By Monty Mickelson
Great writing is a balancing act of interwoven, unifying elements. That is, Points at which the story gains coherence, when things truly start to “come together”. The marriage between protagonist and motivation is once such element; the interplay between “obstacle” and “quest” is another. Structurally speaking, the most unifying element of a screenplay may in fact be its geographic center, located around the sixty-something page count and commonly referred to as “the midpoint”. In Blake Snyder’s classic book Save the Cat, he describes midpoint as an interval in the story where the stakes are raised; that is, where the enormity of the task confronting your protagonist is fully revealed.
One problem with crafting a midpoint in a script is that “middles” don’t garner much attention or fanfare. Nobody ever leaves a movie theater raving about the midpoint—they talk about endings, they rhapsodize about an opening set piece. But the center, the crest of your second act usually passes under an audience’s radar. It’s as if the better it works, the less important it seems. But just because middles go unacknowledged doesn’t mean they’re expendable, or even easy to write.
The midpoint represents—at least for me—a swampy nether space that resides smack in the middle of what had been a fully engaging and (possibly) even joyous writing experience. If you’re like me, you may find that by the time your reach “the sixties” you may have crafted your very best action sequences. The first half of your script may feature your sharpest dialogue, your most inspired imagery, your most deftly integrated story beats. Enthusiasm always translates to the page, and (again, if you’re like me) you sense a flagging of enthusiasm when you pause to consider that you are only halfway home.
So what’s the remedy here—other than drugs and alcohol? Blake Snyder advocates presenting your protagonist with either a false peak (e.g. an “up” midpoint), or a false collapse (a “down” midpoint). In both instances, the stakes are raised for the hero. The midpoint could also be regarded as the last vestige of “setup” in your story. All major characters have been ushered onstage. The scope of the conflict is fully manifest. To borrow a metaphor from the world of chess: All of the pawns have been ejected from the board and we’re now playing with rooks and knights and bishops.
Although Snyder’s template is extremely helpful, I have found that your choice of genre can expand and inform how you handle midpoint. But first, let’s look at some prominent examples of both the “ups” and the “downs”; from false peaks to false collapses.
1) The False Peak:
- Titanic: Jack and Rose evade her husband and consummate their whirlwind relationship—a false victory—before the ship hits an iceberg.
- Barton Fink: Another false victory—Barton and Audrey consummate their relationship. The next morning, Barton wakes up to find her brutally murdered.
- Gravity: After surviving a fire onboard the American space station, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) commandeers a Russian capsule (a second false victory) only to find that it is also defective.
2) The False Collapse:
- The Imitation Game: Commander Denniston, supervisor of the British cryptography team, fires team leader Alan Turing and orders “Christopher” (the name of Turing’s primitive computer) destroyed.
- The Revenant: Hugh Glass survives being left-for-dead, manages to bind his wounds and restore his health. He rescues Powaqa, daughter of the chief of the Arikara. The Arikara war party, however, mistakes Glass for one of Powaqa’s rapists. They ambush him and drive him and his horse off of a cliff.
- Schindler’s List: Oskar Schindler has succeeded in sheltering several hundred Jews from transport to the camps by employing them at his cookware factory. At the midpoint, this entire enterprise is threatened when SS commandant Amon Göth arrives on scene, ransacks the Krakow ghetto and transports all of the surviving Jews (including Shindler’s workers) to the Plaszów concentration camp.
These categories are broad with each containing any number of variants. Genre can influence how you craft a midpoint, as well. For instance if you’re writing a “closed” mystery (that is, the audience knows only what they protagonist knows), then instead of a false collapse or a false victory, the protagonist is handed a kind of treasure map. He or she obtains just enough information to realize what they don’t yet know. I call this midpoint the “Our true enemy has not yet shown his face”; a line of Sonny Corleone’s cribbed from The Godfather, Part III. Here are some examples of films that used this technique:
3) The True Enemy Revealed:
- The Big Short: At a conference in Las Vegas, Mark Baum has dinner with a Mr. Chau, presented as an insider in the mortgage-backed securities world. Baum exhibits absolutely zero regard for things like investment fundamentals or the dubious value of the mortgages that comprise his product. Mark is horrified, leaves the meeting and instructs his colleagues to “short everything that guy touches”. The scale of this looming catastrophe is far greater than he imagined.
- Seabiscuit: The unexpected excellence & determination of Seabiscuit is established through the first half of the second act. Then, at the midpoint, Seabiscuit’s training team (and jockey Red Pollard) is presented with their most difficult challenge; a match race against superhorse War Admiral.
- Chinatown: Water & Power department chief Hollis Mulwray’s body is discovered drowned in a reservoir. The second half of the movie chronicles Jake Gittes’ inquiry into the murder and its many implications.
- No Country for Old Men: Two parallel stories collide at midpoint in this story: Llewelyn Moss has stumbled upon a fortune in drug money. He’s survived an initial manhunt in the desert, but because he had to abandon his vehicle, he knows the cartel will easily track him to his residence. He hustles his wife, Carla Jean, off to her mother’s house while goes on the lam. Llewelyn doesn’t know who is coming—he just knows that somebody is. The “somebody”, Anton Chigurh, is established as a “loose cannon” psychopath in his parallel story. The two men collide at midpoint when a tracking device attached to the money leads Chigurh to Llewelyn’s hotel room.
In romances and romantic comedies, there often appears a midpoint variation of false victory that is instantly followed an emotional nadir; a dark and deep pessimism about the lovers’ prospects for happily-ever-after. I call this…
4) The “Seemingly Doomed” Relationship:
- Sideways; Miles and Maya consummate their relationship; then, in the course of a picnic breakfast, Miles accidentally spills Jack’s true status—that he’s engaged, that this wine country idyll is actually a bachelor blowout before Jack’s wedding. Maya’s sense of betrayal sparks a whole series of repercussions—all of them bad.
- Knocked Up: Allison has decided to keep her baby, even though she has grave doubts about Ben’s ability to commit to fatherhood and transition from boy-man to adult. This conflict reaches its crescendo at midpoint when Ben agrees to drive Allison to an obstetrician appointment. They argue in the car, Allison ejects him. She then drives alone to the doctor’s only to find that Ben has followed her. They resume their raging argument in full view of a nurse and break up.
And lastly, there exists a kind of free-form, anti-narrative midpoint in some movies that causes you to leave the theater shaking your head in bewilderment. The story may take a darker turn, it may be part revelation, part misdirection. I call these instances…
5) The “What just happened?” Midpoint Crisis:
- Inception: The central motivation here is to gain corporate advantage. A scion dies, his son and heir (Robert Fischer) is kidnapped. Fischer is taken to a kind of pop-up lab where the kidnappers perform an induced dream procedure to alter his decision process. There’s some risk involved (other than getting arrested for kidnapping). The possibility exists that the subject will go “under” and stay under, permanently lost in a kind of infinite subconscious. But they do it anyway. Because Christopher Nolan.
- A Place Beyond the Pines: The midpoint in this otherwise riveting film amounts to a protagonist swap. The person you think is the hero, motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton, is caught robbing a bank and shot dead by a police officer named Avery Cross. The character “tags out”, WWF style, and then Avery Cross’s character takes over the narrative. That’s two movies for the price of one!
The imperative in crafting your midpoint is that your protagonist experience one of two things: 1.) A revelation that suggests a far greater obstacle looming on the horizon, or 2.) a false something; either a false peak or a false debacle that propels the narrative toward resolution. Notice that in both of these instances the stakes are raised—or at least, they should be. Don’t dwell on the notion that you’ve got half a movie to go. Don’t despair that you may have expended yourself in writing your best dialogue, your best action set pieces, etc. Rather, take comfort in the idea that if you do midpoints well, the audience may not even notice.
Monty Mickelson has written YA feature films for cable television, and has worked as a Creative Executive for a literary manager. He also teaches screenwriting through the Recording, Radio, Film Connection and CASA Schools (RRFC) in Los Angeles.