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How to Create an Awesome Midpoint for Your Story

Part 3

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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When the money gets bigger and the stakes get higher, the sea gets wider, and the sharks in the water grow sharper teeth.
Keith Jackson

So far in the How to Create an Awesome Midpoint series, we’ve talked about what a midpoint is and what it should do, and how to make your midpoint awesome by increasing opposition. Today we’ll cover strategy #2 for creating an awesome midpoint: raising the stakes.

Why raise the stakes?

“Raise the stakes at the midpoint” is frustratingly common advice. Frustrating because it’s rarely followed up with further explanation. But common because it really works.

Earlier in the story you established what the protagonist wants and how badly he wants it. You made us care and got us to root for him.

But Act 2 is a big place and you can’t rest on your laurels. A story should be constantly getting us re-engaged and re-invested. By the middle of Act 2, we’re ready for a big boost – a nice dose of fuel to the fire so we can get to the finish line.

And as Keith’s quote suggests, when you raise the stakes in a story it makes the existing circumstances feel more urgent and tense – even if nothing else changes.

That urgency and tension is the fuel we’re looking for. So raising the stakes adds that desired fuel to the audience’s engagement in the story.

If we care about the protagonist and we know he wants something very badly, and then we see something happen to make it even more important to him, we’ll then care even more about the outcome. Raising the stakes gets the audience even more emotionally invested and leaning in to see what happens next.

Thus, we’re re-engaged in the story just when you want to make sure our attention doesn’t wander.

How to raise the stakes

“Raising the stakes” essentially means that achieving the goal becomes more important or meaningful. So, something happens that threatens or escalates what’s at stake in the story, and afterward the protagonist needs or wants to succeed even more than he did before.

  • 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.

As we talked about last week, there are a lot of different permutations available to you. And when you combine both strategies (raising the stakes and increasing the opposition), your options multiply even more.

So if you’re trying to figure out your midpoint, go back to the brainstorming exercise we talked about last week. Give yourself a dedicated session – even if it’s just 10 minutes – to brainstorm every possible way to raise the stakes. That is, how it could be even more important, more meaningful, or more necessary for the protagonist to achieve the story goal.

Then you can take this pool of ideas – plus the options you came up with while brainstorming how to increase the opposition, if you so choose – and mix and match until you have an awesome midpoint for your screenplay.

Movie midpoint example

Smack in the middle of Little Miss Sunshine, Olive announces to her sleeping parents: “Grandpa won’t wake up.”

The family has just stayed overnight in a motel after an eventful first day of their road trip. And, while there, Grandpa – who enjoys a little heroin fer chrissakes – passes away.

First let’s identify the essential elements:

Protagonist: For our purposes, Olive (since it’s her goal that we’re tracking and which gives shape to the story).
Goal: Win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.
Antagonist: The main force of antagonism is Olive’s state of being. She’s an underdog, not really pageant material.
Stakes: The Little Miss Sunshine title, which represents Olive’s hopes and dreams.

At the midpoint, are the stakes raised?

Yes, it definitely gets more important for Olive to achieve her goal once the midpoint event occurs. After Grandpa dies, winning the title takes on even more meaning since he was Olive’s coach and mentor through the process of preparing for the pageant; it was something private they shared.

And there’s something that happens right before this midpoint event that’s worth looking at, too. The night before Grandpa dies, as he’s tucking Olive into bed she reveals – in tears – how desperate she is to win, to not be a loser.

This has the effect of raising the stakes (even though nothing has changed) because it reveals to us how high the stakes truly are.

Achieving her goal isn’t just about the title. It isn’t just about being a beauty queen. It’s also about winning her dad’s love. Dad hates losers, so to earn his love Olive needs to be a winner.

This scene makes the stakes emotional and primal. The original stakes of Olive’s hopes and dreams, performance and achievement, are still in play – and are raised at the midpoint by Grandpa’s death, which makes achieving the goal more meaningful. But with this scene leading up to the midpoint, now we have deeper stakes of acceptance and parental love and self worth in play, too.

And, also worth noting – the midpoint event nicely fulfills Strategy #1, an increase in opposition, as well. The family must deal with Grandpa’s death, which throws off their singular focus and throws a monkey wrench into their already-tight schedule. The delay definitely makes it harder to achieve Olive’s goal. And without her coach and mentor, Olive is left to face the competition without her main support system.

Create your awesome midpoint

A strong midpoint can make writing your screenplay easier because it gives you something to write toward in the first half, it gives your story direction in the second half, and it helps break up the big, vast act 2, which can be daunting.

But how do you figure out what should happen at the midpoint? 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.

As you’re building the midpoint of your screenplay, look to the two functions of the midpoint we’ve covered in this series. Look for ways to make the goal harder to achieve and more meaningful. 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), you’ll be on the right track to getting your audience re-engaged, re-invested, and creating momentum that will rocket us to the end of the story.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe