The Midpoint Shift
As we discussed in my last blog, every story has three acts — a beginning, middle and end. But an interesting thing happens in a film script, there is a shift at the midpoint of the story. Often, this “Midpoint Shift” is when the hero goes from flailing against the conflicts she or he faces to having an understanding of what she or he is up against, what needs to be done and how to achieve that goal. This shift can also effect the audience. Usually, one of two things happens: either the main character acquires information that help him or her focus their want and understand their goal, or some aspect of the story is revealed to the audience which shifts their understanding and perspective on the story. In great stories, it’s often both.
In “Body Heat,” the midpoint is when Racine, William Hurt’s character, decide on their plan and begin to put it in motion. In “Trading Places,” the midpoint is when Eddie Murphy’s character Billy understands that trading is just like being a bookie and understands how to get rich. In “Chinatown,” it’s when Jake Gittes meets Noah Cross for the first time and realizes that the mystery isn’t about water, it’s about the girl that everyone is looking for.
While this is usually an internal shift in a character, it is nonetheless a shift that changes the landscape of your story. This shift effects how the main character process information about the world around him or her. It helps to focus the main character’s resolve. It informs the choices and actions the main character takes. As such, it is helpful to think of it as a plot point as well. And it shifts the entire paradigm of your screenplay structure.
The 4-Act Structure.
If you accept the Midpoint Shift as a plot point that splits the old “Act Two” into two separate acts, then our new “Act Three” becomes everything that happens from the midpoint of your story up to and through the Lowest Moment. That means relabeling the old Act Three as “Act Four.” If we adopt this approach, the result is a screenplay structure that contains four acts of equal length. Each act now runs approximately 30 pages. Each serves specific functions in the story. And each can be broken down into more evenly paced out scenes.
I’ll get more into how to use this structure when I talk about subplots and beatsheets. But for now, try to breakdown your screenplays and the movies you watch into four acts, and you’ll see that there is always a midpoint shift that creates four equal acts in a story.