All of the first half of the second act – that’s p. 30-60 in a script, p. 100 to p. 200 in a 400-page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. So the Midpoint occurs at about one hour into a movie, and at about page 200 in a book.
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 minutes, not sixty years!).
The Midpoint is also often called the MOMENT OF COMMITMENT or the POINT OF NO RETURN or NO TURNING BACK: the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action.
Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we will discuss further in the chapter on Creating Suspense (Chapter 31). 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 NEW PLAN of attack. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.
In Sense and Sensibility, the Midpoint is the emotionally wrenching scene in which Lucy Steele reveals to Elinor that she has been secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars for five years. We are so committed to Edward and Elinor’s love that we are as devastated as Elinor is, and just as shocked that Edward would have lied to her. The Midpoint is even more wrenching because Elinor’s sister Marianne has also just been abandoned by her love interest. It’s a double-punch to the gut.
In Notting Hill, Julia Roberts has asked Hugh Grant up to her hotel suite for the first time, and Hugh walks in to find that Julia’s movie star boyfriend, Alec Baldwin, whom Hugh knew nothing about, is already there with her. We know that Hugh’s GHOST is that his ex-wife left him for a man who looked just like Harrison Ford (Alec is pretty close!), and to add to this blow, Alec mistakes Hugh for a room-service waiter and tips him, asking him to clean up while he takes Julia into the bedroom. Total emotional annihilation.
In a romance, the Midpoint is very often sexual or emotional. But the Midpoint can often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home.
Note that the Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene; it can be a double punch as I just pointed out about Sense And Sensibility, and it can also be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal, a cliffhanger – all or any combination of the above.
One of the great Midpoints in theater and film is in My Fair Lady. Talk about a double punch! There is not one iconic song at the Midpoint curtain, but two: first “The Rain In Spain”, in which Eliza finally starts to speak with perfect diction, and Professor Higgins, the Colonel, and Eliza celebrate with wild and joyous dancing: a moment of triumph. Then when the housekeeper takes Eliza upstairs to bed, Higgins privately tells the Colonel that she’s ready: they can test her out in public. He intends to take her to an Embassy ball and pass her off as a lady to win his bet with the Colonel, which Eliza knows nothing about. Meanwhile upstairs, giddy with happiness, Eliza sings “I Could Have Danced All Night”, and we realize she has fallen in love with the Professor.
Not just two of the greatest songs of the musical theater in a row, but all of this SETUP, big HOPE, FEAR, and STAKES. Eliza is in love with Higgins and he’s just using her for a bet. There’s a huge TEST coming up at this ball, and we saw excitable Eliza fail miserably in her first public test at the Ascot races. There’s a penalty of prison for impersonating a lady, so there are not just the emotional stakes of a possible broken heart, but possible prison time.
Do you think anyone was not going to come back into the theater to see what happens at that ball?
Asking a big question like that is a great technique to use at the Midpoint.
A totally different, but equally famous example: in Jaws, the Midpoint climax is actually a whole sequence long: a highly suspenseful setpiece 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 and swallows 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”), Brody 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.
But a Midpoint doesn’t have to be a huge action scene. 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 in much 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 in Raiders, you could call the Midpoint a two-parter: Indy’s discovery that Marion is still alive is a big twist. But personally I think that scene is part of the next sequence).
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 poltergeist novel, 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.
The Midpoint often LOCKS THE HERO/INE INTO A COURSE OF ACTION, or sometimes, physically locks the hero/ine into a location.
A great recent example is Inception: at the Midpoint, there’s a big action sequence, ending in a gun battle in which one of the allies, Saito (who hired the team to break into this dream) is badly wounded, and the team discovers that they can’t get out of the dream while Saito is unconscious. They’re stuck, perhaps forever, which forces them to devise a new PLAN.
There’s a not-so recent movie called Ghost Ship, about a salvage crew investigating a derelict ocean liner which has mysteriously appeared out in the middle of the Bering Straight, after being lost without a trace for forty years. At the Midpoint, the salvage crew’s own boat mysteriously catches on fire and sinks (taking one of the crew with it), forcing the entire crew to board the haunted ocean liner. They are physically locked into the situation, now, and their original PLAN – to tow the ocean liner back to shore – must change; they now have to repair the ocean liner and sail her out of the Strait. This development also solves the perennial problem of haunted house – or haunted ship – stories: “Why don’t the characters just leave?”
It’s a great Midpoint scene for all of the above reasons, plus it’s a great visual and action setpiece: the explosion of the salvage boat, the rescue (and loss) of crew members, and the suspense of who will get out of the water and on to the ocean liner alive.
RECALIBRATING THE PLAN
The game-changing action of the Midpoint will very often cause the hero/ine to have to recalibrate the PLAN.
In Sense And Sensibility, the PLAN was for Elinor and Marianne to marry well (hopefully for love), and secure their family’s future. At the Midpoint, their initial hopes for marriage are crushed, and immediately afterward the Mentor character, Mrs. Jennings, proposes a NEW PLAN: to take the sisters to London for “the Season”, where she is sure she can marry them off.
In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy’s PLAN is to continue pretending to be Peter’s fiancée to keep his family happy while he’s in the coma (partly to keep his grandmother from having a heart attack). At the Midpoint, Peter wakes from the coma, and now Lucy plans to confess the ruse to the family (but it’s complicated…)
As always, however the hero/ine decides to change the plan, it’s useful to state it aloud.
ESCALATING ACTIONS/ OBSESSIVE DRIVE
Now the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, and there may also have been a big failure at the Midpoint, so it’s time for desperate measures.
In fact, I’ve noticed that in a lot of stories, the hero/ine tends to be winning throughout Act II, part 1, but after the Midpoint, in Act II, part 2, the hero/ine suddenly starts to lose, and lose big.
Losing leads to escalating actions by the hero/ine, and these escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: The hero/ine actually starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive, or downright immoral. You see Bill Murray start to self-destruct and lash out at everyone around him in Act II:2 of Groundhog Day after Andie MacDowell rejects him (and rejects him again, and again, and again!) at the Midpoint.
And often the hero/ine will LOSE SUPPORT FROM KEY ALLIES when s/he begins to cross the line.
ESCALATING ACTIONS/ATTACKS BY ANTAGONIST
In Act II:2, the antagonist is escalating his or her actions as well – because of course, s/he hasn’t won yet, either, and is getting frustrated, and probably tired. The attacks are more brutal, and often more lethal. In suspense, very often the most intense action sequences happen during this third quarter, and this is another place that the hero/ine’s ally or allies may be killed. In a romantic comedy, this is where everything starts to spiral out of control (Tootsie is a great example, as we see Michael’s double life start to run him ragged).
THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (ALL IS LOST)
This third quarter of your story is almost certainly going to contain a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, also known as ALL IS LOST, or APPARENT DEFEAT, or THE BLACK MOMENT, or VISIT TO DEATH (which may also be a separate scene). The detective is thrown off the case, the crucial lawsuit is dismissed, a key witness is killed, an ally walks out. In The Wizard of Oz it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene, and often it’s because a loved one has actually died.
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.
In lighter romance, the All Is Lost Scene is very, very often a scene I call THE LOVER MAKES A STAND. In this scene the Lover, the one who loves most deeply, basically says to the Loved One: “I’m not going to take your bullshit any more. Make up your mind. Either commit to me or don’t, but if you don’t, I’m out of here.”
In It’s Complicated: Steve Martin tells Meryl Streep that she’s not done with Alec yet, and Steve doesn’t want to see her while she’s still emotionally involved with him. In Notting Hill: Hugh Grant tells Julia Roberts in the bookstore that between her “foul temper” and his far less experienced heart, he doesn’t think he would recover from being discarded again, and turns down her offer to date. In When Harry Met Sally, Sally refuses Harry’s offer to go to the New Year’s party as a friendly date: “I’m not your consolation prize, Harry.”
In all of the above scenes, the Lover’s Stand forces the Loved One to step up and commit just as deeply as the Lover is committed. But it seems that very, very, very often, it’s one character, the Lover, who has to force the issue.
Also in romance, the All Is Lost moment is often the scene in which the WRONG PERSON PROPOSES (or the hero/ine proposes to the wrong person!) and All Is Lost because the hero/ine, for whatever reason, foolishly accepts.
This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act (either right before it or right after it) 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. In fact, the All Is Lost Moment is so big it often serves as the Act II Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel).
But the Act Two Climax can also be a final revelation before the end game.
In suspense, 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 also that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Chief 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). This device can work just as well in romance, as we see in New In Town, when Lucy realizes her real antagonists are the executives of her own company, who are about to close the factory that Lucy has come to love. This is quickly followed by a great revelation that Lucy might be able to save the factory, and all the workers’ jobs, by using her ally Blanche’s secret tapioca recipe. And shortly after that, her biggest antagonist, the factory foreman, becomes her biggest ally in revamping the factory.
The second act climax is another place that you might start a TICKING CLOCK (although a clock can begin at virtually any time in a story).
Also usually at the climax of Act Two, the CENTRAL QUESTION of the story, that was asked in the first act, is answered. And here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the answer is often: No.
In The Proposal, the Central Question is: “Will Margaret and Andrew be able to successfully fake a marriage and pass the INS test on Monday?” But at the Act II Climax, as Margaret prepares to walk down the aisle in front of Andrew’s family, she realizes she can’t go through with it. Andrew deserves more than a fake marriage. She confesses the ruse, apologizes to the family, and walks out on the wedding to surrender herself to the INS.
This is a good example of how the hero/ine is often pursuing the wrong goal, and has to give up on what s/he thought she wanted in order to get what she truly needs. If you put that moment at the Act Two Climax, it plays as a TWIST, which is always a great thing in storytelling.
There’s one more general point I’d like to make about Act II, Part 2. In shorter films and stories, this is the section that is most often shortened and compressed. There’s a big buildup in Act II, Part 1, and then after the Midpoint reversal, a quick slide into chaos and an All Is Lost moment in Act II, Part 2. And very often romances are shorter stories than other genres, and from what I’ve seen, it definitely holds true that Act II:2 is the section that is most often shortened.
Just something to keep in mind!
Next, Act Three – the FINAL BATTLE and RESOLUTION.
And 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.
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.
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- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
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