The midpoint is the most arguable of the story points in the classic three act structure. It’s the axis upon which the second act revolves, it clarifies the arc, the stakes, and the tone of the exploration of the script. Midpoints are incredibly useful, so they’re worth talking about.
The second act takes up 50% percent of a scripts length. You want this second act to showcase what you can do with a concept. It’s been said that a second act is what the story is about. The midpoint separates act two into two parts. Proponents of three act structure often talk about act one, act two a, act two b, and act three. Sometimes people ask why it’s the three act structure and not the four act structure. This is a fair question. Someday, someone is going to to write a book called “MASTERING THE FOUR ACT STRUCTURE” or similar, and everyone will argue about this more, but for now, let’s use the three act structure, which is widely accepted, well documented, and useful.
Your basic three act structure:
ACT 1 (25%): Set up the world and characters, explain how we got to the events of the story.
ACT TWO (50%): Explore what’s cool about the premise and the characters in an active, memorable and visceral way that both entertains and shows off why you deserve to be a professional writer.
ACT THREE (25%): Resolve the goal of the story, illustrate how the second act changed the character to a version of himself that can succeed at his goal.
So act two = exploration, where the premise of the movie is explored via a series of genre beats in a way that creates specific and memorable entertainment. If you’re using a midpoint, it’s going to split that second act into two roughly equal chunks, act two a and act two b.
This raises a simple question: how is act two a different from act two b?
This is usually subtle, unless you’re writing a script like PSYCHO or FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, where the midpoint splits things into two different genres. That sort of movie requires a slightly different approach, more on that later.
Given that your second act is generally going to be the same genre all the way through, you want it to feel slightly different before and after midpoint, with both halves still being recognizably from the same work. There are a number of things that can change, here are a few examples, though this is by no means an exhaustive list.
The protagonist’s relationship to the world changes.
EXAMPLE: LOVE DON’T COST A THING
Act 2a: Alvin Johnson wants to be cool, so he hires cool girl Paris Morgan to pose as his girlfriend so he can be cool. She reluctantly agrees, and makes him over, giving him access to the cool world. It’s awesome.
Midpoint: Alvin, now cool, goes to a cool party, becomes cool in his own right. Paris goes from not liking Alvin to seeing the value in him and liking him.
Act 2b: Alvin gets what he wants, but we have an hour to kill, so he’s got to learn the wrong lesson. He becomes too cool, and loses the likeable traits that made him good. He’s learning the wrong lesson, which sets him up for a fall at the lowest moment (the third act inevitably has him learn the right lesson and learn how to be both cool and good).
You see this a lot where a fish out of water becomes a little too cocky post-midpoint, leading to a false win in the late second act, setting him up for a karmically well-deserved lowest moment (see also WALL STREET, NEVER BEEN KISSED).
The character’s approach to the problem changes.
EXAMPLE: TERMINATOR 2
Act 2a: John Connor is an average kid who’s been targeted for death by the T-1000. He’s saved by the T-800. T-800 wants to get him out of Dodge, but John makes him rescue his mother Sarah.
Midpoint: John and Sara realize they must stop SkyNet. John asserts himself to his mother.
Act 2b: John, Sara and the T-800 go to see scientist Miles Dyson. They blow up the lab that creates Skynet, which leads them to the third act battle with the T-800.
Here we go from John being a victim of circumstance to someone with agency and purpose. Other examples:
HUNGER GAMES, BATTLE ROYALE, SHAWN OF THE DEAD.
Generally what changes is tone, stakes, approach, or or how the character feels about the situation.
Things get darker.
EXAMPLE: BEING JOHN MALKOVITCH
Act 2a: Puppeteer Craig discovers a portal that allows people to control John Malkovitch.
Midpoint: Maxine rejects Craig, says she only likes Lotte when she’s John Malkovitch.
Act 2b: Craig goes mad, abducts Maxine. Craig takes over Malkovich forever. Things get darker until the third act resolves things.
Post-midpoint, you don’t want to invent new crazy crap, you want to deal with the ramifications of the crazy crap you’ve already invented.
Other scripts that involve darkness falling post midpoint: BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, BACK
TO THE FUTURE II, ARMY OF SHADOWS
Just for fun, here’s the Karate Kid:
KARATE KID (1984)
Act 2a: Daniel LaRusso, a new transplant to California, gets on the wrong side of the Cobra Kai, a psychotic gang of karate students. He takes a lot of beatings. He gets saved by Mr. Miyagi.
Midpoint: Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to the Cobra Kai dojo. He gets the Cobra Kai off his back until the big karate tournament and promises to train Daniel in Karate.
Act 2b: Daniel learns karate while bonding with Mr. Miyagi.
Here, Daniel goes from victim of circumstance to a kid with agency who’s working to better his situation via the events of the movie. I’d forgotten how patient this movie was in the setup. This is pretty common to 80’s movies, check out RISKY BUSINESS and even BACK TO THE FUTURE. Modern development executives would have forced the training in before midpoint (this isn’t a hypothetical, this is exactly what happens in the 2010 remake).
KARATE KID (2010)
Here we get the same story points, but much faster. Dre (the Daniel-san analog) is already training by midpoint. In
Act 2 a, he’s training, but he doesn’t see the point.
Midpoint: The aha moment where Dre realizes that all his nonsensical training was actually teaching him. Imagine if the real Karate Kid put the “wax on, wax off” reveal at midpoint. That’s basically what happens here.
Act two B: Dre trains in earnest.
Another thing that changes is how Dre feels about Han (the Miyagi analog). They’ do karate stuff (really, Kung Fu) all the way through, but it goes from transactional to a lasting friendship. You see this a lot in movies. The Han of the first half is aggressively a dick, the Han of the second half is a much friendly, more accessible figure.