Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Identifying Act Climaxes, cont.: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Okay, back to identifying Act Climaxes.

What we were doing before I got caught up in that spate of traveling, was talking through some movies to 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. (First post here.)

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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)



Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Story by George Lucas & Philip Kaufman
Directed by Stephen Spielberg

Please feel free to argue my points!

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

1 hour 55 minute running time.


Act One Climax here is easy: the great Nepalese bar scene. Total setpiece scene – the visuals of that snowy mountain and the tiny bar, the drinking contest that Marion wins, the fight between Indy and Marion with its emotional backstory and sexual chemistry, the entrance of Toht and his heavies, who are ready to torture Marion for the medallion, the re-entrance of Indy and the huge, fiery fight, which ends in the escape of Indy and Marion with the medallion and Marion’s capper line: “I’m your goddamn partner!” (34 minutes in).

Everything you could ever want in a setpiece sequence, visuals, action, sex, emotion: and all we need to know to understand what the story is going to be has been laid out.


An interesting and tonally very unique 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 the Well of Souls with the medallion 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 much in 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 this is a two-part climax, though – the twist that comes just after it that Marion is still alive is a big emotional beat, and the subsequent twist that Indy doesn’t release her because leaving her captive will buy him time to get down into the Well of Souls, is a great relationship beat (great maybe isn’t the word I’m looking for; maybe the word is more like “male”.)


(About 1 hr. 15 min. in) After the big setpiece/action scene of crashing through the wall in the Well of Souls to escape the snakes, Indy and Marion run for a plane on the airfield to escape, and Indy has to fight that gigantic mechanic. Indy has to simultaneously race to stop the plane, with Marion on it, from blowing up from the spilled gas (reliving his nightmare – losing her again). He saves Marion just before the plane blows up. And the capper- Indy learns the Nazis have put the Ark on a truck to take to Cairo – cut to Indy on a horse, charging after them.


Of course, the opening of the Ark and the brutal deaths of all the Nazis who look at it. This is a unique climax in that the protagonist does virtually nothing but save his own and Marion’s lives; there’s no battle involved; they’re tied up all the way through the action. It’s a classic deus ex machina as God steps in (metaphorically) to take the Ark back.

But there are such pyrotechnics going on, and such emotional satisfaction in seeing the Nazis dispatched, that I never hear anyone complaining that Indy doesn’t participate.

Okay, so any examples of your own for me today? Or any stories you're having trouble identifying the climaxes of that we can help with? Or problems with your love life? I'm here to help.

- Alex


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Bobby Mangahas said...

Ah, yes, RAIDERS. I knew this would eventually pop up :)

I was waiting for this actually so we could compare notes.

My breakdown VERY closely matched yours (Great minds, right?). The only variation I had was at the mid-point. You mentioned both Indy discovering the exact location of the Ark AND finding out Marian was alive. I just mentioned finding out Marian was still alive.

I can't thank you enough for these posts. It's really made me examine my writing closer. Of course, I still can't bring myself to fully outline ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I think you and I have had this fight about the Raiders Midpoint before, RJ. ;)

I think it's my background as a director that argues for the Well of Souls scene as the true Midpoint. It's just so mythic, and so visual.

And God trumps Marion. That's just the way it is. I mean, remember the Nazis' fate...

Jake Nantz said...

You mentioned a while back that you would have to chart out DEAD POETS' SOCIETY to see if it fit. Well, I took advantage of all of your posts in my class (gave proper credit, of course, and even earned you a few fans from my horror writers with THE thanks needed, I'll just take a percentage haha). Anyway, after taking them through 3 Act Structure for a few days, we watched DPS and I had them plot it out (and I mean everything).

Here's what I came up with, for good or ill:

Act 1 Climax - Setpiece scene where the boys resurrect the DPS, in the same cave and reading the passages Keating has marked from his old book of verse. The theme of the boys rebelling against the conformity of the school is established.

Midpoint Climactic Sequence - Charlie brings girls to the cave, changes name to "Nuwanda" and announces he has published a letter in the school paper in the name of the DPS demanding girls be admitted to Welton. Meanwhile Knox is at the party, drinks too much, and kisses Kris (his infatuation) who is passed out on the sofa. [sex at 60?] Gets caught by boyfirend, gets pummeled.

Act 2 Climax - Kind of a sequence, with Neil's triumph as Puck in his first ever performance, followed immediately by the revelation that he never talked his father into letting him do it, and his dad takes him home. "Long Dark Night of the Soul" would be when Neil gets up, opens the windows, puts on his "Puck" crown, goes down to dad's office, shoots himself.

Act Three Climax - After having to sign a document blaming Mr. Keating, rather than standing up for him (hero's weakness...facing down authority), Todd Anderson defies the Headmaster by standing on his desk in his room (payoff from two earlier lessons) and showing Keating, who's been fired, that his teachings made a difference. Many of the other boys--andnot just the ones in the renewed DPS--stand and do the same. Cut to Black.

Sound about right?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

So sorry to be late responding, Jake - this month is just out of control for me. And not about to get better any time soon, unfortunately!!

I swear to God, I will rewatch DPS this summer, if it's the last thing I do.

But your breakdown sounds exactly right to me - it's hard to imagine any OTHER scenes being the act climaxes there.

Karel said...

Hi Alex,

Just stumbled upon your Raiders structure.

I'm pleased to see you went for the 3-act model, in stead of 6 or 7 acts as some people seem to suggest...

Click on my name to see my breakdown. I put the end of Act Two a little earlier but apart from that, we're pretty much on the same page.

I love your blog. Thanks!



MG Harris said...

Oh this is excellent! I use Raiders as a structural aid to my writing too...

Thanks for the thinks!

Unknown said...

Can a stroy climax be a quiet event of major implication? E.g. the protagonist realizes that she is ditracted from her academic studies and will never become the lawyer she wanted to prove to herself she could be. Subconsciously, she is elated because she has a deep inner fear of courthouses and of authority (judges) and doesn't have the patience to study the technicalities of the legal system.
She will have to face the derision of her father, though, for whose apporoval she fought so hard to succeed academically.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Alex, of course, a story climax can be ANYTHING. You're talking about a major character change, so it qualifies.

BUT - and this is a bit "but" -

You need to make that climax have the same import on the reader or audience that it has on the character. It has to be earth-shaking, life-changing. So as quiet as the moment is - you have to give it that import - either through external conflict, or a hell of an internal conflict.

Does that make sense?

DEAD POETS' SOCIETY and ORDINARY PEOPLE are good ones to look at/read for that kind of emotional punch. Make your own list of emotional climaxes that really wring you out!

Paradigm Adam said...

Good breakdown. One note, the final climax isn't technically deus ex machina (a solution out of nowhere).

In act one, Indy is told the ark has unspeakable power but he says he doesn't believe in superstition and fairy tales. In the mid-point, Indy has a the minor victory as he mystically discovers the ark location.

The final climax is actually Indy submitting to the supernatural power that's been present in the movie all along. He's transferred over from simply being an academic with knowledge to having (at least some) faith in the supernatural.

In this way, the third act victory completes the character arc and is a satisfying conclusion.

A deus ex machina would be a T Rex appearing at the end and devouring the Nazis. ;)

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

You’re right that the literary meaning of Deus ex Machina is an ending that comes out of nowhere. But the origin and literal meaning of the phrase is “God from the machine” - it comes from the golden age of Greek theater, when bad playwrights would actually have a character representing one of the gods lowered from the theater rafters to sort out the end of the play.

I have to think the end of Raiders is partly Kasdan’s sly nod to this literary trope.

But yes, I completely agree that Indy’s passivity in the end is a character arc – he’s finally acknowledging that there are spiritual forces far beyond his comprehension. I teach/write about that arc in my full structure breakdown of the movie.