Following UNK’s publication of his post on The Mid Point and to the benefit of the students in a recent HERO’S JOURNEY workshop, I have updated the article of 20 April last year about this important turning point.
Since writing the below post, I have come to realise that the mid point may well be the last checkpoint to make sure you have the most powerful story you can get.
I believe the mid point can only exist if everything else works. Without knowing exactly what the outer objective is (Turning Point 1) and how the character changes (Turning Point 2) it is impossible to create the right mid point. The mid point changes the direction of the visible goal (Outer Journey), sometimes it completely changes the goal altogether. It also accelerates the Inner Journey as the protagonist is now committed to resolving the Need.
I have added some notes on THE INCREDIBLES and THE LIVES OF OTHERS to the examples below.
Many unsuccessful movies run out of steam halfway. Even a fair few memorable pics are weak in the middle, or have a ‘soft belly’. The Second Act seems to be the hardest nut to crack. But why? Perhaps because the protagonist is chasing the same objective all along? After all we have a massive chunk of script to fill, about an hour of screentime on average. One remedy is to chop the movie up in quarters. First and last act are roughly one quarter each already, so Act Two we just cut in two.
It’s variously called the mid-act climax, the mid-point, first culmination or the mid-point reversal. I prefer the latter, although it is not always a strict 180 degree turn. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a climax either but it must be a ‘major turning point’. Things will be dramatically different from this point onwards.
Syd Field describes it something like this: “An important scene in the middle of the script, often a reversal of fortune or revelation that changes the direction of the story.” Field suggests that driving the story towards the Midpoint keeps the second act from sagging. For once I find Field more helpful than others. An executive at the talent agency ICM is trying to get his head around it:
“An event occurs wherein the character cannot give up his pursuit. It is a “no turning back point.” The bridge has been burned behind him (figuratively speaking), and he can only move forward. Often, this is manifested as a TICKING CLOCK. In classically structure (sic) romantic comedies, this is the point where the man and woman sleep together.” Hmmm… Not sure about that last one.
Here’s my favourite definition, from Frank Daniel:
“Mid-Point or First Culmination: a Major Reversal of fortune, making Main Character’s task even more difficult. Often, give the audience a very clear glimpse of an answer to the Central Dramatic Question “‘ the hope that Main Character will actually succeed at resolving his problem “‘ only to see circumstances turn the story the other way. First Culmination may be a glimpse at the actual resolution of the picture, or its mirror opposite.”
Let’s look at a few examples to understand the mid point better:
THE UNTOUCHABLES – Not only a well-structured, commercial movie with a top notch cast; it has a midpoint that ticks all three boxes: After a shootout on the Canadian border far away from the crime-ridden streets of Chicago, Eliot Ness and his team find out they can get to Capone through his accountant.
The mid-point sequence happens halfway the movie (ironically, not all midpoints really do), it changes the course of the story (Ness is no longer after Capone but after his accountant) and it takes place in a very different environment/change of scenery from the rest of the movie. And indeed: catching the accountant does get Capone in court. Important for the Inner Journey at this point is Ness’ response to the criticism on the way Malone forces a confession out of one of Capone’s men. When he says “Well, you’re not from Chicago”, it proves Ness is now open to approaching things ‘the Chicago Way’, as taught by his mentor Malone.
JAWS – It’s more than thirty years old and scary as ever, and not because of its state-of-the-art FX. Look closely and you’ll see: that plastic shark is a big joke! This is one piece of brilliant writing. Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has been unsuccessful in trying to stop the shark killings by urging the mayor to close the beaches. When his own son narrowly escapes death, he is forced to change tactics (different direction): he must go and attack the shark in its own habitat. It brings a fresh turn to the movie with a change of scenery and the stakes are heightened because we are now fighting the killer on his own territory. What’s more: the protagonist is under greater jeopardy because he can’t swim. At Brody’s Inner Journey mid point, he is committed to tackle things at the core in stead of dealing with the symptoms. See also my notes at the bottom of the structural overview of Jaws.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST – In his book THE SEQUENCE APPROACH, Paul Gulino mentions another function of the midpoint: it gives the protagonist a flavour of the possible outcome of the story (Frank Daniel’s “glimpse of an answer to the Central Dramatic Question“). Here, Nicholson’s character tastes freedom when he takes the patients out on a trip. The reality however is that after this point he learns he may never leave the asylum again. A powerful reversal: rather than proving he’s insane, he now has to try and get out. The scene/sequence of the mad men’s outing is another beautiful example of a change of scenery. At one stage during the edit, director Milos Forman cut the sequence out. About the result he says: “I cut it down television style, under two hours. And you know what was funny? It felt much longer.”
I wouldn’t necessarily call the following movies class examples but I’ll give them any way because their mid-points worked really well for me:
THE PARALLAX VIEW – Bang in the middle of this classic conspiracy thriller, Warren Beatty’s character undergoes a five minute brainwashing. The scene is borderline unbearable and would have probably been cut by today’s studio heads. We undergo the character’s psychological torture first hand while we stare at the seemingly random images, exactly like the protagonist experiences them. After this, Beatty’s character is no longer the curious outsider vs. the mysterious corporation; he is fighting the system from within, which will ultimately lead to his demise.
GIU LA TESTA (A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE) – Very much like in THE PARALLAX VIEW, we share the point of view of Rod Steiger’s character Juan while he watches what will cause a major change in his personality and in the course of the movie. At the very midpoint in the movie Juan witnesses a lengthy, traumatic shootout with a life-changing effect: from a mindless and merciless robber dreaming of the ultimate big heist he has now become a freedom fighter and finally commits to the cause of his alter-ego Sean (incarnated wonderfully by James Coburn).
THE QUEEN – The Queen is stuck in the lonely hills near Balmoral, her Land Rover having let her down. Without help from anybody she is out of her comfort zone when she notices the deer her grandsons have been stalking, upon her own advice and encouragement. A moment of realisation (with a lot of symbolism) leads to the decision to chase the dear away in an attempt to save its life from the hunters. The parallel with Princess Diana’s end becomes even more apparent when it turns out the deer was shot by a group of hunters after a chase on a neighbouring land (France?). The Queen has witnessed something that has changed her view and we see it externalised in her lukewarm response to the Queen Mother’s statements about the British people in a following scene.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST – The single most memorably scene of this film sits right in the very middle: the famous cropduster scene. Again, an entirely new setting in the movie, with hardly any other characters around. While most of the movie is rather talky, this sequence offers pure visual cinema with minimal sound design, then gradually picking up the pace and finally (literally) exploding in a symphony of action and music. The reversal: Roger Thornhill learns that Eve has betrayed him.
THE INCREDIBLES – Mister Incredible has successfully completed the task he travelled to the Special World for: eliminating the evil robot. Now, for the first time he is about to meet with his employer.
The reversal happens when his mission turns out to have been a setup to get him killed. The employer is effectively his arch-enemy Syndrome and the mid point delivers two major reversals: 1) in stead of staying on the island, he will have to escape 2) in stead of working alone, he’ll have to collaborate with his family.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS – In the first half of this 2007 Oscar winning drama, Captain Wiesler tries to expose the suspected playwright Dreyer to satisfy his superior at the Stasi (the former Eastern German State Security Service). While listening to a phone call, he learns that Dreyers best friend and mentor has committed suicide. Wiesler realises his work is not doing the good he had always believed it would. He is effectively killing people. When Dreyer plays the piano music he received as a gift from his mentor, Wiesler is so moved that he decides to not expose but protect Dreyer from this point on. To my taste, this is one of the most wonderful and moving mid points in cinema in recent years.
In my earlier blog “STRUCTURING THE FACTS” I briefly mention the midpoint reversal in UNITED 97: The passengers learn this is a suicide flight, therefore they have to change their tactics from trying to notify their relatives on the ground to actively fight back the terrorists.