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Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Midpoint Mind-Melt

It brings up feelings of inadequacy and intimidation. It haunts your dreams at night because you don't have one: the complication. The reversal. The midpoint. Why does it feel like some kind of awful, scary anvil hanging over your head?

The midpoint need not be an intimidating thing. The light bulb went off over my head years ago when I began to use the four act structure and when I realized that the midpoint, while it does do a special job, is really just another plot point.

A brief review of the four act structure (oddly called such, since really, it's just dividing your second act in two):

act one: pages one-30(-ish)
act two A: pages 30-50(ish)
act two B: pages 50-80(ish)
act three: pages 80(ish) on

We know from studying screenwriting that the second act really is the meat and potatoes of the whole script. It is during the second act that the bulk of the horrifying or funny or dramatic or sad adventure you have penned happens. Yes? The first act is primarily set up and engine revving, the third act is the exciting, climactic oh-my-god-how-will-it-all-end. But the second act is the part of the movie that producers buy. It is the part of the story that defines what the movie is really all about. It is the logline of your script writ large.

It is in the second act that Luke gets his set pieces on in STAR WARS. It is the second act that shows us what Elle's decision to go to Harvard Law really looks like for her as she experiences it in LEGALLY BLONDE. And speaking of Witherspoon, it is in the second act of ELECTION that shows us to what lengths Tracy Flick is willing to go.

Plot points are relatively egalitarian. Plot points are the spots in a script when BIG STUFF HAPPENS to propel the story forward. They are they cliffhanger moments, the what-will-the-main-character DO moments. The first plot point propels us INTO the second act, ergo its enormous importance.

In Vogler/Campbell terms, the "call" is the inciting incident on page 10(ish). You know, the "call to adventure" that the main character most emphatically would like to ignore. It's upsetting the applecart. And the main character, in general, would really like to NOT have this crazy adventure but rather to keep on keeping on in his or her normal life..aas flawed or dysfunctional as that life is. The first plot point is an event that SHOVES the main character forward into the meat of the story - whether they like it or not. There is no getting out of this story and there is no possibility of not going on this adventure.

And the second plot point or second act break, which falls around page 75 or 80 (again, using very slippery math; it depends on your script), is what forces a climactic ending for the whole story.

But the midpoint is the game-changer. The main character is coping in a way that should, according to them, wind up this story quickly and easily - but it fails. Something changes. The mid-point is a reversal which causes your main character to have to make a new plan. They get spun in a new direction. What was working will not work. Because the antagonist upped the game. Because something changed drastically.

I used to be able to rattle off how various screenwriting gurus name the midpoint, but I no longer can. I purposely off-loaded that information some time ago. But you can call it whatever you want - it really doesn't have to be complicated.

Every plot point (or pinch, or break) does the same job - it thrusts the hero into the next, more amped up, higher stakes part of the story. If a script takes the shape of a rollercoaster, with the first 10 pages being the slow click-click-click of the rollercoaster heading up the first hill, then each ensuing plot point is a sharp curve, turn or downward drop.

So the first act is compelling but not as heart-pounding as the third act, right? Of course not. Story-telling is a striptease; as the story unfolds, the audiences gets more and more invested. They HAVE to stick around to see what happens. Because it just keeps getting worse.

Think of the midpoint the same as any of your other plot points. Plot points are plot points. They are pivotal moments that raise the stakes and make things worse and more complicated for your main character.

Except, if you look at the placement of each plot point, you'll notice they are perched on the cusp of a particular act, and as the acts progress, they move faster and more pell mell toward the exciting ending.

So the first act break pushes your character INTO the pool - SPLASH - and now they have to swim. RAINMAN: Cruise kidnaps his brother. Off they go. Adventure started. Trigger pulled.

The midpoint is when you take away the raft, lifejacket and lifeguard. Now swim, sucker. You had no idea that this pool is really the wide open sea. SIXTH SENSE: I see dead people.

The second plot point is when your main character is now faced with a choice: Do or die. Succeed or fail. He or she will have to face down the antagonist in a battle scene. All bets are off.

So try not to mythologize the midpoint too much - just take a close look at where it falls in the script. Dead center. And audiences enjoy the vicarious thrill of hoping the main character will succeed but wondering how the hell that is possible. The midpoint is a complication that causes the main character to have to reach for new solutions after a period of total OH SHIT-ness. Now what?

I should invent new labels for plot points:

Uh Oh! - page 10
Can This Situation Get Any Worse?? - page 25
OH HOLY SHIT - midpoint
Do-or-Die Time - page 75

It is around the midpoint that your main character starts to let go of who they were on page one. They start really coming face to face with what is not working in their lives. The midpoint is the part of going camping when you wind up lost in the rain, and have to patch your tent with a pair of boxer shorts and some gum and you sit there glum and pissed off and light a match to look at a map and then discover it's the wrong map. At the midpoint, your main character is totally, utterly FUBARed. A new plan is needed. Some serious action is needed here. Despair, desperation, anger - all of that will inspire a brand new plan of attack. Your character will crawl out of that tent into the mud, rise up and have a new plan. One that might not work but hey, they're lost in the rainy, dark woods, what other choice is there? It is go time and nothing so far has worked out very well. The midpoint is a tipping point for your main character. If the climactic ending shows what your main character is really made of, the midpoint is the first inkling of that.

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Anonymous said...

I think you've coined yet another name for "midpoint": The Point of Utter FUBAR! Love it!

rationalthug said...

Just a minor note about the page 10(ish) "call to action." I've been a reader for a few different studios over the years, and one of the things that always made me literally sigh with boredom was reading a script with a perfect, clean, unbelievable call to action. A quick piece of advice (that I sometimes have to remind myself to take): for those of you trying to create a compelling turn of events at or around page 10... try not to be too literal with the call to action. If something clean and bold fits the story, fine, but otherwise a little finesse can make all the difference.

Steve Axelrod said...

This is an excellent practical template, and not just for films. I'm writing a kid's 'chapter' book about the adventures of a pug ... and the same structure applies. Fascinating! You should think about doing this professionally ...

Julie Gray said...

Uh thanks, Steve - I DO this professionally. :)

Julie Gray said...

@rational - AMEN BROTHER! Seriously. That's a whole other blog post. Don't write by numbers.

naomi said...

Just what I needed! Thanks for the post!

Maria said...

I humbly submit a vote for a blog entry about not writing by the numbers! Trying to find a balance between meeting expectations and being "fresh" and original has me tearing my hair out. This blog is fantastic!

Julie Gray said...

Hi Maria - good question and one I will address. In the future, email me your questions though :)

PJ McIlvaine said...

Here's how I break it down:

Act One: foreplay

Act Two: sex (bad, good, rough, indifferent, down and dirty, performance issues, Viagra, impotence)

Act Three: climax

The ending: leave as quickly as you can, preferably sooner than later