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The Build To The Midpoint

I’ve been dancing in the streets lately because I just released a new spec and I’m getting a lot of love around town. I should write specs more often. Usually my bread and butter consists of screenplays that some other writer has completely blown. I get the scripts at 6pm for a 10am meeting the next day. That means I have a few hours to read the script, break it down, try to figure out what it wants to be and then figure out a nice way to tell the producers where the thing went off the rails and how I would fix it if they let me. More often than not, the problems fall into three categories 1) unclear motivations and obstacles, 2) an uninspiring Superfreak or 3) they bungle the section we’re going to talk about today.

We’re about to build to the MIDPOINT. But, before we do, let’s make sure we’re on solid ground. In Master Classes, I’ve often had to stop writers in the middle of pitches and ask them what they think a Midpoint is. I’ve gotten everything from “an escalation of the action” to “it closes the door on the protagonist’s options”. Neither of these makes much sense to me and I try to trade theoretical for practical whenever I can. In other words, if I can’t just take it and apply it to the page, it’s worthless.

So, here’s how I define Midpoints: It’s where the tables turn for the protagonist. The hunted becomes the hunter, haters become lovers, the light goes on in the mind of the baffled detective, the atheist becomes a believer. Everything turns around 180 degrees.

Very simply, take a look at page 45 and page 75 of your screenplay. If the attitudes match, you’ve blown your midpoint. If they’re escalations or cousins or 45 degrees off of each other, you’ve blown your midpoint. The world has to flip upside-down in the middle of your movie or you’ll bore me to tears with 15 or 30 more pages of the same ol same ol.

Examples…

THE FUGITIVE

the fugitiveDr. Richard Kimble (Harrison Ford) finds out, at the Midpoint, that his trusted friend Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) has set him up. Kimble then sets off to unmask the crime and exonerate himself before Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) catches him.

 

 

Okay, so hunted becomes hunter. Check. Trusted friend becomes foes. Check. Relentless sheriff becomes ally. Check.

TOY STORY

sidBuzz and Woody are captured by the evil Sid. Buzz finally separates himself from Woody and sees a commercial that confirms the grim truth that he is, indeed, a toy. And not a flying toy at that. In order to disprove this new information, he tries to fly, crashes and ends up in Sid’s “jail” with Woody. While on death row, Woody admits that Buzz is the cooler toy. Buzz admits that being a toy is great. From that moment on, they both decide to work together to escape and get back to Andy’s bedroom in time for the move.

So, enemies become friends. Delusional Space Ranger becomes toy. Jealous Woody becomes humble. The way John Lasseter described it was that the two characters are desperately trying to get away from each other in the First Act when they need to be together and desperately trying go stick together in the Second Act while the world is trying to pull them apart. Brilliant storytelling. Dynamic. Fun. We should all aspire to Midpoints that are that clear.

WORLD WAR Z

wwzGerry Zane finally makes it to the safe haven of Jerusalem. But he’s still in the dark about the possible solutions for the zombie apocalypse. At the Midpoint, the safe people sing for joy and the sound attracts the zombies who climb over the wall and attack the sanctuary. In the midst of this, Gerry sees one man who seems to be untouched by the zombies and a light goes off.
Now, there aren’t many dynamics that need to change here. It’s about a man trying to figure out why zombies apocalypse is upon us so the only real values that can change are safety to danger. Done. And confusion to enlightenment. Done.
By contrast…

THE COUNSELOR

imagesThe action merely escalates. The killing that we were warned about in the First Act comes to fruition at the MIDPOINT. The protagonist knows his life is on the line and tries to get out of town.

The result here is that you don’t feel much of a paradigm shift. You feel the noose getting tighter but the protagonist does little to fight against it so the net effect is that we tune out and wait for the next big thing to happen.

Okay, I hope you can see MIDPOINTS well enough to be able to identify them when you see them. Next week, we’ll talk about what we need to do to get our characters to completely change their world view. Until then, here’s the link to the CTN Animation Expo in Los Angeles. I hope to see you guys at either of my events. As Don Cornelius would say, “You can bet your last money, it’s all gonna be a stone gas, honey!”

The New Rules Of Act 2