Friday, April 20, 2007

That Mid Point Thing

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.

Personally I don't like the "point of no return" approach too much, even though the otherwise very wise Michael Hauge mentions it. It's vague and not very practical in the writing. 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, Elliott 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.

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. The midpoint reversal forces him 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...

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 dear 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.

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.


Recently the Australian Writers Guild NSW organised a night with prominent script editors. If you're a Guild member, it is worth checking the transcript of that night as it sheds some light on common issues writers have in the various stages of writing and rewriting. And if you're not an AWG member yet and you are eligible either for full or associate membership, it's worth checking out all the benefits!

One of the questions to the panel of script editors was about the most common mistakes writers make and I found it interesting enough to list them below together with the ten most common problems I have recently come across.

Script Editors' Top Ten:

- long descriptions
- lack of practical insight
- too many characters
- too many subplots
- over-writing
- passive protagonist
- weak antagonist
- not enough obstacles
- absence of logic
- breach of genre rules

Karel's Top Ten:

- weak protagonist
- lack of conflict
- lack of subtext
- lack of turning points
- shifting point of view
- on-the-nose dialogue
- too clever dialogue
- camera direction
- lengthy scenes
- bad use of parentheses


Recently I had spent quite some time on the members bulletin board of the AWG and when I offered to visit it on a weekly basis with the intention of giving my personal feedback to members' story questions, the idea grew to start a dedicated forum. I'm honoured and proud to announce that last week we launched "KAREL'S FEEDBACK FORUM", so if you are a member of the Guild and you have any specific questions about story or script issues, feel free to post it on the forum. I will magically resolve all your problems and instantly catapult you to intergalactic fame! Well, I'll do my darn best...


You may have digested all the books, read the top screenplays and attended some of the hype seminars, nothing will ever replace the fresh eyes of an external reader. If you're a novice or unproduced screenwriter, discussing your work with a story expert is the way to see all those principles applied to your own work and fix the weaknesses in your story along the way. After all, no matter how hard you try, you may never see the plot holes because of the so dreaded writer's blindness... That's the point where you decide to speed up the way to galactic fame and call in the help of the pro.

As the demand for my specialised story and script consultancy grows, I feel the need to reflect that on the OZZYWOOD web site. An honourable start was made last month by publishing my rates together with a brief description of the services available. The approach is simple and transparent and its uniqueness lies in two main sessions: the synopsis analysis and the step outline work session (details not yet uploaded at the time of publishing, but do contact me for the full info). The first one is designed specifically to identify major story issues at an entry level cost. The last explores in a collaborative way how the story's structure can be improved while staying true to your intentions and inspiration.

For novices or writers in need of full draft assistance, I offer a tailored service, which is a often a combination of the two sessions above plus full draft assessments and a polish. The cost of that is available on application but always in line with the going industry standard.


Anonymous said...

As Karel has already pointed out, the mid-point of a film is a point at which an (unexpected) event forces the main character to change tactics. This usually goes along with an abrupt emotional change, either from good to bad or vice versa. A good example for this is Billy Wilder's „The Apartment“. At the mid-point the main character C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is devastated because he has just found out that his love interest Fran Kubelik (Shirly MacLaine) is the girlfriend oft his boss Mr. Sheldrake. He drinks himself senseless at a bar, comes home and finds Fran (almost dead, but nevertheless) in his bed! (She had taken an overdose of sleeping pills because Sheldrake had left her.) If the mid-point was a change from sad to happy, the turn from act two to act three will usually be the other way round, from happy to sad. If the mid-point was a change from happy to sad, the next turn will ideally be from sad to happy. In „The Apartment“ we see how C. C. Baxter is thrilled because he thinks he's found a way to be with Fran and to keep his job. He goes to tell his boss about this, only to find out that his boss has left his wife (or rather she has left him) and is now planning a future with Fran.

Anonymous said...

Karl - just read your blog from April 2007 and really loved your insights into the 2nd act turning point.

Its made me think alot about my own screen play (based on the seige of Jericho). I now know my mid-story turning point!!! Whoo hoo!!! Its the parting and crossing of the Jordan River.

The incident results in four major
things happening:
1. The King of Jericho goes into "freak out" mode and locks down the city. No one goes in or out.
2. All the other kings of the surrounding regions refuse to support the defence of Jericho.
3. Joshua's leadership is massively affirmed - beyond all doubt. Theres no room
for dissent now.
4. Joshua, in an effort to prevent arrogance and hubris, commands his
soliders to be circumcised. Their commitment is proven by sacrificing something near and dear (literally).

The result? An army is forged from the ashes of a nation of slaves.

Thank you!! Structure is sooooooo important.

Anonymous said...

I'm really appreciative of the time you've spent writing about these topics. I find it worthwhile to flick through as I'm working on completing this current synopsis. Yep, I got to this topic and thought..oh, the mid point. Now, I knew exactly what I would insert into the story line and immediately knew how it would both strengthen the story and make better use of certain sub-plots (and prevent a rushed culmination of the challenge)..but..SO easy to overlook issues as you're stating out.

Genre rules tho. Have you written about that anywhere as I have no idea what rules are applied to say sci-fi against comedy against thriller etc. I wouldn't have thought too many rules in this area existed.

Anonymous said...

Not sure about the North by Northwest midpoint you give - I thought it was more literal: until now he is being sought by the police but the crop plane makes him realise that someone wants to kill him?