Thursday, June 13, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 9: The Midpoint Disaster

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • When Aristotle refers to “beginning, middle, end” or Syd Field refers to “Act 1, Act 2, Act 3”, they place too much emphasis on the two “act breaks” (the ¼ point and the ¾ point) but the midpoint is frequently the most stark dividing line in a story.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • In real life, we will stick with the easy way, stay in our safe space, cling to sheltering relationships, and refuse to examine our own motives for as long as possible.  It takes a huge hubris-fueled failure, in which we lose that safe space, to force us to try the hard way, and consider the possibility we’re our own worst enemies.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Don’t go easy on your hero.  Worse is usually better.
  • Beware of the false midpoint disaster.  On “Mission: Impossible”, at the first act break, the whole mission would seem to fall apart, but when they returned from break it would turn out that “getting caught” was actually part of the plan.  But the network imposed a smart rule upon the writers: at the second act break (aka the midpoint) the plan had to genuinely fall apart, and the team had to improvise.  At this point your hero should throw away the map.
Examples of Midpoint Disasters:
  • Often the loss of safe space is literal: Max is expelled in Rushmore, Rick’s bar is trashed by the Nazis in Casablana, Bruce’s house is burnt down in Batman Begins, Tony’s house is blown up in Iron Man 3.
  • Sometimes it’s figurative: Sheriff Brody gets slapped in Jaws, Michael gets slapped in Tootsie.
  • Some movies prefer to pile on multiple midpoint disasters.  Bridesmaids has several huge disasters in a row, as the heroine loses her job, her apartment, her crush, her lover, her car, and her best friend.
  • Likewise, Raiders of the Lost Ark has two.  First Marion seems to die in the bazaar chase, then a few scenes later Indy gets some good news and some bad news: Marion’s still alive, but he’s lost the ark and been sealed into a tomb of snakes with her.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • In tragedies like American Beauty, we get the opposite: the midpoint peak, at which point the hero starts heading for a fall.
  • Even non-tragedies like How to Train Your Dragon can sometimes do something similar.  Hiccup gets everything he’s ever wanted at the midpoint, and it doesn’t fall apart until the ¾ point.
Next: The Hero Tries the Hard Way...

3 comments:

j.s. said...

I like that MISSION IMPOSSIBLE example. It's a good reminder of the right way to use the "all part of the good guy's/bad guy's plan" trope, which should only ever be allowed to go so far before they must improvise. Otherwise, like you've shown us in a number of posts before, we start to question the competency of the characters to the point where it undermines the whole story.

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Daniel Smith said...

I love this series. Since there seems to be a lot of talk about what each step should be called, I'd like to throw in my two cents. This step, Step 9, is directly related to step 7 so one way to sidestep calling this 'The Midpoint Disaster' or clarify your meaning would be something like, 'The Midpoint Disaster resulting from attempting to solve the problem the Easy Way'. I rather like the tongue-in-cheek shortened form of 'The Midpoint Disaster at the end of Easy Way'.

Additionally, the comment directly before this one is probably spam.