Story Structure – Act Two, Part Two

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Okay, back to story structure this week. Come on, you know you want to.

As we were talking about in our discussion of the Elements of Act Two, the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film – 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 (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.)

It’s also sometimes called the “Point of No Return”, in which the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action (this may have been the German dramaturg Freytag’s assertion – I’ll have to research it further).

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we discussed in Building Suspense. A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.

And the Midpoint will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

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. For example, in JAWS, the Midpoint climax occurs in a highly suspenseful sequence in which the city officials have refused to shut the beaches, so Sheriff Brody is out there on the beach keeping watch (as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack!), the Coast Guard is patrolling the ocean – and, almost as if it’s aware of the whole plan, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor, where it attacks a man and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son (really it’s only frightened him into near paralysis). It’s a huge climax and adrenaline rush, but it’s not over yet. Because now the Mayor writes the check to hire Quint to hunt down the shark, and since Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”), he decides to go out with Quint and Hooper on the boat – and there’s also a huge change in location as we see that little boat headed out to the open sea.

Another interesting and tonally very different 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 that chamber with the pendant 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.

Another very different kind of midpoint occurs in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: the “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have only three days before Buffalo Bill kills her. Clarice goes in at first to offer Lecter what she knows he desires most (because he has STATED his desire, clearly and early on) – a transfer to a Federal prison, away from Dr. Chilton and with a view. Clarice has a file with that offer from Senator Martin – she says – but in reality the offer is a total fake. We don’t know this at the time, but it has been cleverly PLANTED that it’s impossible to fool Lecter (Crawford sends Clarice in to the first interview without telling her what the real purpose is so that Lecter won’t be able to read her). But Clarice has learned and grown enough to fool Lecter – and there’s a great payoff when Lecter later acknowledges that fact.

The deal is not enough for Lecter, though – he demands that Clarice do exactly what her boss, Crawford, has warned her never to do: he wants her to swap personal information for clues – a classic deal with the devil game.

After Clarice confesses painful secrets, Lecter gives her the clue she’s been digging for – to search for Buffalo Bill through the sex reassignment clinics. And as is so often the case, there is a second climax within the midpoint – the film cuts to the killer in his basement, standing over the pit making a terrified Catherine put lotion on her skin – it’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes.

It really pays to start taking note of the Midpoints of films and books. If you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene.

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in my latest book, THE UNSEEN, I knew that I was missing something in the middle, even though there was a very clear change in location and focus at the Midpoint: it’s the point at which my characters actually move into the supposedly haunted house and begin their experiment.

But there was still something missing in the scene right before, the close of the first half, and my editor had the same feeling, without really knowing what was needed, although it had something to do with the motivation of the heroine – the reason she would put herself in that kind of danger. So I looked at the scene before the characters moved in to the house, and lo and behold – what I was missing was “Sex at Sixty”. It’s my heroine’s desire for one of the other characters that makes her commit to the investigation, and I wasn’t making that desire line clear enough. So now although they don’t actually have sex yet, there’s definitely sex in the air, and it’s very clear that that desire is driving her.

The Midpoint launches ESCALATING ACTION/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

In the second half of the second act the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, so it’s time for desperate measures.

These escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: the hero/ine very often starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive or downright immoral. When Catherine is kidnapped, Clarice is warned by her roommate that if she doesn’t study for and take her FBI exams, she’ll be kicked out of the program. Of course Clarice puts Catherine’s well-being above her own, but it’s a great way to back her into a corner and force hard choices. Often the hero/ine will lose support from key allies when s/he begins to cross the line.

Naturally the antagonist’s actions are escalating as well.

This third quarter also almost always contains a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. In THE WIZARD OF OZ it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass and all looks lost. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene – yet like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the hero/ine also formulates one last desperate plan, or figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and comes out of the long dark night even more determined to win.

This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act, because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end.

Now, remember, in standard film structure, the second half of Act Two is two sequences long – two fifteen minute sequences, each with a beginning, middle and climax. A book will perhaps have three or four or five sequences in this 100 page section. But if you concentrate on escalating obsessive actions by the hero/ine and antagonist, and then an abject failure, out of which a new revelation and plan occurs, you pretty much have the whole section mapped out to the ACT TWO CLIMAX

As I’ve discussed before, the Act Two Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel) often answers the Central Question set up at the end of Act One, and often the answer is “No”. No, Lecter is not going to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine – Clarice is going to have to do it herself. No, Quint will not kill the shark; the shark kills him instead and Sheriff Brody is going to have to face the shark alone.

The second act climax will often be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is (as in THE FUGITIVE, when Dr. Richard Kimble realizes that his friend Chuck has set him up and that leads to the final confrontation and fight/chase. THE FUGITIVE has a nice, satisfying structure because at the same time that Kimble is realizing who his real enemy is, US Marshal Gerard (the Tommy Lee Jones character), who has been chasing Kimble for the entire film, also becomes convinced of Kimble’s true nature – that he’s innocent.

It’s a very common storytelling device that the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or THE main enemy, and it also often happens that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Captain Renault in CASABLANCA, who not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick).

The second act climax is another place that you might start a ticking clock – such as in ALIEN, when Ripley sets the ship to blow up in ten minutes and has to evade the alien and get to the shuttle by then – as if being chased by an acid-bleeding monster weren’t stressful enough!

And the third act is basically the FINAL BATTLE and RESOLUTION. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly.

But we’ll talk about the third act and climax in a separate post.

What I’m really interested in today is hearing examples of great midpoints.

For previous articles on story structure:

What’s your Premise?

Story Structure 101 – The Index Card Method

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Creating Suspense

25 thoughts on “Story Structure – Act Two, Part Two

  1. Naomi

    Normally I hate this kind of stuff, Alex. I’m more of an intuitive/organic writer and it would kill me to purposefully structure my story before I wrote it. However, I’m now dropping into the last part of my work-in-progress (all the hard work of setting things up, climbing and backtracking is done–now I’m hanging onto the raft while I’m going down the waterfall!). As a result, it’s been helpful to read this and see that I have indeed included some of these structural elements to my story.

    When you’re writing an amateur sleuth series as I am, what’s key is character motivation. With a detective story, police procedural, espionage novel, etc., the protagonist is hired to follow the mystery. (Show me the money! Or else the dame, right?) With an amateur sleuth, his/her motivation must be natural and believable in your made-up world. It must be pitch-perfect or the character goes flat and the story premise becomes ridiculous. As I keep adjusting and snapping the story into place, I realize that I’m doing a lot of things you are recommending, but if I were to tackle it structurally first, I wouldn’t have discovered all the good stuff I did during the actual writing process.

    In other words, this advice would be helpful to me in rewriting, not necessarily writing the initial draft.

    And why am I commenting at 5:30 AM PST? I told you that I’m going down the waterfall!

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yes, I was going to say – 5:30 am?

    It’s true, this kind of story structure analysis is maybe even more useful for rewriting.

    But you also have to remember, Naomi – you’ve been a professional writer for years, and you’ve had a long time to internaiize story structure through your own constant analysis of every film you see and every book you read.

    For less seasoned writers, this kind of structural breakdown can shave years off the long road to publication.

    And your analysis of the main drive of an amateur detective story really points out why it’s so important to study numerous films and books in your own particular genre. Every genre has its own tricks and tropes and it’s imperative to know those like the back of your hand.

    Great seeing you last weekend!

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  3. R.J. Mangahas

    Really good stuff here, again Alex. I’m learning a lot reading this blog you know.

    Okay, here’s the mid-point that came to mind right away. Mind you ROCKY III isn’t exactly what one might call classic cinema, but I think there is a pretty clear mid. It’s the point where Rocky faces a major defeat. He loses his title to Clubber Lang and his manager Mickey dies. I guess this would be THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL and the phoenix rising from the ashes bit would be where Rocky is trained by Apollo Creed so he can gain back the title.

    As for RAIDERS, I’m not really sure if the scene you described in would be the mid-point for me, but I’ll agree that it’s certainly a very quiet yet powerful and significant scene in the film.

    Very much looking to seeing you and the rest of the ‘Rati crew in Baltimore next weekend.

    Reply
  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, RAIDERS can play hell with standard analysis because you could really break it into seven distinct acts if you wanted to. I guess you could say that the reveal that Marian is still alive is the Midpoint, but that just doesn’t feel right to me. I’d be interested to hear where you think it is.

    Yes, I can’t say I’ve seen Rocky III, but a major defeat at the Midpoint is a really common structure.

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  5. R.J. Mangahas

    How much do you believe in coincidence Alex? The reveal that Marian is still alive was the scene I was thinking about as the mid-point.

    As for my own WIP, I’m not quite at the mid point as of yet. I’ve been half pantsing (does that sound right?), half outlining my story, but I still haven’t decided which method I’m more comfortable with.

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  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I believe in coincidence not at all. Nothing is random.

    For example, OJ was convicted yesterday, thirteen years to the day of his acquittal in LA.

    The Marian scene is a great reveal, but it doesn’t change Indy’s actions in the slightest, so I just can’t bring myself to call it the midpoint. But you can make yourself crazy trying to be precise about these things. Use it only in ways that help your story.

    That’s why I keep hammering this idea of making your OWN notebook of story breakdowns. However you analyze structure is the way you’re going to work best. It’s different for everyone, and that’s what makes art.

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  7. pari

    Alex,Like Naomi, I’m an intuitive writer, but these pieces have taught me so much. I actually recommended them for one of the classes I taught last weekend.

    When we watch movies at home, my family and I always say something like, “Oh, here it is. Here’s the dark point, the pit, the everything-is-horrible moment.” And then we watch the resolutions.

    One of my favorite books/movies is THE LITTLE PRINCESS. The movie does a wonderful job of showing the contrast between Sara’s blessed life in India (and at Minchin’s school intially) AND the horror of all of it being stripped away at the midpoint . . her journey out of all that sadness is the rekindling of her imagination which she applies first for a friend (I don’t remember if this happened in the book) and eventually to reclaim her own glorious spirit.

    Reply
  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pari, A LITTLE PRINCESS is one of my favorite books – so much so that the movie couldn’t live up to it. I love the real darkness of the book – the wretchedness of the period. Will now have to read it again!

    Yeah, she does the imagining for Becky, the scullery maid.

    Reply
  9. Louise Ure

    God, these blog posts are such a terrific tutorial, Alex. Thank you for them.

    Like Naomi, I don’t consciously plan my stories along these strict guidelines, but in revision, if I find the story is losing my interest, it’s usually because I haven’t adhered to them closely enough.

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  10. j.t. ellison

    Alex, you are a true goddess. I love reading these and realizing I’m doing it unconsciously, like Naomi. Now I go back and look at the real structure and wonder why I never saw it before.

    Example of a perfect midpoint — our Zoe Sharp’s Second Shot. What’s cool is structurally, she opens with the midpoint and you think it’s a prologue of the end, and instead it’s a mid-climax, and there’s so much that happens after that scene. Very effective.

    Reply
  11. Tom

    Thank you, Alex.

    The framework/flowchart process you describe is of a piece with your starting point last week, that your next book will be written with the idea of the sale in mind right from the start.

    Nothing wrong with planning for success from the very first keystroke.

    Reply
  12. Jake Nantz

    Alex, as always thank you for these. It’s neat to see where I’ve done well or missed completely with my current WIP, while also getting myself geared for doing the next one properly. I can think of two examples off the top of my head:

    First, in Mr. Rhoades’s book GOOD DAY IN HELL, I would guess it’s where Marie is shot and the reader is led to believe, as Jack does, that she is dead. Talk about “this time it’s personal!”

    Second, in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, would it be when Wesley is tortured, loses a year off his life, and it looks like he’ll never escape? Or would it be when Humperdink (still love that name for a villain) kills him with the machine…even though he’s only mostly dead?

    Reply
  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry, had to run to a library panel! Very enlightening.

    It’s interesting to me how many of our ‘Rati authors are intuitives, and/or pantsers – Pari, Louise, Naomi, JT… I guess I’m so right brained in general that I need the balance of left-brain structure. Or technique is comfortable to me because I’ve spent so much time dancing.

    But it just thrills me to look at a great movie or book and see all the points lined up in perfect order. It’s like proportion in painting.

    Reply
  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, I will definitely check out SECOND SHOT, you’ve got me intrigued.

    Tom, did I say I would write my next book with the idea of the sale in mind? I mean, I always write with a sale in mind – no sale, no eat – but I don’t remember saying it.

    I actually have gotten quite fond of this blind contract thing, if that’s what they call it. “A book to be mutually agreed upon.”

    Reply
  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jake, don’t kill yourself trying to get every step in while you’re writing a first draft. A lot of these things become more obvious in the rewrites. It’s a great guide to look at when you’re trying to figure out why some part of your draft isn’t working.

    THE PRINCESS BRIDE is a wonderful film, I really need to see that again soon. It’s been too long for me to immediately identify the midpoint, but the midpoint really does come within five minutes or so of the exact halfway point of most movies. Just look at your DVD timer. I swear, it will shock you how precise this is.

    Reply
  16. Allison Brennan

    I so love you Alex! I learn so much–like Pari, I write organically, but during revisions understanding story structure helps me so much. I remember when I first learned about the midpoint. It was after writing four or five books, and I could go back and look and find exactly the midpoint, and it was always nearly exactly halfway through the story. In THE PREY, a major character is killed, the stakes change, and the hero–who up until then it was just a job–now had a personal interest in finding the villain. Worse, the hero and heroine were having sex when this character was murdered, and heap on guilt along with the raised stakes . . .

    Now I can pull any book and know the midpoint. In TEMPTING EVIL, it was a false victory–after a harrowing experience and the identity of the villain revealed, the heroine is rescued by an unlikely character and everyone thinks all is well. In KILLING FEAR it’s a low point–the heroine learns that everything she believed about who killed her roommate is wrong, and there’s another threat out there–possibly even more dangerous than the escaped sociopath.

    For people like me who don’t plot it all out, what really helps is to maximize the impact of the major turning points during revisions. They’re all there, and it’s just a matter of taking everything up a notch.

    Thanks Alex!!!!

    Reply
  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Allison (ANOTHER intuitive) – couldn’t be more right about this:

    “For people like me who don’t plot it all out, what really helps is to maximize the impact of the major turning points during revisions. They’re all there, and it’s just a matter of taking everything up a notch.”

    That should be engraved on a plaque and hung above the computer. The turning points are already there – but maximizing the impact of what you’ve organically laid out is maybe THE bottom line of rewriting.

    Perfectly said!!!

    Reply
  18. Tom

    I referred to last week’s blog, Alex, and paraphrased you a bit.

    “When on panels or at events, I have been asked, “How do you decide what book you should write?” I have not so facetiously answered: “I write the book that someone writes me a check for.”

    “That’s maybe a screenwriter thing to say, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but it’s true, isn’t it?”

    Guess the ref wasn’t clear.

    But I liked this combination of ideas. It’s a practical and productive approach to self-employment. There are variants on it operant in commercial music, radio, television and other industries in which I’ve worked – including cabinet-making.

    Doesn’t it sound like Lee Child to you?

    Reply
  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, yes, now I get what you meant!

    I guess it’s the idea that I would write a whole book thinking primarily of a sale that confused me. If I’m writing a whole book not under contract, then I’m writing the book I want to write, period (but I do have ingrained commercial instincts).

    Now, though, I’m under contract, so what happens is I have at least half a dozen books that I could write at any time, and it’s a matter of first, which proposal I choose to make – the book I feel most inclined to write – but then that proposal has to get the book… um… greenlit. (I don’t know the publishing equivalent of that term. Approved? Accepted?)

    What I mean is when they say, yes, write that one, and send you the first installment of the advance.

    Reply
  20. Becky Hutchison

    Thanks again, Alex. After reading today’s dissection of a story’s midpoint and reviewing your previous posts, I’m getting somewhat clearer on how to structure a story. BTW, like you I require at least a minimal outline to begin writing.

    Here’s my attempt at identifying a midpoint:In Legally Blonde it’s when Elle is told by her ex-boyfriend that she doesn’t belong at Harvard…that she’s not smart enough to get through law school. Elle then decides to show him how smart she REALLY is. From this point on, she is shown buying a computer, studying while getting her hair done, etc. Her whole attitude toward law school changes from trying to get her ex-boyfriend back to being a dedicated law student.

    Reply
  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    And also Tom, re: Lee Child – I think Mr. Child did something even more canny than simply writing with the market in mind. I think he did what a lot of great actors do – he locked into exactly the role he was born to play as an author, which of course has everything to do with the character of Jack Reacher.

    I forget what movie/role it was that Cary Grant said this about, but there was a point at which he realized exactly who Cary Grant was, and from then on he BECAME that person (who was by the way capable of playing all kinds of nuances of Cary Grant, but it was always, definitively, Cary Grant).

    That’s what a star is. See MM, Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart… etc, etc.

    You could argue that it’s a more complex thing to become a star author, but I really think that would be underestimating the complexity of what being a star actor is.

    Lee Child synthesized who he is as an author with his character – to create stardom.

    Well, I guess that’s a whole other post. And just MHO, of course. 😉

    But definitely worth studying.

    Reply
  22. Becky Hutchison

    I had forgotten the story structure of LEGALLY BLONDE too. But I just saw it again a few nights ago, and it was the first movie that popped into my mind. I thought the scene I mentioned might be the midpoint. The whole feel of the movie changes at that point. Elle matures and exceeds everyone’s expectations, especially her own.

    Reply
  23. Tom

    “You could argue that it’s a more complex thing to become a star author, but I really think that would be underestimating the complexity of what being a star actor is.”

    Not puttin’ money on either side of that one. I don’t understand stardom at all. Right now, I’m finding I have to unlearn a great many acting lessons about character and self-revelation. They don’t transfer to writing, precisely.

    “Lee Child synthesized who he is as an author with his character – to create stardom.”

    Probably not what he set out to accomplish, but – hey! – nobody’s perfect. He suffers it like a mensch. Poor guy got caught in a perfect storm.

    Meanwhile, yeah, please write that “whole other post.”

    Reply

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