(SPOILERS: Aliens, Little Miss Sunshine, Some Like It Hot, The Visitor, Zombieland, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)
Today I continue my in-depth discussion of structure by examining the middle of Act Two, which is obviously also the middle of the movie. In three act structure this is where we find the…
The concept of the Midpoint is fairly straightforward, though its use and purpose can vary a lot. I know several successful screenwriters who don’t give any thought to the midpoint at all and I’ve seen movies that don’t have a traditional midpoint. It doesn’t really seem to be a required beat. But I think it’s a valuable milestone to help us keep Act Two interesting. And if used well it can be the tent pole that supports Act Two.
Traditionally the Midpoint mirrors the Resolution and is opposite to the Act Two Break. If your character is going to succeed at their goal in the Resolution, then the Midpoint should be a moment of success (and, as we’ll see in the next post, the Act Two Break will be a moment of failure). If the character will fail in the Resolution then the Midpoint will be a moment of failure (and the Act Two Break a moment of success). In this way we’ll have a story that has dramatic peaks and valleys.
For example, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) Olive actually fails to win the pageant at the Resolution (Richard is the main character – his goal is to help his daughter win). The Act Two Break is when they finally arrive at the pageant and manage to get registered – a moment of success. The Midpoint is when Grandpa dies, a big setback that mirrors the resolution.
Twisting the Tension
The Midpoint often twists the story in a new direction or adds a new element. This helps keep things fresh. In Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) the Midpoint is when Joe poses as a millionaire on the beach to seduce Sugar. This adds a new dimension to the story. Now he has a second disguise to maintain, one that throws new obstacles into the original mission. And in The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) the Midpoint is when Mouna arrives. She throws a new element into the story by adding a romantic possibility for Walter.
Sometimes this twist can be so big it actually seems like an additional act break. In Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) the Midpoint comes just after the marines have discovered that the colonists they’re looking for are all dead. They try to leave but an alien attacks the pilot of their shuttle and it crashes. The goal changes from rescuing the colonists to getting off the planet. Thus Act Two is divided into two very distinct arcs.
You may be thinking to yourself that the Midpoint in Aliens doesn’t sound like a moment of success since in the end Ripley beats the Aliens. But remember, Ripley is our main character in the movie and this is the point she takes charge of the mission. However I think this does reinforce my point that the Midpoint is a less rigid part of three act structure.
Raising the Stakes
Another good thing to do at the Midpoint is raise the stakes. This happens in Aliens – when the drop ship crashes they are no longer just on a dangerous mission, they have lost their only way out of the mission. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) the Midpoint is when E.T. figures out his plan to “phone home” but it’s also the point when they first realize E.T. and Eliot are getting sick. If the midpoint itself doesn’t raise the stakes, then often this will happen immediately afterwards.
Note that the hero’s journey story structure spelled out by Joseph Cambell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (and excellently applied to screenwriting by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey) looks at the middle of the movie in a whole different way. This is the point where the hero enters the innermost cave – the most special part of the special world – and faces a big challenge. As a result of defeating the challenge, he seizes the elixir – a metaphor for finding the thing he needs to ultimately succeed in his quest.
After the Midpoint
The sequence following the Midpoint often gives writers trouble. The things that often occur at this point are a bit unexpected and unappreciated. It tends to be a surprisingly quiet sequence. It’s a place to recuperate a bit from the big action of the Midpoint and wrap up some loose ends before we ramp up for the Act Two Break and Act Three. Some of the things we often see here:
Fireside scenes are scenes where the characters gather together (around a metaphorical fire) and reflect on their adventures so far. They are a type of preparation and aftermath scene that give us a chance to check in and see how everybody’s feeling. In Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) we see our four heroes gather to play a game in the celebrity house where they've holed up. During this scene, Tallahassee breaks down remembering the son he's lost. These scenes are important so that the audience doesn’t stop caring about the characters.
I’ve noticed there is often a scene at this point where the hero finally reveals their true feelings, sometimes in a fireside type scene or sometimes in another form. This first came to my attention in Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza). John McClane is a strong, silent type not given to talking about his feelings… until the scene where he’s in the bathroom picking glass out of his feet and tells Al how much he loves his wife and admits his regrets about his marriage.
Now I notice these scenes after the Midpoint all the time. And it’s no accident that they occur in this section of the movie. If your character has any kind of arc, then this would be about the time they’re starting to realize the error of their old ways. They should have been pushed to the emotional brink by the Midpoint. They’re defenses are starting to break down. And that’s when they finally tell us how they actually feel.
The purpose of chalkboard scenes is to recap the plot for the audience in case they’re feeling lost. They’re expository scenes which makes them a challenge to pull off, but in a complex plot the audience will welcome them. In Aliens the marines have a planning session where they take stock of their resources and challenges. Again, these are a type of preparation scene.
Wrapping Up Subplots
Usually we’ll start to see some of the subplots get wrapped up or at least moved close to their conclusions in the sequence after the Midpoint. Why? To get them out of the way so we can focus on the main plot with greater intensity as we move into Act Three.
One of the common subplots that gets dealt with is the romance. Often this is the point in the movie where the hero and love interest will first kiss or have sex (depending on your movie's rating). In Spider-Man (screenplay by Devid Koepp) this is where we get the upside-down alley kiss. In Raiders of the Lost Ark we have the scene where Indy and Marion start kissing…until Indy falls asleep. And in Zombieland there is a near-kiss between Columbus and Wichita that Tallahassee interrupts.
After we get this (very important) stuff out of the way it’s time to turn our attention to the big moment – the Act Two Break. And that will be the subject of my next post.