So now that we’ve talked about WHY Act Climaxes (plot points, turning points, act breaks, curtain scenes, whatever you want to call them) are important, let’s take a look at some classic examples so you can see HOW they work.
First, a quick review of what each Act Climax does:
Remember, in general, the climax of an act is very, very, very often a SETPIECE SCENE – there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number (as in The Wizard of Oz and, more surprisingly, Jaws.).
Also an act climax is often more a climactic sequence than a single scene, which is why it sometimes feels hard to pinpoint the exact climax. And sometimes it’s just subjective! These are guidelines, not laws. When you do these analyses, the important thing for your own writing is to identify what you feel the climaxes are and why you think those are pivotal scenes.
ACT ONE CLIMAX
– (30 minutes into a 2-hour movie, 100 pages into a 400 page book. Adjust proportions according to length of book.)
– We have all the information we need to get and have met all the characters we need to know to understand what the story is going to be about.
– The Central Question is set up – and often is set up by the action of the act climax itself.
– Often propels the hero/ine Across the Threshold and Into The Special World. (Look for a location change, a journey begun).
– May start a TICKING CLOCK (this is early, but it can happen here)
– (60 minutes into a 2 hour movie, 200 pages into a 400 page book)
– Is a major shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment.
– Can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.
– Completely changes the game
– Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action
– Is a point of no return.
– Can be a “now it’s personal” loss
– Can be sex at 60 – the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems
– May start a TICKING CLOCK.
– The Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene – it can be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal – all or any combination of the above.
ACT TWO CLIMAX
– (90 minutes into a 2 hour film, 300 pages into a 400 page book)
– Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is.
– Often comes immediately after the “All is Lost” or “Long Dark Night of the Soul” scene – or may itself BE the “All is Lost” scene.
– Answers the Central Question
– Propels us into the final battle.
– May start a TICKING CLOCK
ACT THREE CLIMAX
– (near the very end of the story).
– Is the final battle.
– Hero/ine is forced to confront his or her greatest nightmare.
– Takes place in a thematic Location – often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare
– We see the protagonist’s character change
– We may see the antagonist’s character change (if any)
– We may see ally/allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire
– There is possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in BACK TO THE FUTURE and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE)
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Story by George Lucas & Philip Kaufman
Directed by Stephen Spielberg
Please feel free to argue my points!
And note all times are APPROXIMATE – I’m a Pisces.
1 hour 55 minute running time.
ACT ONE CLIMAX:
Act One Climax here is easy: the great Nepalese bar scene. Total setpiece scene – the visuals of that snowy mountain and the tiny bar, the drinking contest that Marion wins, the fight between Indy and Marion with its emotional backstory and sexual chemistry, the entrance of Toht and his heavies, who are ready to torture Marion for the medallion, the re-entrance of Indy and the huge, fiery fight, which ends in the escape of Indy and Marion with the medallion and Marion’s capper line: “I’m your goddamn partner!” (34 minutes in).
Everything you could ever want in a setpiece sequence, visuals, action, sex, emotion: and all we need to know to understand what the story is going to be has been laid out.
An interesting and tonally very unique Midpoint happens in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact Midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into the Well of Souls with the medallion and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.
This scene is quiet, and involves only one person, but it’s mystically powerful – note the use of light and the religious quality of the music… and Indy is decked out in robes almost like, well, Moses – staff and all. Indy stands like God over the miniature of the temple city, and the beam of light comes through the crystal like light from heaven. It’s all a foreshadowing of the final climax, in which God intervenes much in the same way. Very effective, with lots of subliminal manipulation going on. And of course, at the end of the scene, Indy has the information he needs to retrieve the Ark. I would also point out that the midpoint is often some kind of mirror image of the final climax – it’s an interesting device to use, and you may find yourself using it without even being aware of it.
I will concede that this is a two-part climax, though – the twist that comes just after it that Marion is still alive is a big emotional beat, and the subsequent twist that Indy doesn’t release her because leaving her captive will buy him time to get down into the Well of Souls, is a great relationship beat (great maybe isn’t the word I’m looking for; maybe the word is more like “male”.)
ACT TWO CLIMAX
(About 1 hr. 15 min. in) After the big setpiece/action scene of crashing through the wall in the Well of Souls to escape the snakes, Indy and Marion run for a plane on the airfield to escape, and Indy has to fight that gigantic mechanic. Indy has to simultaneously race to stop the plane, with Marion on it, from blowing up from the spilled gas (reliving his nightmare – losing her again). He saves Marion just before the plane blows up. And the capper- Indy learns the Nazis have put the Ark on a truck to take to Cairo – cut to Indy on a horse, charging after them.
Of course, the opening of the Ark and the brutal deaths of all the Nazis who look at it. This is a unique climax in that the protagonist does virtually nothing but save his own and Marion’s lives; there’s no battle involved; they’re tied up all the way through the action. It’s a classic deus ex machina as God steps in (metaphorically) to take the Ark back.
But this non-action is actually a big CHARACTER ARC for Indy. I’ll be talking about that in the full story breakdown I’m doing for Raiders this month, since I’m using the film to teach the Sisters in Crime Sinc into Great Writing workshop at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, in Toronto.
If you want to get this free breakdown, be sure you’re signed up to my Story Structure extras list!
Okay, so any examples of your own for me today? Or any stories you’re having trouble identifying the climaxes of that we can help with? Or problems with your love life? I’m here to help.
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