As a screenwriter and producer, I get handed a number of screenplays regularly. Some writers think I can help with getting their work produced, or at the least, get another set of eyes on the project. The truth is, I’m far too busy trying to get my own work produced, but occasionally I’ll read through a script if the pitch has interested me. Invariably I find the problems that hound most young writers – no character arcs, poor dialog, sometimes just plain bad writing. But something that seems to pop up regularly is the Mid-Act II Turning Point, or more precisely, the lack thereof.
A screenplay, like any story, is broken into three parts, or “acts” – a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In Act I we’re introduced to the characters and their world, usually a world we’re familiar with even if it’s a long time ago, or a galaxy far, far away. I’m assuming that none of you are moisture farmers on the planet Tatooine, but we all knew exactly how Luke Skywalker felt when we were introduced to him in Star Wars. There are universal truths and feelings and memories, and all of us know what it’s like to be stuck at work, whether you just want to get home to dinner, or if you were planning on heading into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters.
In Act II, our hero has been thrust into a new world, usually against his will. When Obi-Wan first offers Luke the chance to come with him to Alderaan, Luke refuses – he’s got way too much to do on the farm, there’s just no way he could possibly help Old Ben. It’s not until after his Aunt and Uncle are killed that he agrees to go rescue the Princess.
In Act III, our hero has to face his own inner demons and come out with the answer, the Elixir, the solution to overcoming the obstacle that has been set before him. Perhaps he’s saved the girl from the sinking ocean liner, but must stay in the frozen water himself to ensure her survival. In Star Wars, Luke has realized that to make the shot he must use The Force, turn off the targeting computer and trust in his feelings.
All of this seems rather straightforward, but what many young writers miss is that all-important Mid-Act II Turning Point. And it IS All-Important. It may not seem so until you realize that it happens in every successful movie (if not story), and without it your Act II is just a series of events that we have to slog through until Act III.
What IS the Mid-Act II Turning Point?
Exactly what it seems: right around the middle of Act II, some event is going to happen that “turns” the course of the movie, almost always negatively. So many things hinge on this. In Act II, your characters are planning their course of action, they’re trying to figure out how to accomplish their goals. Bad things may be happening to them, but they’re able to move along with them, continue their forward momentum. Perhaps they’ve been caught in the tractor beam of a large space station – horrible! But by hiding under the floor planks of the space ship, they can evade capture. Perhaps they’ve been cut off in the rescue attempt of the Princess – terrible! But by blasting a hole in the wall they can escape to a trash compactor. All of these scenes have ups and downs, but our heroes are still accomplishing their goals: the rescue of the Princess and the disruption of the tractor beam that prevents our heroes from escaping.
The Mid-Act II Turning Point happens when something stops that forward momentum, and starts our heroes sliding towards irrevocable doom.
In Star Wars, it’s the death of Obi-Wan at the hands of his former pupil, Darth Vader. This wasn’t part of the plan! Obi-Wan was supposed to make it back to the ship and help the Rebellion destroy the Death Star! It’s what the whole adventure was about! From there, things go from bad to worse – The Millennium Falcon escapes, but has a tracker on it that reports the location of the Rebel Base. Upon inspection of the Death Star plans, it seems the only weakness is a two-meter wide port, nearly impossible to hit. And finally, Han decides it’s time for he and Chewbacca to get the hell out of Dodge, deserting the rebels when they could have used his flying and battle skills.
But this doesn’t happen in just Star Wars – it happens in every well written script. In “The Incredibles”, Mr. Incredible completes his mission to destroy the robot, only to find out the mission itself was just a trick to capture him. In “The Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy has made it to the Emerald City, only to find out that she must go to the Witch’s castle and confront her.
Everything turns out alright, of course – it almost always does in the movies. But think what would have been lost without the Mid-Act II Turning Point – all of the drama, all of the despair is there so that we can root for the hero in his impossible quest, and that’s what makes his victory so sweet in the end. Watch your favorite movies again. The Mid-Act II Turning Point is impossible to miss when you know the formula. Now start making sure your script has it!