Midpoints: what they are, why your screenplay needs one, and classic movie midpoints that change everything

I’m tutoring Screenwriting again with a new cohort from John Yorke Story, UK’s leading screen story and narrative experts.

We’re heading to our study of midpoints. It’s always my favourite part of the course and so I’m thinking a lot about what midpoints do, how they do it so well, and how my writing is so much better because of them.


By the way, If you have questions about midpoints and story structure, if you’re curious about what it would be like to work together developing your project, contact me here and let’s talk about how we could work together.

When I was starting out as a screenwriter, I had one main problem. 

Once you’ve come up with a killer first act turn, how do you move through that long, long second act? How do you manage to power through with driving action? How to somehow come up with a compelling, how-will-they-get-out-of-this crisis point at the end of the act, and spin dramatically into the last act where it all pays off?

I struggled with this for years. Then I discovered the power of the midpoint.

John Yorke broke open midpoints for me in his book Into The Woods. Not only did he highlight their importance, he spends a lot of time explaining what a midpoint is in usable terms.

The midpoint is a moment in the story after which there’s no going back. It’s a ‘moment of truth’.

From the point of view of the external narrative, it’s the moment when the protagonist learns something important about the outside world. The discover the true identity of the forces that are against them, something big about the nature of the problem they’re facing. 

From the point of view of the characters’ inner desires, it’s the moment when something is revealed to them. It’s something about their desire, about themselves, about the object of their desire, their inner world, that they can no longer ignore.

In all these cases, the midpoint is about discovering a truth. Not just a fact, but a deep truth that changes how we see the world of the story and how the protagonist sees themselves and what’s possible for them.

Let’s look at some ways of viewing the midpoint through some classic examples and we’ll see how it completely changes the direction of the story, and the protagonist’s fate.

Freytag Pyramid: It’s All Downhill From Here

Gustav Freytag  contributed what’s become known as the Freytag Pyramid to the structure of writing stories. There’s a lot to learn about Freytag, but for now we’ll focus on his belief that the climax of action in your story should be at the midpoint.

Freytag wrote that this climax is where a major conflict plays out and we know, from that point, the fates of our main characters. Whether the characters know this is

Also, the midpoint is where the major conflict of the film is addressed. We’re shown that something has happened that has changed everything in ways that can’t be undone. 

This means that the second half of the story will show the protagonist trying to deal with the revelations of the midpoint – the thing that’s happened that can’t be undone. The characters are beyond choice now. Up to this point, maybe they could have backed away from the quest or call to action and withdrawn.

Now, with this new revelation about the world or about themselves, they have no choice but to continue the quest, no matter how well or badly it goes for them.

Some people find the world revelation confusing. As we’re about to see, the midpoint revelation is often something that is actually discovered or revealed – something that changes the whole world in which the character lives. 

Five Kinds of Midpoints

First, a quick history lesson: in theatre, the midpoint happens in the middle act, just before the interval curtain. 

Henrik Ibsen was a master of this art. In A Doll’s House, Nora is confronted with her own undercover actions to save her husband and her family when a blackmailing lawyer threatens to expose her. This single revelation could break Nora’s world tumbling down around her – and then the curtain falls! We’re left to gasp in wonder as to what will happen after the break. What will Nora do now that she is being blackmailed and her fate is in the hands of others?

Onto some cinematic examples:

Drive: Nothing Will Be The Same Again.

‘Nothing will be the same again’ is a quality to look for in your midpoint, but some movies will make it more obvious than others. 

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive gives us an action-focused midpoint sequence which also decides the fate of the characters’ inner desires. When the midpoint robbery goes horribly wrong, Ryan Gosling’s Driver character knows there is no chance of the happy-ever-after ending with Carey Mulligan’s Irene. All he can do now is fight the real enemy (which happens in graphic detail) and make sure Irene has a chance in the world, even though he is likely doomed and they will never be together.

Midpoint: The robbery goes horribly wrong in Drive, and nothing can be the same again.

Witness: Worlds Collide

The midpoint sequence in Witness is one of the classics. Book and Rachel dance in the loft to old music when they are caught by Rachel’s father. They break apart, but the damage is done.

In the heightened moment that creates the climax of the midpoint, Book and Rachel hold each other’s eyes across the farm and both realise that the unthinkable has happened; the tough city cop and the Amish widow have fallen in love. Two impossible worlds have collided and neither of them can pretend any longer.

Witness also gives us an example of a midpoint that is an inversion of the story’s end. Book and Rachel are very much in love and emotionally bonded at the midpoint of the story.

But the second half of the story plays out to show the impossibility of their love. They return to their separate worlds, heartbroken but at the same time forever changed by their time together.

The Gift: The Midpoint as Two Act Play

Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut features him as Gordo, the weird high-school ‘buddy’ of Jason Bateman’s Simon. 

When Simon and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move into their new house, Gordo edges his way into their lives. Gordo seems lonely and wanting connection but it all comes to a screeching halt when Gordo’s lies are exposed around half way through the film. Gordo disappears and leaves the ‘happy couple’ alone. 

This seems to be the end of it, from Simon and Robyn’s point of view. As an audience, we’d be forgiven for thinking the movie’s over if we didn’t know we were only half way through. Their lives move on through montage and we see Robyn become pregnant. 

But then, in an echo of the first sequences of act one, Gordo reappears in their lives and this time it reveals his much, much darker intent. 

Alien: The Antagonist Explodes AKA These People Are In Deep Trouble

It’s all fun and games until something explodes from your chest. Now, the crew aren’t on a rescue mission – it’s a survival mission. This is a straight flip, the simplicity of which belies the class of this brilliant screenplay and direction to keep us clamped in our seats during the eeriness of the first half of the film.

Alien midpoint: the antagonist appears in their midst and they realise there is no escape.

Psycho: The Massive Change of Protagonism

In one of the great midpoints ever shot, Marion Crane is stabbed in the iconic Shower Scene.

So now what?

What’s the movie? Whose story is it? What’s going on? All is revealed as the camera slowly, slowly moves through the world of the story, the Bates Motel, and protagonism switches to Norman. And the whole story turns dramatically on its head.

Change of protagonism at the midpoint: Psycho flipped the story on its head.

How To Study Midpoints

Midpoints are a vital tool in the writers’ kit. They help you lay out your roadmap for the journey and the change your characters will make. They’ll help you understand, and so plan and plot, the inner and outer change your characters have to go through.

As important, they’ll help you understand the levels of antagonism, both in their outer world and inner desires, that have to come to a head at the midpoint sequence that means they must complete the quest – there’s no way out now.

As you read and watch films, notice the important sequences that happen in the middle of the film. What’s the one thing that happens that changes everything? And how did the writer set it up? 

Take notes as you watch the first half of the film. What does the protagonist want at an external, narrative level? What are their inner needs and desires? How are they compatible and how are they in conflict? How might that put them in a conflict that will boil over at the midpoint?

What are the forces of antagonism that make that increasingly difficult from them at every turn? This might be a single person, it might be a society, it might be an agent for the real bad guy, who remains hidden in the shadows until the leads discover who they’re really dealing with and what they’ve really gotten themselves into.

How are these forces brought to bear at the midpoint sequence of the film? 

How do they change in such a way that external forces (a bungled robbery, in the case of Drive) or the character’s inner desires coming to the fore (Book and Rachel’s love for one another) mean that the story must go in a particular direction? 

How does what’s revealed at the midpoint threaten everything in the character’s life such that their world will never be the same, even if the problem goes away (A Doll’s House)?

How does it change the world of the story such that the protagonist must take action in a particular direction?

The midpoint shift means they are now committed to the path of the story, whether they like it or not, whether they like the outcome or not. Choice is now disappearing from the protagonist’s view.