Last week I described my project, breaking down the story structure of four popular films (Finding Nemo, Taken, The Martian, and Wonder Woman). I pointed out the placement of the first two major plot milestones (the Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1). Today I’ll conclude the project with the remaining three milestones, and talk a bit about what this exercise taught me.
Midpoint. As its name suggests, the midpoint comes at the middle of the story and is in the middle of Act II. The story undergoes a dramatic change, typically with some kind of reversal or change in the fundamental understanding of the true nature of the story. In these films, the midpoint fell at an average of 54% of the way through the story.
- As I said before, Finding Nemo is two stories in one, and they both hit their midpoint together. Marlin has learned how to get to Sydney and is well on his way, when at 47% of the way into the story he is knocked out by jellyfish and nearly dies. Meanwhile, back in the fish tank, Nemo attempts an escape that fails, leaving him in despair of ever getting back home. These both represent a serious setback, a reversal of their progress toward their individual goals.
- In Taken, the father has gone to Paris and worked his way into a stable of girls being trafficked as sex slaves. He finds his daughter’s jacket there, proving that he’s on the right track, but she isn’t there. This is a blow, because he doesn’t have another thread to follow.
- The midpoint of The Martian takes place at the 55% point, when the supply rocket with food to keep Watney alive until a rescue can reach him explodes at launch. There is no backup plan, and at that point it seems that Mark is doomed. Again, note that this point is focused on the events off Mars, on those engaged in the rescue.
- Wonder Woman shows a different version of this same pattern, in that the reversal is from negative to positive, instead of the reverse. Everything since the first plot point has been discouraging, with Diana trying to strike out for Ares and being held back at every turn. At 56% of the way into the movie, though, she finally drops her mundane shell. In full regalia as Wonder Woman, leaves her companions behind and storms the enemy, displaying her full power.
Plot Point 2. This usually follows on the heels of a black moment, when all seems lost. The main character, having briefly considered giving up, buckles down and begins the final push to victory. From this point forward the path to the goal is relatively clear, though obviously not guaranteed. This point should theoretically happen at 75%, but in these films it fell at an average of 83%. I don’t know whether the delay in this plot point is due to a different in the medium of film or
- In Finding Nemo the dual stories again have simultaneous plot points. In the fish tank, the latest plan to get out has failed, and the evil Darla has arrived to take Nemo. However, Nemo decides he’ll have none of it, and pretends to be dead so that she will flush him away to the sea. Meanwhile, Marlin has made it to Sydney and connected with a pelican who can take him directly to his son. Both of these things happen roughly 78% into the film.
- The second plot point falls very late in Taken, at 84%. It’s the moment when he’s penetrated the trafficking ring and sees his daughter for the first time. She’s behind glass, being auctioned to the highest bidder. He controls who buys her, which starts the final push to get her back.
- In The Martian, the second plot point occurs at 86%, when Watney takes off from Mars to rendezvous with the Hermes. Even though it’s Watney taking off, story control is still in the hands of those working toward his rescue; quite literally, since one of the other crew members will be piloting the launch vehicle. From this point forward, the focus will be on making this rendezvous happen successfully.
- Wonder Woman is interesting, because it has a false climax at the 80% point, when Diana kills the man she believes is Ares. However, it turns out that this wasn’t him. The true identity of Ares is revealed at 84%, leading to the final boss battle.
Climax. This is the point near the end when the main character either reaches the story goal or fails utterly. It is followed by the denouement, which shows how the character’s world has been changed as a result of the events in the story. In these films the climax happens at an average of 94%.
- The two stories in Finding Nemo come back together when father and son reconnect at 92% of the film. They have both reached their goals. The film ends when we see that the father is now less protective, encouraging his son to have adventures.
- The climax in Taken occurs when the father finally kills the ultimate bad guy and he and his daughter embrace. After that, we see them return to the US, and see the father cement his daughter’s love by introducing her to a pop star who will further her dream to become a singer.
- Mark Watney finally gets into the Hermes at the 95% point in The Martian. Although they’ve mentioned several times how long the journey back to Earth will be and how dangerous space flight is, once Mark is aboard they cut to showing him teaching at NASA, allowing others to learn from his experience.
- Diana finally defeats Ares at the 97% point in Wonder Woman. After that, we see that war is starting to lose its power. We return to the present day, where Diana is still engaged in the world, fighting for peace.
What I learned
- Structure is important to story. The people making these films didn’t follow a consistent pattern out of some devotion to a theoretical ideal. They did it to make their story compelling.
- Structure is flexible. A simple template could easily accommodate the different kinds of stories these films set out to tell.
- Structure can help me develop my story. I started out plotting my book following this template, but lost that thread in revisions. I’m now going back to make sure milestones still fall where they should.
- Structure is interesting. I really enjoyed taking these movies apart to see how they tick.
I recommend similar exercises to everyone who writes. When you watch a movie, set a timer for 25% of the length of the movie. When it goes off, reset it. Each time, note the events happening at that point in the movie to see if you find this pattern. I’ve also been known, when reading a new book, to count pages and put sticky notes at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks and watch for the same thing. I used to worry that it would reduce my enjoyment of the movie or the book, but that hasn’t happened. It’s like an actor watching a play or a musician listening to a concert, noticing the skillful techniques the performers are using. This doesn’t make it boring. It deepens the experience.
How has structure informed your own writing? Have you found a structural system that works well for you?