Midpoints – What They Are And How To Spot Them:
It’s another newsletter about writing and story structure this week, because I always love the replies I get to those ones and the updates I receive from those of you working on your own stories and writing projects – as ever, if anything in this week’s resonates with something you’re working on at the moment, let me know what it is and how it’s going, I’d love to hear about it!
I recently read Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat!, a book he claims is “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need,” which is a bold claim. It’s not awful by any means, but it is another one of those screenwriting books that seems to bizarrely assume that in order to capture the attention of an aspiring writer you have to adopt a tone of voice that says things like “This can be a real pain in the butt!” or “You gotta sock ‘em in the chops with your kick-ass opening scene!” Anyway, it was fine, but as it explained the basics of story structure I was surprised that Snyder seemed to have a completely different understanding of what a story’s midpoint is and what it’s for compared to the person who I learned about midpoints from, and who I think actually wrote the best book on writing, John Yorke (the book is Into The Woods: How Stories Work And Why We Tell Them and I can’t recommend it enough to aspiring writers).
After I read Into The Woods, I became increasingly fascinated by midpoints and started studying them in every film and TV show I watched. We’re all very familiar with three-act structures – a world is established in the first act, an inciting incident sets the inhabitants of that world off on an unfamiliar journey in the second act, a decline in fortunes leads to a “dark night of the soul” that spurs the protagonist into action in a third act that then resolves everything, bish bash bosh, job’s a good ‘un. The midpoint is buried in the middle of the second act, so is talked about less, but is maybe the most important part of any story. Once I’d learned what they were, I started practising identifying them – finding the moment in a film that felt to me like it did what a midpoint was supposed to do, then checking the runtime and finding that that moment was, to the minute, exactly halfway through the film.
You can identify them with incredible accuracy when you know what you’re looking for, and realising which exact moment it is then teaches you a lot about the story as a whole and what the storyteller is trying to say with it. (A couple of examples from films I’ve watched in the last couple of weeks – the exact midpoint of Alien is the moment the alien bursts out of John Hurt’s chest. In Aliens, it’s the moment the marines enter the alien nest for the first time. In The Hudsucker Proxy, it’s the moment Tim Robbins finally pitches his hula hoop to the board. In The Big Lebowski, it’s the moment Jeff Bridges meets Sam Elliott’s narrator character. I couldn’t check the runtime in the cinema, but in Marcel The Shell With Shoes On I imagine it’s the moment Marcel is invited to take part in the TV interview).
However, in my opinion, Blake Snyder’s version of a midpoint seems to misunderstand what they’re doing on a storytelling level, so I thought I’d delve in a bit to the two definitions and see what any other writers out there make of it. Note that Snyder is talking specifically about films, while Yorke is talking more generally about story structure as a universal thing, but midpoints exist in every story, even individual episodes of a TV sitcom, so they’re an important thing to understand whatever form your writing takes.
Snyder says that a midpoint is “either a moment of false victory, or of false defeat for the protagonist” – either everything is going incredibly well, and about to come crashing down, or everything goes spectacularly badly, causing the protagonist to lose heart as they slide into the second half of the film, where things will inevitably pick up for them again. Maybe this is sometimes true – I can think of a few films where the midpoint takes the form of that trope, but I can also think of plenty of films where the midpoint is something much smaller or less black-and-white than that. (Using the examples above, John Hurt’s death in Alien is hardly a moment of “false defeat” – maybe it could be said to be that for Ripley specifically, because Ripley survives, but I personally just don’t think Snyder’s definition holds true all that often). More importantly, Snyder says nothing about why a midpoint has to happen, what it’s there for and what it does for the story. He just says it has to be in there, and it either has to be a moment where your protagonist definitively wins in some way, or definitively loses.
John Yorke’s account of how a midpoint works is much more interesting, I think – he explains that, generally, the first half of a story involves the characters’ gradually increasing their knowledge of a situation – perhaps a character has been granted some sort of power or ability that they spend the first half of the story experimenting with to learn all the different ways it can enhance and improve their life. The midpoint is the moment where they now possess all the knowledge they need, and can now go from reacting to external events (“Wow, this is cool!”), to being a proactive agent utilising the knowledge they now possess (“What do I do now?”). Having experimented with their new power or ability, the midpoint might be the exact moment they discover the limitations or consequences of that power, and the second half of the film will involve their having to make more active decisions about how they use it while navigating those consequences.
And consequences is the key to it all, really – on top of being the moment where the protagonist now knows everything they need to know in order to become active rather than reactive, the midpoint is also the exact moment where the second half of the story becomes inevitable. We see Tim Robbins pitching the hula hoop and realise Paul Newman’s plan to hire an idiot to run the company is going to backfire because he’s accidentally invented something genuinely successful. We see the alien burst out of John Hurt’s chest and know that the crew must now fight to survive this thing that has infiltrated their ship. Everything that follows is an inevitable consequence of that one moment.
“Yes, but,” you might say, “surely everything that happens in a film is actually inevitable from the inciting incident onwards, because that’s the moment that sets everything into motion?” Yes, true, I’m certainly not saying that any story can be boiled down to just its midpoint and will still function as a story, I’m just pointing out that they’re often overlooked, seem to often be misunderstood even by major screenwriters, and that studying them and figuring out why they’re there and what they’re doing can teach you a lot about story structure and good writing. Try it with a film you’re familiar with – if you try it on a film you’re watching fresh, it is possible, but you might be too caught up with the story to notice the exact point where everything tips into inevitability. But with a film where you know what’s going to happen, you’ll find there’ll be a specific moment where you suddenly realise everything that’s about to happen is going to happen because of what happened right then, and I guarantee it’ll be exactly halfway through. Give it a go! It’s good fun, and it teaches you a lot. Let me know if you discover any other good ones!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – A glimmer of hope exists for the future of the Edinburgh Fringe as Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the Fringe Society have launched several bursaries worth £100,00 in total to help people continue to take shows there. I have mixed feelings about this news – it’s objectively an incredibly generous and significant gesture, but I’m also very aware that the structural problems with the Fringe are so vast that £100,000 will actually have a negligible effect (£2000 per show is a big help, but doesn’t begin to cover all the costs of taking a show, and 50 shows is less than 1.5% of the total shows at the Fringe). But as a gesture, it is a significant reminder that it is possible to take positive action to help save that festival, despite all the non-committal “What can you do?” hand-waving that’s been going on.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Rewatched The Big Lebowski this week, and some of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s physical mannerisms in it are really gut-punchingly funny. He’s often doing them in the background or off to the side so you don’t really notice them until you pay attention, but it’s an incredibly funny performance.
Book Of The Week – I’ve been reading The Golem And The Djinni by Helene Wecker, and it’s great. It’s a proper fantastical historical romp with a proper story. I so rarely read things with proper big stories, so this has been lovely.
Album Of The Week – The New Four Seasons: Vivaldi Recomposed by Max Richter, in which Max Richter takes The Four Seasons and makes it sound more like Max Richter than it does Vivaldi. If you like Vivaldi a bit but like Max Richter more, then this is the album for you!
Film Of The Week – The Hudsucker Proxy, an early Coen Brothers movie I’d never seen before that I absolutely loved. I think they’re at their best when they’re making silly films, personally.
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you enjoyed it, let me know your thoughts, and feel free to send it on to a friend or encourage others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s me on a dodgem or, if you prefer, bumper car: