Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

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As we were talking about way back there 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.

(But okay, I also concede that in RAIDERS, the revelation that comes just before the map room scene, that Marion is still alive, is the first part of a two-part Midpoint 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!).

As I discussed in the last post, the Midpoint of THE UNTOUCHABLES is a great one because 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.

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.

It really pays to start constantly taking note of the Midpoints of films and books (I assume you're already taking note of Act Climaxes, right?) And if you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene (or sequence).

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in 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.


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.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 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.

The protagonist's desperation will often stem directly from the big FAILURE that often occurs at the Midpoint (Again, THE UNTOUCHABLES is a great example). If the PLAN has collapsed and the hero/ine and her team have to completely recalibrate, then they're already tired and discouraged and likely to make bigger and bigger mistakes.

And if there has been a 'Now it's PERSONAL' loss, then the hero/ine is in no emotional shape to be making these decisions to begin with. In JAWS - we all know Brody has no business being out on that boat (although of course he rises to the occasion). But that bastard shark went after his son, so of course, he's going to go.

This emotional desperation also can - and should - happen in a romantic comedy. In NOTTING HILL, at the Midpoint, Julia Roberts finally invites Hugh Grant up to her hotel room, but when he arrives, his greatest nightmare in the form of movie star Alec Baldwin is there - Julia has a boyfriend, and Hugh's forced to pretend to be a waiter and clear away the room service dishes. It's a crushing defeat (and remember, Hugh's GHOST/WOUND is that his ex wife left him for a man who "looks like Harrison Ford".)

This is a huge loss for Hugh - and we all know that we do crazy and irresponsible things when we've been recently wounded by love.

Naturally the antagonist’s actions are escalating in these Act II: 2 sequences as well, as attempt after attempt to get what s/he wants has failed, and when a villain gets desperate, well, things get ugly.

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 - sometimes it IS 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.

I've also noticed that Sequence Six, the section right before the Act Two Climax, tends to be the darkest and most tense of all the sequences (except for maybe the final battle.) It's as if you have to build to a really terrible failure, the hero/ine losing just about everything, before that final breakthrough revelation that will propel the hero/ine into the final battle.

And again, this is true in a comedy or romantic comedy. Although the hijinks might be more out-of-control than desperately dark, the loss of control and descent into chaos is very, very often a part of this sequence in a comedy (IT'S COMPLICATED is a good recent example of this rhythm, and any episode of FAWLTY TOWERS.)

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 separate posts.

And I'm always interested in hearing examples of great midpoints!

- Alex


Online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop:

I am teaching an online Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workshop from July 15-30. These online workshops are a fantastic deal, just $20 for two weeks, and here's where you can get one-on-one feedback on these techniques as they apply to your own story. All genres welcome!

Register here.


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.

I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.

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.



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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.

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Sarra Cannon said...

Great Post! Thank you so much for giving so many details about specific movies/stories. It always helps me to understand your point better.

I was thinking that my current novel has a similar midpoint to the first Harry Potter, when you realize for the first time (at the Quiddich game) that someone is trying to kill Harry. You think, of course, that it's Snape.

Also, I watched Lord of the Rings and I'm pretty sure the midpoint is the part where Frodo has just recovered from being stabbed by the Wraith and decides to take the ring to Mordor himself... which is when the actual Fellowship of the Ring is formed. I am trying to take some notes from those two movies/books in my own writing.

Looking forward to hearing you speak at the ScriptScene event in Orlando!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sarra, I haven't seen LOTR in a while, but that scene/decision of Frodo's sounds exactly right as the Midpoint. That's a great example of the "reluctant hero" story pattern, too - Gandalf drives the action for the first half of the story, but it becomes more and more personal for Frodo, until he decides to step up and take action himself.

That's always an exhilarating moment, I think!

(And Brody of course does this himself at the Midpoint of JAWS).

I love examples, too - no better way to learn.

laughingwolf said...

oh man, sure glad you're doing this, alex, i'm finding all kinds of things wrong with my piece... thx!

Mara said...

One of my favorite midpoints is in the Hayao Miyazaki animated movie "Spirited Away." Chihiro, a girl whole parents have been turned into pigs while trespassing in a spirit village, is working in the bathhouse for the spirits. She's awkward and despised, but through tenacity manages to achieve the cleansing of a river spirit. Midpoint here is an achievement of respect. The river spirit's gift of gold leads to greed in the bathhouse, a new direction for the film and a chance for Chihiro to help the person who helped her out originally. I love the natural progression from the direction of the first section, survival in the bathhouse, to the complex, several stranded second half.

Tracy A said...

Shawshank Redemption is one of my all time favorite movies.

I'm thinking the midpoint in that one is after Tommy Williams, the kid that Andy has been tutoring for his GED, tells Andy that a former cellmate confessed that he had killed a banker's wife and the banker (Andy) took the rap for it. Andy tells the warden and gets thrown in the hole for his trouble,and then the warden has Tommy Williams killed. At that point, Andy realizes the warden will never let him go and it's become personal with Tommy's death. Andy's only choice is to go through with his escape plan or die in prison.

And that decision, in turn, leads to Red's change in attitude at his next parole board hearing.

Let me add my thanks for these series of posts. Plotting is my nemesis, but I think I've got it in a pretty firm headhold for the moment!~

Jessie Mac said...

Read your post and the comments - thanks for such a useful post. It's made me think of the novel I'm writing and making sure that the midpoint is there.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I'm sure there's nothing "wrong" with the piece, LW - it's just the process.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mara (great name!) - I still haven't seen Spirited Away (I know, I know...) but you're describing exactly the sensation that a good midpoint always seems to provide - it's such a curtain on previous action, and a bridge into a new section that's even deeper and more compelling. It provides so much of the propulsion that is dramatic narrative.

It's a FEELING. I myself should never forget that.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Tracy, again, I'd have to rewatch Shawshank (one of the best movies ever!), but your analysis sounds exactly right. That's definitely a Point of No Return for Andy. We understand what he has to do and why. (And what a plan!)

Thanks for your great examples, you guys!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jessie Mac, yes, I need to check my WIP for the midpoint, myself!

Funny how when you focus on just that, you suddenly see exactly what's missing.

Angelle Haney Gullett said...

Alex, these are great posts! I struggle mightily with plot, and have found applying screenplay structure to be incredibly freeing.

Quick question about your workshop: Is it the sort of thing with feedback on our specific WIPs, or more of a generalized course?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

LA, I don't read people's WIPs, but there will be a lot of individual feedback on people's stories and specific story questions and problems, depending on how much you decide to share and how much you decide to participate.

Most people who take these classes just lurk (otherwise I'd never have the time to teach this way!) so the people who do ask specific questions get a lot of brainstorming from the whole group.

Angelle Haney Gullett said...

Thanks for the clarification, Alex, that's what I was looking for! It sounds like a very cool thing. I'm a front-of-the-class kind of kid, so maybe some of my story problems could get untangled ;-)

Josie Thames said...

I'm a little behind in reading the posts, what will all the taking notes and writing as I go, but WOW was this post helpful! I'd written this little scene for my YA story the other day in which the protagonist gets kissed and asked out by a kind-of friend of hers; someone that she hadn't really admitted to herself that she liked that way. It's there all along, the reader can see it, but not the protagonist. Anyway, I was struggling as to what comes next, and upon reading this post, it hits me--where is her difficult choice? Immediately, I realized that was the moment when her birth mother was going to announce that she was coming to meet her daughter. Thank you so much!