The Mid Point Pit Stop [Because Your Screenplay Is Too Long]

In the early days of cinema, the feature presentation contained two parts, with an intermission halfway, at the mid point. The audience would stretch their legs, visit the bathroom and buy more popcorn. In fact, we didn’t buy popcorn back then. An ice cream vendor walked the aisles, and sold what I remember to be the best ice cream I have ever tasted in the world – ever.

The ice cream vendor disappeared. Not because we didn’t like ice cream any longer. No, cinemas made more money selling popcorn instead, as the markup of popcorn is 900-1200%.

Then the intermission disappeared.

Couldn’t we wait for the second half? Well, the truth is: exhibitors earned more by adding an extra session. Suddenly, movies just seemed a whole lot longer… except those with a strong mid point.

If you study that halfway point in the greatest movies, you will learn that it is almost always the most dramatic moment, second only to the story’s finale.

You will also find that the mid points from different films have a lot in common.

The Mid Point Pit Stop

Often around the halfway point, the action moves to a location that looks very different from the rest of the story. It feels refreshing, a little like an intermission.

  • The Untouchables Mid PointAt the mid point of The Untouchables, we leave Chicago temporarily, and instead of the urban cityscape, we are now watching a mountainous view near the Canadian border.
  • At the mid point of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest(*), we leave the confined space of the mental asylum to go on a boat for a short fishing trip. This gives us a strong sense of freedom, an important theme in the film.
  • At the mid point of The Queen, we leave London for a short stay at Balmoral in the Scottish highlands. Here, the Queen seems to enjoy her relief from the pressures that are haunting her in London.
  • This one may sound a little far-fetched but I still like it… At the mid point of Die Hard, John McClane throws a body through the window, and for the first time since he entered the Nakatomi building, we are getting some fresh air through the hole in the window.

one_flew_over_the_cuckoos_nest_fishing_trip-copy(*) During Milosz Forman’s commentary on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he explains that he considered cutting the fishing trip from the movie. He ended up keeping it, because the shorter version actually felt longer.

This is one of the functions of the mid point: it gives the audience a break, before venturing into what is often the darker half of the film.

This break is mostly an emotional high point. The hero achieves something important. It may even seem as if they have reached the story goal. If they haven’t, at least it seems within reach.

Then, however… the tide turns.

Reversal Of Fortune

Rapidly, the upbeat vibe changes, as the hero learns that things are not what they seemed. Instead of celebrating a victory, they realise that the target has moved. The road is still a lot longer and more dangerous than was initially hoped. The mood drops.

In many great movies, the Mid Point Reversal (MPR) consists of these two distinct beats: an upbeat moment of victory/achievement, followed by a downbeat moment of realisation/disappointment. This mood flip forms only the first aspect of the MPR: the Reversal of Fortune.

As a result of this Reversal of Fortune, the character shows a Reversal of Action/Approach. Because it is such a critical part of well-told stories, I will focus on this in a little more detail in a later article.

Meanwhile, see if you can identify this +/- reversal around the halfway point of your favourite movies.

-Karel Segers

6

The 2-Act Structure [Because You Write The Rules]

In an earlier post I warned you about the 2-Act Structure. If none of the structural paradigms offered by the gurus work for you, why don’t you create your own? Here is mine.


Every structure model is academic. There really are no rules. Instead, these systems are merely tools to allow us to communicate about story.

In the course of my screenwriting training career, I have always strived for simplicity. What we need in screenwriting, is an MVP, a Minimum Viable Product: the simplest possible system that still delivers the results for you. So you can focus on the creative aspects rather than the ‘how to‘.

Ideally, each screenwriter develops their own method. Only, there wouldn’t be much communication in that screenwriting utopia, as each were to use a different language.

As a thought experiment, I would like you to consider my approach to the Grand Story Arc: the 2-Act Structure. Before we venture into that, let’s brush up on the 2 main competing approaches: the 3-Act Structure (mostly for film and TV half-hours) and the 4-Act Structure (mostly for one-hour TV).

The 3-Act Structure

Although different people use different criteria to determine act breaks, I like a combination of dramatic tension and Hero’s Journey. In my approach, you will find that:

  1. Act One ends once the main character’s goal is clear; either to the audience, to the characters itself, or both. Then, in Act Two we see the active pursuit of that goal.
  2. Act Two ends after the character has almost given up on that goal, but finds a final reason or clue to push through.
  3. Act Three sees the character’s final – and mostly successful – action in pursuit of that goal.

square-spiral-mathematics-wallpaper-patterns-hdA massive problem of the 3-Act Structure is that chunky mid-act. Most writers struggle to create interesting story material that sustains 45-60 minutes. This is why the Mid Point is so important. I prefer calling it the Mid Point Reversal because in great stories, a very important value is completely reversed.

(It’s about time I write another piece about this, after early attempts in 2006 and 2009.)

Just because this Mid Point Reversal is so critically important, I believe the 4-Act Structure is a really helpful way of approaching screen story structure.

And look, in one-hour TV drama, we already have 4 acts, as the act breaks are roughly every 15 minutes on the ‘TV clock’. So before we move on to the mysterious 2-Act Structure, let’s examine the 4 acts.

The 4-Act Structure

cylinder-formulas-typography-hd-wallpaper-1920x1080-7052This structure is no different than the 3-Act Structure, with the only difference that we have an act break for the Mid Point reversal.

So what does this Mid Point Reversal do that it is so important?

Let’s first look at what other authors and teachers think (that I don’t necessarily agree with).

  1. It’s a point of no return.
    Yep, that may well be, but both act breaks are also points of no return.
  2. It raises the stakes.
    Like those other act breaks, you mean? More proof the Mid Point is more like an act break.
  3. It’s a false victory or false defeat.
    In fact, it is most often a false victory followed by a false defeat. A kiss and a slap.

The Mid Point Reversal

Here is what I think the Mid Point Reversal (MPR) really means … and it supports the 2-Act Structure beautifully:

  1. 2-act structure in groundhog dayA reversal of fortune
    In Groundhog Day, Phil (Bill Murray) believes his scheme has worked when Rita (Andy MacDowell) kisses him. But she immediately sees through the con, and slaps him.
    In The Untouchables, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) achieves a major win by stopping a liquor transport at the Canadian border, and he seizes the accountant’s ledger, but at the end of the sequence one of his ‘untouchables’ is murdered.
  2. A reversal of approach
    In the first half of Die Hard, McClane tries getting help from the outside. At the MPR he receives it, only to realise he now has to solve the problems himself because the outside help is making matters worse. A reversal, indeed.
    In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest McMurphy tries to stay in the asylum, but after the mid point he tries to get out. Quite the opposite!
    In The Incredibles, Mr Incredible works [inadvertently] for Syndrome until the MPR. Here, he learns the truth about all the Supers, and now he will fight Syndrome. The ally becomes an enemy (or Shadow, in Hero’s Journey terms).
    In Avatar, Jake first works with the military against the Navi’, but after the MPR this reverses, and he now fights with the Navi against the military.

I am a huge fan of great mid points, and I will dedicate a full article to this soon. Meanwhile, see if you can find the meaning of the MPR in your favourite films. It is not always as clear as in the examples above, but you may be surprised…

The 4-Act Structure proves that the MPR has fully fledged act-status. It is just as important as the other act breaks.

In fact, I think it is even more important.

The 2-Act Structure

In many great movies, at the MPR two major reversals occur. One is often experienced as the result of an EVENT – or series of events – that happens to the character; this is the reversal of fortune. The other is a reversal in the way the character pursues the goal, or ACTION; This we call the reversal of approach.
2-act structure in Life Is BeautifulIn the greatest movies, this reversal is so profound that it sometimes feels as if we are entering a whole new movie altogether. Do you remember Life Is Beautiful? The first half of this incredibly successful foreign language Oscar winner was a love story, the second was … a World War II-drama.

Because the MPR really cuts the movie in two in a way that is much more obvious than the break from act 2 into 3, I would propose to do exactly this: cut the movie in two at the halfway point.

Voilà. The 2-Act Structure is born.

Two Parts Of The Journey

Michael Arndt, writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 gives us another strong argument to support the 2-Act Structure.

After the Inciting Incident, the hero responds with actions that demonstrate the character flaw. Michael Arndt calls this the hero’s flawed response.

The MPR mostly starts with what looks like a major win for the character (false victory). Whatever approach they took, it worked! Then, they’re put with both feet on the ground, and they suffer a major loss (false defeat). These two polar opposites are part of the same MPR.

The negative polarity, the loss in the MPR, is a major event, and it actually looks very much like a second Inciting Incident, effectively testing the hero’s response after what they learned in the preceding story stage.

This time around, the hero will change their attitude, and respond in a way that shows they have learned something, or are learning.

See? There really are two parts to the story. Here is how I would summarise it.

2-act structureAct One
The hero experiences the (first) Inciting Incident.
The response to the Inciting Incident is flawed, as they continue their dysfunction.
They enjoy a major win, and for a moment it seems the goal is (almost) achieved.

Act Two
The hero experiences a second Inciting Incident, as part of the MPR.
The response to this MPR Inciting Incident is the right response, as now the Hero makes an effort to improve, to heal.
They enjoy a final win, and we trust that in the future they will continue to act in the right way.

What do you think?

I believe the 2-Act Structure is a simple, appealing way of looking at the character’s journey, both in terms of plot and theme.

This approach recognises what some people call the ‘Inner Journey’ and the ‘Outer Journey’ in one simple, integrated model.

There is no need to throw out whatever structural tools you have been using up to this point, but perhaps this sheds a new, fresh light on how stories for the screen are structured from a bird’s eye perspective.

Let me know if the comments in this approach makes sense to you, and if you would like to use it in the development of your own stories.

– by Karel Segers

 

 

 

Karel

2

About Screenwriting Rules [And The 3-Act Structure]

When How To Train Your Dragon was released, some people learned to their horror that the film was written following Blake Snyder’s beat sheet. How could such a successful – and critically acclaimed – film be written by the numbers??

Creatives hate screenwriting ‘rules’. So they should. But it is also helpful to understand what rules really are, and what they do.

Observe And Study

All Blake Snyder did (just like Field, McKee, Seger etc.), is study films and look for patterns, then describe the patterns he found in films that were successful.

screenwriting rules - observe and studyMany screenwriters find this approach incredibly attractive, because it creates the illusion that you can reproduce success by replicating those patterns.

Of course it isn’t this simple.

If you ask yourself what vehicles are the fastest, you’ll see that a Ferrari is faster than a bus, and a Boeing 747 is faster than a Ferrari. Now you know that if you want to go fast, you pick the 747. Sadly, this knowledge doesn’t buy you the ticket; let alone build the airplane.

Screenwriting rules show you what is fast, not how to make it fast.

Analysis vs. Creation

Screenwriting rules, theories and books are mostly analytical. Intellectually, it can be incredibly gratifying to acquire these insights. But none of this is creative. It doesn’t get you anywhere near having a screenplay that works. What these theories do, is give you an understanding of what you need to be successful. Not how to create it.

Now you know this, you are one step closer to writing a successful screenplay. The next step is to figure out how to use this type of information practically. Let me tell you this: studying these theories by heart to apply it during the writing is not the solution. In fact, this may even hold you back by causing writer’s block.

Most working writers first come up with a concept (or else it is handed to them). Next, they write an outline, and finally they write the script. At any stage of this process, they look back at the work and reflect on it. Does it work? Where could it be improved?

This is the analytical stage.

You need to have something written before you can apply any theory to it.

Screenwriting Rules That Work

So, does it work?

Your answer to this question will initially be subjective. You’ll probably think “yes, it works”.

In your head.

10-commands-for-blackhattersThe bad news: as a beginning screenwriter you may safely ignore your subjective assessment, as 99% of the time you’ll be wrong.

The great news is that you have written something. Now you can apply your analytical knowledge to it, and make a prediction based on what has worked previously.

You examine any similarities – and differences – between successful scripts, and yours.  (After this, you’ll see that you were indeed wrong.)

In assessing your work, you look at the precedents, and you apply common sense. Much like this:

  • If successful screenplays are mostly somewhere between 90 and 130 pages, while yours is 276 pages, perhaps you should consider some cutting.
  • If those successful works have a balance of dialogue and description, while yours has 85% description, there’s a clue as to where to cut.
  • If you have only one cliffhanger on page 87, and most scripts have a climactic scene every 10-15 pages, you may have to look at your story’s structure again.
  • Etc.

You may think these are not hard-and-fast screenwriting rules, but many people that judge screenplays actually do.

L’Artiste

Alternatively, you can ignore all the above, and just follow your gut. Because you’re creating art.

I am not being sarcastic here.

364092-artist-wallpaperIf you are independently wealthy, and don’t need to draw an income from writing, why would you pander to any audience? Do your thing. Be bold and crazy. What do you have to lose? Ignore screenwriting rules.

The same goes for those who love the romantic idea of the poor, struggling screenwriter.

But most of you want to get your script read, right?

Trust me, no serious producer will read your 276 pages, your endless blocks of description, your badly formatted genius.

Even if they read, and nothing majorly dramatic hooks them in by page 10, that’s it. They’ll bin it. And your name may go on their blacklist. No hard feelings, they’re just trying to be efficient.

Of course there are exceptions, and if you want to bet on those, go for your life.

It makes perfect sense to try and understand what qualities are present in most successful works.

Whoever blanket-rejects the notion that there exists a set of common sense principles, is an idiot.

Does this mean you need to aim and replicate all of these principles? No. But you may want to be in the ballpark, if you want to be in the industry.

Even in the ballpark, you will need to stand out, and be different somehow. In order to be noticed, you may need to bend some rules.

How To Write

Guess what is the one thing that keeps wannabe writers from breaking through the glass ceiling. Hint: it is not a lack of knowledge of rules or principles.

chainedThe only thing that holds you back is the discipline to read scripts and write – every day.

Those who are successful have managed to create a routine that allows them to deliver work, consistently.

No amount of books or courses or gurus is going to help you overcome this challenge.

The tools or programs that will ultimately get you the closest to your goal, are the ones that help you do what you need to do on a regular basis.

The 3-Act Structure

What about the Mother Of All Screenwriting Rules… The 3-Act Structure?

Writers have rejected the 3-act structure based on what I say above: it won’t help you come up with a great story.
What the 3-act structure does help you with, is understanding structure. And structure is one of those criteria where almost every successful film seems to align.

At the end of the 1970’s, Syd Field decided to stay vaguely in the realm of Aristotle, and divide a screen story in three parts.

He gave it a label: the 3-act structure. A paradigm was born.

Can you see that there is no inherent value to this approach?

It is only because professionals need to be able to talk about story, that you need to understand their lingo.

It’s Academic

That said, you can perfectly develop your own system, and write amazing scripts. But once you’re pitching – or working with others on development – they’ll all need to know your custom-built system. Imagine every writer did this. Can you see the problem? We need a common framework.

I would argue that it is better to have a bad understanding of the 3-act structure than none at all. At least you can enter into a conversation, and learn from the people you speak with.

Some producers love showing that they understand story structure (even if they don’t), and you can forge a bond by pretending you are on their wavelength by being prepared to speak their lingo.

In essence, the 3-act structure is no more than a tool to communicate about stories.

To summarise, it really doesn’t matter how you get to write your story, and how you make them work. But sooner or later you will need to talk about them, and you better speak some generally accepted structure language.

Pick Your Label

2-act structureSure, not everyone sticks to the 3-act tool box. Some talk about Hero’s Journey, Dramatica, 4 Parts,  22 Steps, 6 Stages, etc.

You know why?

Because each guru needs a point of difference to get their stuff sold.

Only a very few have really added anything of note to the existing screenwriting rules; they simply change the labels.

Lazy, I know.

I’m incredibly tempted to add a new approach to the list, just for fun. My own structure paradigm: The 2-Act Structure. You might even like it.

But when all is said and done, the 3-act structure ends up being the most commonly accepted dramatic language for the screen.

Learn it.