As we were talking about in our last discussion of the Elements of Act Two, the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. 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 pages, not sixty years.)
It’s also sometimes called the “Point of No Return”, in which the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action (this may have been the German dramaturg Freytag’s assertion – I’ll have to research it further).
Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we discussed in Building Suspense. 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 a new plan of attack.
And the Midpoint will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.
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. For example, in JAWS, the Midpoint climax occurs in a highly suspenseful sequence in which the city officials have refused to shut 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, 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”), he 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.
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 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.
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.
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 latest book, 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. So now although they don’t actually have sex, there’s definitely sex in the air, and it’s very clear that that desire is driving her.
The Midpoint launches ESCALATING ACTION/OBSESSIVE DRIVE
In the second half of the second act the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, so it’s time for desperate measures.
These escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: the hero/ine very often starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive or downright immoral. When Catherine is kidnapped, Clarice is warned by her roommate that if she doesn’t study for and take her FBI exams, she’ll be kicked out of the program. Of course Clarice puts Catherine’s well-being above her own, but it’s a great way to back her into a corner and force hard choices. Often the hero/ine will lose support from key allies when s/he begins to cross the line.
Naturally the antagonist’s actions are escalating as well.
This third quarter also almost always contains a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. In THE WIZARD OF OZ it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass and all looks lost. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene - yet like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the hero/ine also formulates one last desperate plan, or figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and comes out of the long dark night even more determined to win.
This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act, because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end.
Now, remember, in standard film structure, the second half of Act Two is two sequences long - two fifteen minute sequences, each with a beginning, middle and climax. A book will perhaps have three or four or five sequences in this 100 page section. But if you concentrate on escalating obsessive actions by the hero/ine and antagonist, and then an abject failure, out of which a new revelation and plan occurs, you pretty much have the whole section mapped out to the ACT TWO CLIMAX
As I’ve discussed before, the Act Two Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel) often answers the Central Question set up at the end of Act One, and often the answer is “No”. No, Lecter is not going to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine – Clarice is going to have to do it herself. No, Quint will not kill the shark; the shark kills him instead and Sheriff Brody is going to have to face the shark alone.
The second act climax will often be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is (as in THE FUGITIVE, when Dr. Richard Kimble realizes that his friend Chuck has set him up and that leads to the final confrontation and fight/chase. THE FUGITIVE has a nice, satisfying structure because at the same time that Kimble is realizing who his real enemy is, US Marshal Gerard (the Tommy Lee Jones character), who has been chasing Kimble for the entire film, also becomes convinced of Kimble’s true nature – that he’s innocent.
It’s a very common storytelling device that the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or THE main enemy, and it also often happens that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Captain Renault in CASABLANCA, who not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick).
The second act climax is another place that you might start a ticking clock – such as in ALIEN, when Ripley sets the ship to blow up in ten minutes and has to evade the alien and get to the shuttle by then – as if being chased by an acid-bleeding monster weren’t stressful enough!
And the third act is basically the FINAL BATTLE and RESOLUTION. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly.
But we’ll talk about the third act and climax in a separate post.
And I'm always interested in hearing examples of great midpoints!
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More articles on story structure
Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method
Screenwriting - The Craft
What's Your Premise?
Elements of Act One
Elements of Act Two
Elements of Act Two, Part 2
Elements of Act Three, Part 1
Elements of Act Three, Part 2
What Makes a Great Climax?
Visual Storytelling Part 1
Visual Storytelling Part 2
Fairy Tale Structure and the List