If all you do at the midpoint is raise the stakes your script has little chance of packing much emotional punch in the climax. Here are the 2 things you should be focussed on delivering around the middle of Act 2.
The element of Syd Field’s structural analysis that was considered a major advance on Aristotle’s work 2000 years previously was his identification of the “midpoint” – a critical scene/sequence half way through the second act. Field said that, in great screenplays he had studied, something important almost always happened around page 55-60. Typically, he said, the hero would pass a point of no return and the stakes would be raised.
Now, those aren’t bad things to happen around the middle of the second act. But, I can’t say I ever found this “breakthrough” particularly helpful to me as a screenwriter. You can have the hero burn their bridges and raise the stakes up the Ying Yang at the midpoint without delivering what the audience really wants – emotional release at the Act 3 climax.
So “midpoint” is not a term I would ever actually use in relation to my own writing. I only use it so I can talk the same language as people who have been introduced to “Classical Structure” but who aren’t familiar with the blessed insights of Chris Vogler’s Hero’s Journey. Elsewhere, I elaborate on why I find the Hero’s Journey a more helpful structural paradigm, but it’s particularly useful in helping unmask the mysteries of the middle of Act 2.
In Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, he says our protagonist should be faced with a “Supreme Ordeal” around page 60 of the screenplay – a scene/sequence of high drama that represents a life and death moment for the hero. But the key to understanding this element of the script and to making it work for your audience is to stop thinking about the midpoint in terms of plot. And start thinking about it in terms of character.
The plot is not the end. It’s just the means. The end is transformation of your hero and the midpoint is the fulcrum for that transformation.
In the first act – or the Ordinary World for Campbell devotees – your character will have revealed their flaw. In Act 3, at the climax, they will prove they have addressed that flaw (or not, in the case of some, though not all tragedies). So where does the character actually change?
Vogler’s character arc says there is a gradual change that begins at the start of Act 2 – but it’s actually one of the few places where I disagree with my one-time lecturer. Certainly, in most of the films I love, in the early part of Act 2 the hero is doing everything they can to avoid change. Think Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Or Zac Mayo (Richard Gere) in An Officer and a Gentleman. Or Oscar Schindler. I would have said that in comedy, having your hero soften from the start of Act 2 would guarantee the end of all laughter because in comedy it’s the pathological nature of the hero’s flaw that makes them funny.
So where does the hero change? At the midpoint or, in Vogler’s language, at the Supreme Ordeal. And the change is most effective if it’s signalled in two ways.
The first thing that should happen at the midpoint or the Ordeal is that someone (generally the antagonist) should hold up a mirror to the hero and make them aware of their flaw – typically in none too subtle terms. In doing this, it should be clear that the hero CANNOT continue towards their goal without addressing this flaw.
Think about Groundhog Day. In the previous sequence, with his flaw in full flight, he beds (and proposes marriage to) Nancy. No problem. This is easy peasy. Why would he ever change?
But in the Ordeal, he tries to move from the NRL up to State of Origin (or, for State-side readers, from the farm leagues to the majors) by going after Rita (Andie MacDowell).
What happens? He gets within an inch of the promised land until she smells a rat and she tells him, “Is this what love is to you? You’ll never love anyone but yourself”. And she slaps his face.
And the next day, she slaps his face again. And the next day. And the next. The message for Phil is that if he wants to get Rita, he’s going to have to change his ways. Face slapping is a good metaphor, in fact, for what’s going on here. Slap, goes the antagonist. Wake up to yourself!!!
In Tootsie, this moment is where Julie (Jessica Lange) throws a glass of water in Michael Dorsey’s face when he tries to use the line on her that she has told him in confidence as Dorothy Michaels. Another good metaphor. Splash! What the hell are you thinking?!?
So that’s the first thing that should happen at the midpoint or the Ordeal. The hero needs to be confronted with their flaw in a way that makes them appreciate that they simply must change. That is an important stepping stone on the way to transformation. But, if you really want to get your audience where it counts, you’ll go a step further.
In Dead Poets Society, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Brokeback Mountain, the heroes are all confronted with their flaws at the midpoint. But, in each of these wonderful films, the writers push a little harder to produce three of the most memorable, emotionally powerful scenes in all cinema. In each film, the antagonist not only holds up a mirror to the hero to reveal their flaw. They push them so hard that their ego – which embodies their flaw – shatters into a million pieces and their shining essence is revealed.
In Dead Poets, this is the “sweaty toothed madman” scene. Mr Keating (Robin Williams) asks Todd (Ethan Hawke) to recite a poem he’s written, knowing it scares the hell out of him, and Todd says he hasn’t written one. Keating won’t be beaten that easily and says that “Mr Anderson thinks that everything inside him is worthless, isn’t that your greatest fear, Todd?”. He holds a mirror up and says, there, pal, that’s your flaw. But he doesn’t stop there.
Then, in Todd’s worst nightmare scenario, he’s forced to extemporise a poem in front of the whole class. He’s resistant, he’s humiliated and embarrassed and the less sensitive members of the class laugh at his predicament, but under this extreme pressure he conceives images and metaphors that silence the room and reveal the lyrical romanticist that’s been lurking in his high-achieving brother’s shadow. Todd emerges from his trance reborn. Neil looks at him in awe and Keating says, “Don’t you ever forget this”. And he doesn’t. It’s this moment that allows him to rise up, literally, in Act 3 and stand in defence of both his dead friend and beloved mentor.
In Brokeback Mountain, up until the Ordeal, Ennis (Heath Ledger) has been able to have his cake and eat it too. He’s been able to retain his tough cowboy image – that’s really his want – and enjoy physical and emotional intimacy with his gay lover Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) up on Brokeback Mountain – that’s his need. But in this scene, Jack’s had enough of their part-time love:
“You know, friend, this is a god-damned bitch of an unsatisfactory situation”.
He says he wants more than Ennis is willing to give and reveals he’s had other lovers down in Mexico. Ennis is provoked first to almost murderous rage, but then when he realises he’s about to lose the one thing that makes his life worth living, he breaks down. “Why don’t you just let me be? It’s because of you Jack, that I’m like this! I’m nothin’… I’m nowhere… “.
Jack tries to put a consoling arm around him and Ennis fights back initially but ultimately he collapses in a heap on the ground, surrounded by the shards of his shattered identity and the soundtrack rises to reinforce the power of what we’ve just experienced. Glorious cinema.
Alas, Ennis won’t acknowledge the life lesson he’s just experienced. Because it’s a tragedy, he’ll gather up those shards, reassemble his unfulfilling identity, go back to his inauthentic life and soon lose his lover for all time.
In An Officer and a Gentleman, up until the midpoint, Zac has been entirely in his identity (ego). He’s been all about him, he’s been running black market scams, and he’s been dating a “Puget Sound Deb” (Debra Winger) without any intention of ever taking her with him when he leaves. Then his antagonist, Drill Sergeant Foley (Lou Gosset Jr) finds his stash of booty and says that by the end of the weekend he’ll have his DOR (Dropped On Request).
Foley pushes him physically and taunts him mentally, telling him that his father is “an alcoholic and a whore chaser” and that he knows that “deep down inside” you know that all the other candidates “are better than you”. Zac denies it but we know it’s exactly what he thinks. Again, the antagonist is holding a mirror up to the hero. Here – see your flaw! But, he goes further.
He pushes and pushes and pushes but Zac simply won’t quit, so Foley says finally, “You’re can forget it. You’re out!”
Then Zac’s impervious façade finally cracks:
“Don’t you do it! Don’t you … I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to g … I got nothin’ else …”
And he breaks down.
Foley can’t believe his eyes. Why? Because he is no longer seeing Zac’s wise guy identity, but his sensitive, never-loved child within. His essence. Amazingly powerful. And my personal favourite Ordeal moment of all time.
Zac changes from this point. He’s no longer about himself. And ultimately he’s willing to risk his want (graduating from flight school) to satisfy his need (honour his love for Worley who tragically committed suicide).
Did any of these scenes raise the stakes? Not really. I guess you could argue that we appreciate more fully just how important graduating from flight school is to Zac. But that’s not what makes the moment special and it’s not what ultimately makes the journey so satisfying. Why? Because it’s not about the plot. The plot is just the means.
If you want your film to move your audience – ie if you want it to enjoy any measure of commercial acceptance – you’ll demand more of your midpoint than just “raising the stakes”. I encourage you to try to achieve two things in a scene/sequence around page 55-60.
Firstly, you’ll have your hero confronted with their flaw – almost invariably by your antagonist. Have a metaphorical face-slapping scene. That’s a mandatory.
But if you want to really get your audience where it matters, you’ll try to push your hero a little further, shatter their identity and reveal their essence. And when I say “push”, I mean drag them kicking and screaming to their essence. If their identity fractures too easily, the scene will feel contrived and won’t move us.
Will the hero remain transformed? Sometimes, but sometimes they’ll slip back (John Book in Witness does and it triggers Act 3). But what we see in that midpoint moment will affect us deeply and make credible the decisive action the hero takes at the Act 3 climax.
If you want to learn more about the Hero’s Journey, come to my next Screenwriting Course.
PS We’re all in debt to Laura Greaves, one of our Graduate Diploma of Screenwriting students at AFTRS, whose probing question helped deepen my understanding of the midpoint and prompted this post.