A movie’s Mid Point usually fulfills a number of functions.
In the Hero’s Outer Journey, an event occurs that makes the Hero change the approach to pursuing the goal.
On the inner level, the Hero shows a first commitment to change.
Some people speak of the Point of No Return. Because every strong plot point is in essence a point of no return, I don’t find this approach helpful. Both the Inciting Incident and the 1st Act Turning Point are almost always strong points of no return.
Mid points are often at a location very different from the rest of the movie (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Untouchables), near rivers (The Queen, The Untouchables), bridges (A Fistful of Dynamite, The Untouchables) or cliffs (Butch & Sundance, The Incredibles, Forgetting Sarah Marshall). The ‘cliff mid points’ often include a jump into the unknown, showing the Hero’s newly found Faith.
At first sight, in the Untouchables there seems to be one Mid Point, mathematically placed right in the middle of the movie at 58mins (out of 112), at the end of Sequence D (fourth out of eight).
At closer inspection, there is a little more to it.
If Ness’ outer objective in the first half of the movie is ‘to catch Capone’, then this changes once they get hold of the bookkeeper’s ledger. Now the objective is ‘to catch the bookkeeper’ in order to decode the names of the recipients of money. The overall objective remains the same: ‘to protect the people of Chicago from violence by bringing Capone to justice’.
The Inner Journey is more complex, because two themes are at play: Ness’ struggle to stay within the law and his naivety around the effects of his type of work on a family life.
At the end of Sequence D, Ness shows he is willing to go beyond ‘The Law of the Land’ and adopt ‘The Chicago Way’. He shows this by replying to the mountie who disapproves of his methods by saying “Yeah? Well, you’re not from Chicago.”
A stronger mid point is yet to follow. Note that exactly halfway Sequence D, Ness kills one of Capone’s men.
Exactly halfway the next sequence, one of Capone’s men kills Wallace. The two killings form the transition into the second, darker half of the movie.
Both ‘families’ (Capone’s and that of the Untouchables) lost a member and they’re now both ‘Touchable’.
Soon after this reversal Hero and Shadow (the antagonist) will face each other for the first time, on the stairs at Capone’s hotel.
To summarise, the following reversals happen around the movie’s mid point:
Change of Ness’ approach:
- Bring Capone to trial
- Bring the bookkeeper to trial
Change of Ness’ morality:
- The Law of the Land
- The Law of Chicago
Change of energy, mood:
These are not mere points of no return, they are complete reversals.
So, what’s there to learn?
The second act is by far the hardest to write, we all know that. Creating a strong mid point or mid sequence is the first way of dealing with this. You have successfully chopped the story into smaller, more manageable bits: you will only have to bridge story sections of 25-30mins (two sequences) maximum.
Although this may seem a purely structural device; it is not. It is impossible to create a meaningful mid point without knowing exactly what your story and characters are about. I really believe that once you have truly nailed the mid point (or sequence), your story will have its foundation and the other sequences will fall into place much more easily.