Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 222 - A Midpoint Discovered

Ask most screenwriters, and they'll probably tell you that Act Two is the most difficult portion of the script to write. More specifically, the crucial midpoint (of Act Two and of your script as a whole) can be particularly difficult. And the section that comes after that - what I like to call "the 60 to 70 slump" - is traditionally even ore problematic. Those pages (60 through 70, or whatever the ten that immediately follow your midpoint) require both a cool down period to get over the intensity of the midpoint, as well as a continued raising of the stakes; this, in short, makes them onerous to write. 

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder refers to the first part of Act Two as the fun and games section. We've met our characters and been introduced to their world and situation in Act One. For the first half of Act Two, things are mostly fun for them. They're having fun on their adventure. Things might be daunting, but they're not overwhelming odds yet, nor is the danger really as life threatening as it can (read, will) be. At the midpoint, things come to a head. The midpoint might be the pinnacle of success so far, and it will therefore be followed by a fall from grace. More commonly, perhaps, is the alternative - the midpoint serves as the floor of the valley, the darkest, gloomiest, most devastating moment so far. This might come in the form of a death, a loss (of a crucial object, of a friend to some other fate, of the path to glory), or any number of other devastating blows. After the midpoint, you have to sustain the audience's attention as we work our way toward the climax of the film, but you also offer a minor reprieve from the extremes they've just experienced. If the world has gone to hell, then maybe there's a glimmer of hope at the end of the 60 to 70 slump. Or if all's been stellar so far, then we get a taste of darkness at that point, instead.

Normally, I struggle through Act Two. I'm never quite sure of how well what I've constructed is working or not. It can be particularly difficult to tell when outlining. to my great pleasure, when I met with my co-writer, W.A., this past week, he told me that he loved my second act. Part of the success of it stems from a very wise suggestion he had made previously, which I decided to run with. 

The script contains a number of large reveals. One of them in particular - the identity of the guide turned antagonist - had been a point of contention, as its placement in the script had been in flux for a long time. W.A.'s original outline had this reveal roughly 2/3 of the way through the script. When I took my first stab at the outline, I wound up moving it to the end of Act Two, or about 3/4 of the way through the script. There's a lot of information and material that we can mine from that surprise, though, as well as a lot of character motivation, so W.A. rightly felt that we were losing a handful of opportunities for ratcheting up the conflict by pushing it so far back. Not to mention that the later the reveal comes, the less time we have to address it in the script. And it's something that we have to ensure ample time is devoted to.

To fix this, W.A. suggested that I take a look at moving the reveal up to the midpoint, coupling it with the death of the protagonist's best friend - the crushing defeat that brings the fun and games portion of the script to a swift and definitive end. As the real world hits, so too does this new bit of information. I went with the earlier reveal, and I must admit - it works really damn well. Not only do we get a lot more time to work with the information, but it makes total sense, since the antagonist is directly responsible for the friend's death. It was sort of a speed bump to do the partial reveal - he's an antagonist - and not come forward with who he actually is until much later. And, by the time we got the information, it was almost too much and too late. 

Now, with this reshuffling of the information, the reveal comes at a point where our characters can do so much more with it, the world crashes down around our protagonist even harder at the midpoint, and the actions of everyone we've been following come to a simultaneous head at that point. The fun and games are over, and we know who is good and who the antagonist is. We don't know the full rationale for the reversal yet, but we know we have half a movie to devote to it. Act One flows into Act Two organically, and the fun and games transition naturally into the devastating blow that is the midpoint; coming out of that loss and the attached reveal, we move organically through the obstacles faced on our way to Act Three and the resolution. 

It is, in a way, almost pretty in how it wound up working.