on her own and save Catherine.

The sequence begins about 1 hour and 12 minutes in and ends 10 minutes later, at 1 hr. 22 minutes.


… of course is the long and again, excruciating horror/suspense sequence of Clarice in Buffalo Bill’s basement, on her own stalking and being stalked by a psychotic killer while Catherine, the lamb, is screaming in the pit. This is one of the best examples I know of the heroine’s greatest nightmare coming alive around her in the final battle, and it is immensely cathartic that she wins.

Note that the climaxes in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS are very true to the genre, with elements of suspense, action, thriller and horror. Every single climax delivers on the particular promise of the genre – the scares and adrenaline thrills, but also the psychological game playing.

Okay, so any examples for me today? Or any stories you're having trouble identifying the climaxes of that we can help with?

- Alex


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.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.

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Bobby Mangahas said...

Good breakdown here Alex. If I may, I'd like to contribute a little with one of my all time favorite movies, Back to the Future seeing as you mentioned it at the end of this post. I wasn't timing (or even watching it when I did this, so hopefully I did it right)


The Libyans show up at Twin Pines Mall and kill Doc Brown. Marty does his best avoiding being shot, dives into the DeLorian and tries to speed to safety (thusly going the requisite 88mph to activate the flux capacitor and going back to 1955)


Here I'm a little undecided. I see two possible mid-points. One is where Marty runs into his parents as teenagers and his mother winds up falling in love with him.

Or maybe it's where Doc explains to Marty that if he doesn't get his parent's back together, Marty is endangering his own existence as well as that of his siblings.


In this particular scene, Marty is sitting in the parking lot with his mother Lorraine (still in the 1950's at this point). His intended plan was to "put the moves" on her and George would just happen by to save Lorraine. Unfortunately, the plan doesn't go so well. Marty and Lorraine begin to talk. We hear footsteps outside the car. Marty thinks that it's George. Unfortunately, it happens to be Biff. Biff has his thugs take Marty away, while he gets in the car with Lorraine (All is Lost).


There are two very important scenes at the end, but I think this one has a greater effect on the end of the movie. And I'm not sure how much time there needs to be between a second and third act climax. Continuing from where Marty was dragged away, George shows up in the parking lot and approaches the car, thinking he's there to "confront" Marty. When he opens the door however, he's sees that it's Biff. Biff tells George to just walk away, but George finally stands his ground with Biff (final confrontation) and winds up punching Biff out and saving Lorraine. This particular event of course sets up the changed dynamics of the main characters at the end of the film.

Whew! I sure hope I captured the idea after that. And thanks again Alex for all the great posts :)

Stephen D. Rogers said...

"The interesting thing to note about JAWS is that despite the fact that it’s an action movie (or arguably, action/horror), every climax is really an EMOTIONAL one, involving deep character."

I don't wonder if all climaxes are emotional. Yes, the dramatic setpiece elements might set up the climax, but it's really the protag's emotional response to what happened that kicks us in the teeth, even if that response is only captured in half-a-dozen frames.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's an excellent breakdown, RJ - I haven't seen the movie in quite a while but it sounds dead on. Thank you!!!

The Midpoint climax I think is probably BOTH those scenes you describe - because we need the Professor's commentary on what the previous scene means to get the full implications of the scene. Good example of how a climax can be multiple scenes, what I sometimes call a "rolling" climax.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yes, I agree, Stephen - the BEST climaxes are always emotional (and yes I am aware that every word I write this morning is a double entendre at least...).

But way too often in action movies and books, and thrillers, and horror - the story climaxes are only action, or only horrific - they leave out the emotional impact and just rely on an adrenaline rush.

And that makes for pretty forgettable stories.

BT said...

Excellent and informative as always. Last night I sat and watched Perfume: Story of a Murderer with pen and pad in hand. It was a recorded version so I could pause as required. This is the first time I've attempted to do this.

I've watched it twice now. The second time with pad and pen just blew me away.

All the little things just fell into place and I could see why the writer, Patrick Suskind, did what he did.

I'd love to know if you've seen it and what you thought of it - after you've finished writing the @#$%^ book - of course ;c)

BT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
laughingwolf said...

love your insights alex, thx

have tried to incorporate all writing tricks/tips from songs, poetry, screenplays and novels, since i believe one can learn from many sources

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

BT, I didn't even know PERFUME had been adapted into a film! I'll definitely have to get that one.

Yeah, there is absolutely nothing like going through a story yourself and writing down where the beats come. It's the best way in the world to figure out why a plot works.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I agree, Laughing Wolf - you can learn something from EVERY art form. I know I wouldn't be the writer I am if I weren't a dancer, too.

Rhythm, you know!

Jake Nantz said...

Alex, this is brilliant as always. I think we all owe you some serious cash for the writing tips we're all getting here. I know it's made me much more observant, and I'm starting to apply everything to my writing!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Thanks, Jake. No, no cash... but of course THE UNSEEN is available for pre-order at your favorite bookstore! ;)

laughingwolf said...

exactly so, alex... i also shoot pics and videos, plus dabble in toons and animation, some painting, so see all kinds of connections

Freya said...

Hi Alexandra,
Thanks for this fantastic blog, and for *Screenwriting Tricks for Authors*. I'm having a hard time coming up with any movies to add to my list--movies that are similar in some way to my WIP. The story in my mind is a gothic adventure set in Victorian London, with OH facing a murderous aristocrat, sinister automata, and a fraudulent spirit medium who is wringing thousands of pounds out of her victims. The plot is about OH finding and rescuing the person she loves most, who has been kidnapped.

Can you help me think of some movies that are comparable to Cox's *The Meaning of Night*, or *Bleak House*, or Schlitz's *A Drowned Maiden's Hair*? (My story just doesn't feel in the same category as *From Hell*, or *Trapped*, or *Murder by Decree*.)

Thanks again! :-) -Freya