This act/climax structure happens exactly the same way in books, but because movies are such a compressed form of storytelling, it's often easier to see the structure of the story in a movie than it is in a book. And it's a lot faster!
To review for those just joining us, a two-hour movie has three acts - Act One is roughly 30 minutes (or 30 script pages) long, Act Two is 60 minutes long (but broken into two very different sections of 30 minutes each, separated by the MIDPOINT CLIMAX of the movie) and Act Three is a bit shorter that 30 minutes, because you almost always want to speed up the action in the end.
The proportion is exactly the same in a book. In a book of 400 pages, Act One will be roughly 100 pages, Act Two will be 200 pages, divided in two by a Midpoint Climax at p. 200, and Act Three will probably be a little less than 100 pages.
These are VERY ROUGH guidelines, not rules - and will change proportionately with the numbers of pages in your book. But essentially, you can look at any book or movie as being divided into four roughly equal quarters of story.
And there are actually FOUR crucial act climaxes in a movie or book:
Act I Climax
Act II Climax
Act III Climax (the whole story climax)
Now, the easiest way to identify an Act Climax in a movie is just to use your watch, or the timer on the DVR. When something BIG starts to happen about thirty minutes into a movie, either psychologically, sexually, visually, or action-y, you can pretty much count on that being an act climax. Same at 60 minutes, 90 minutes, and of course, the scenes before the end.
But to be more specific, what you're looking for is SETPIECE SCENES.
This is a fabulous lesson to take from filmmaking.
There are multiple definitions of a setpiece. It can be a huge action scene like, well, anything in The Dark Knight, that takes weeks to shoot and costs millions, requiring multiple sets, special effects and car crashes… or a meticulously planned suspense scene with multiple cuts that takes place all in - a shower, for instance, in Psycho.
If you start watching movies specifically to pick out the setpiece scenes, you’ll notice an interesting thing. They’re almost always used as act or sequence climaxes (we'll get to sequence climaxes in a few posts). They are tentpoles holding the structure of the movie up… or jewels in the necklace of the plotline. The scenes featured in the trailers to entice people to see the movie. The scenes everyone talks about after the credits roll.
That elaborate, booby-trapped cave in the first scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The helicopter chasing Cary Grant through the cornfield in North By Northwest. The goofy galactic bar in Star Wars. Munchkinland, the Scarecrow’s cornfield, the dark forest, the poppy field, the Emerald City, the witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz. The dungeon – I mean prison – in Silence of the Lambs. In fact you can look at Raiders and Silence and see that every single sequence contains a wonderful setpiece (The Nepalese bar, the suspension bridge, the temple in Raiders…).
Those are actually two great movies to use to compare setpieces, because one is so big and action-oriented (Raiders) and one is so small, confined and psychological (Silence), yet both are stunning examples of visual storytelling.
A really great setpiece scene is a lot more than just dazzling. It’s thematic, too, such as the prison (dungeon for the criminally insane) in Silence of the Lambs. That there is much more than your garden variety prison. It’s a labyrinth of twisty staircases and creepy corridors. And it’s hell: Clarice goes through – count ‘em – seven gates, down, down, down under the ground to get to Lecter. Because after all, she’s going to be dealing with the devil, isn’t she? And the labyrinth is a classic symbol of an inner psychological journey, just exactly what Clarice is about to go through. And Lecter is a monster, like the Minotaur, so putting him smack in the center of a labyrinth makes us unconsciously equate him with a mythical beast, something both more and less than human. The visuals of that setpiece express all of those themes perfectly (and others, too) so the scene is working on all kinds of visceral, emotional, subconscious levels.
Now, yes, that’s brilliant filmmaking by director Jonathan Demme, and screenwriter Ted Talley and production designer Kristi Zea and DP Tak Fujimoto… but it was all there in the books, on Thomas Harris’s page, first, all that and more; the filmmakers had the good sense to translate it to the screen. In fact, Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, the books, are so crammed full of thematic visual imagery you can catch something new every time you reread those novels.
At the risk of overloading you, I'm going to go over - briefly - what each Act Climax does (because they all serve different functions). If you're new to this blog, some of these terms will be unfamiliar, but don't worry about it - we'll talk much more about all of this in the coming days.
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.
ACT ONE CLIMAX
- (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 and forces the hero/ine to develop a new game plan
- 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.
ACT TWO CLIMAX
– (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
ACT THREE CLIMAX
- (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)
Let's look at some examples.
And note all times are APPROXIMATE - I'm a Pisces.
ACT ONE CLIMAX:
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.
ACT TWO CLIMAX
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).
ACT THREE CLIMAX –
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.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
ACT ONE CLIMAX
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)
ACT TWO CLIMAX –
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.
ACT THREE CLIMAX –
… 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.
ACT ONE CLIMAX
(27 min. ) … is a proposal: Margaret’s assistant Andrew makes her get down on her knees on a crowded sidewalk to propose to him.
(57 min.) The GETTING TO KNOW YOU scene. In the bedroom they are being forced to share, Margaret and Andrew bond over an obscure song.
ACT TWO CLIMAX
(1 hr. 30 min.) Margaret stops her own wedding to say she can’t go through with it — Andrew deserves better than a false marriage. And she walks out to surrender herself to the INS agent.
Okay, so any examples for me today? Or any stories you're having trouble identifying the climaxes of that we can help with?
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