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Two Ways to Make Your Midpoint Matter

 

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by Naomi in screenwriting

Have you heard of the Act Two wasteland? The vast desert, as it’s sometimes described? It’s where good screenwriters wander, get stuck, and lose all hope.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the most common and effective strategies for getting through Act 2 is to divide up that 50 pages. Just like with any big goal, breaking it into smaller, more manageable chunks punctuated with milestones makes it easier to get through.

And there’s a significant milestone right in the middle: the Midpoint.

What is a Midpoint?

The Midpoint is a major plot point that occurs right around — you guessed it — the middle of the screenplay.

A plot point’s function is to move the protagonist closer to or farther from his or her goal. So a Midpoint does that, but usually in a more pronounced way than smaller plot points and milestones.

“Often described as a major raising of the stakes and/or turning the story in a new direction. You probably notice the midpoint turn in movies without realizing it. After the midpoint, effective stories usually feel more intense, faster paced, more urgent and/or with higher stakes.”

It’s Indy finding the ark but left to die in the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It’s Brody’s son almost being eaten by the shark in Jaws.
It’s Neo meeting the Oracle and learning he’s not The One in The Matrix.

Occurring right around the middle of the screenplay – and therefore, the middle of that Act Two desert – the Midpoint is often vital for keeping the audience engaged in the story by providing a burst of energy to carry us through the second half.

It adds gasoline to the fire so we have enough burn to get us to the end.

How does a Midpoint inject new energy?

The two most common ways a Midpoint functions to inject new energy are:

  1. Increasing the opposition
  2. Raising the stakes

Think about all the things you usually hear need to happen at the Midpoint:

“Add a timeclock!”
“False victory!”
“False defeat!”
“A big reveal!”
“Sex at 60!”
“Now it’s personal!”

If we look a little more closely at what these recommended things are actually doing to the story, we see that each one either increases opposition or raises stakes.

And it’s pretty easy to understand why: those are two great ways to engage an audience. That’s the purpose of the midpoint. Create new tension. Cause the audience to lean in, to get even more invested. Make them eager to stick around for the rest of the story.

But for that engagement to happen, our emotions have to be affected. A key component of an effective Midpoint is that it isn’t just a plot device – it has bearing on the emotional story as well.

That’s why sometimes you’ll see Midpoints in movies that seem like they should matter, but they don’t. It’s a feeling — or lack of it, as the case may be. Those ineffective midpoints are big, flashy events that – on the surface – would appear to create the kind of impact you’d want from a Midpoint. Yet they feel disconnected from the story. It happens, and we don’t care.

If you notice that happening, stop the movie and ask yourself if that Midpoint is truly increasing the opposition or raising the stakes in a way that matters, emotionally. I’d be willing to bet money it’s not.

Let’s look at those two functions separately and figure out how to make it happen in your screenplay.

Midpoints Increase the Opposition

Anything that makes the opposition stronger, or makes it harder for the protagonist to accomplish his or her goal, is increasing the opposition.

That can manifest in many different ways, including:

  • If it’s physically harder for the character to achieve the goal, either by changing circumstances or due to something generated by the opposition.
  • If the antagonist gets stronger or gains an advantage.
  • If the protagonist’s position is weakened.

For example, in The Silence of the Lambs, the Midpoint occurs when Chilton sabotages the arrangement (and the relationship) between Clarice and Lecter by revealing the deal she’s offered Lecter is fake. Chilton then offers Lecter a deal of his own, which Lecter accepts – but refuses to identify Buffalo Bill by name unless he’s flown to Tennessee so he can tell the Senator himself.

Is this plot point a step toward or a step away from the protagonist’s goal?

Just before the Midpoint, Clarice makes progress toward getting the information she needs to catch Buffalo Bill (her goal) by making the deal with Lecter. Then, when Chilton reveals the deal is fake – and that Clarice has betrayed Lecter by scamming him – that’s a big step back from the goal.

How does it make it harder for the protagonist to achieve the goal?

Once Lecter knows Clarice has betrayed him, he withdraws his help. Without Lecter’s help, Clarice is on her own in trying to catch Buffalo Bill. She’s lost her mentor.

Why does this matter?

This actually feeds into Clarice’s biggest fear: that she’s not strong enough to meet the challenge, that she’s fundamentally too weak to save that lamb. So this event increases the opposition because it weakens Clarice’s position by taking away her source of help, but it’s effective because we understand what it means to Clarice emotionally. It increases the internal or mental opposition as well.

Midpoints Raise the Stakes

How often have you heard that “stakes are raised at the midpoint”? Often enough to want to throw your laptop across the room, I’m guessing. Especially since that advice is rarely followed up with further explanation.

First let’s get on the same page about what stakes are:

Stakes are, in a nutshell, whatever the main character stands to gain or lose, pending the outcome of the story. We often think of stakes in terms of the negative consequences that will come to bear if the character fails to achieve his goal. But what’s at stake can be something positive too, i.e. winning a coveted job or award.”

To “raise the stakes” means whatever happens (at the Midpoint or anywhere else) threatens or escalates what’s at stake in the story. Doing so has the effect of making the achievement of the goal more meaningful to the protagonist.

Raising the stakes can manifest in many ways, including:

  • If stakes go from impersonal to personal.
  • If there’s a new or greater threat to the previously established stakes.
  • If what’s at stake intensifies, multiplies, or escalates.

By the middle of Act Two (where the Midpoint occurs) the story probably needs a little more fuel on the fire. So raising the stakes – a.k.a. putting the squeeze on the protagonist by making this whole adventure more meaningful and important to him or her – adds that fuel to the audience’s engagement in the story.

When we know the story means more to the protagonist, we care more about the outcome. Thus, we’re re-invested in the story just when you – the writer – want to make sure our attention doesn’t wander.

For example, in The Ring it’s initially the main character’s life that is at stake. Rachel receives the curse, and has seven days to get rid of it or she’ll die.

One of the things that makes this life-and-death stakes situation meaningful is that we know Rachel is a single mom. So if she dies, her son becomes an orphan. She already has a creeping guilt about being a bad mom, so we know the idea of orphaning her child is informed by that, making it even more poignant.

Then, at the Midpoint — what happens? Through Rachel’s carelessness, her son receives the curse too. Not only is more at stake but the additional stakes press right on her “bad mom” fear. We totally get that achieving the goal has just become exponentially more important to her.

And how do we know that? By Rachel’s response. It’s not relief that her son won’t be orphaned now. It’s abject helplessness and fear.

So as you’re building the Midpoint of your screenplay, look for a way to make the journey harder and more meaningful for the character. If you can do it in a way that’s surprising or interesting, all the better. And then make sure to show us why and how this matters to the protagonist.

If you can do that, your Midpoint doesn’t even have to be big and explosive. If you anchor it in the opposition or the stakes that really matter to the character (and therefore, to us), it’ll have the effect you want.

As with every discussion on story structure, it’s not enough to know that something happens. We need to think about why something happens. If we can identify the purpose we’re trying to fulfill, we have a target to aim for when we’re crafting the story.

 

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