SOME call it the mid-point, some the climax, others the reversal of fortune. Whatever you label it, what every great storyline needs is a point of no return.
As writers, we need to take our protagonists and antagonists, and place them in an environment where nothing is the same as it was at the start of the story.
Seeing how they fare in the aftermath makes for gripping storytelling.
In the film Gone With the Wind (1939) screenwriter Sidney Howard (and an uncredited team of extra writers) used the same mid-point as the original novel’s author, Margaret Mitchell, in the scene where the southern city of Atlanta is burnt to the ground.
Filmed almost two months before principal photography began, and long before famous names were cast as the leads, the scene was shot when the old sets of the 1930s King Kong movie were sent up in flames. Such was the need for a spectacular climax to this epic story of the American Civil War.
In the wake of their escape from the city, no character in this story is the same – their world has turned upside down.
The formerly privileged Scarlett O’Hara needs to eke out an existence in the ruins of the war, and it is her climb back to wealth which occupies the central storyline from that point on.
In the original Star Wars (1977), Luke Skywalker is unwilling to leave his home planet Tatooine and travel with Obi-Wan Kenobi to support the rebel forces in their quest to overthrow Darth Vader and the Empire, that is, until he returns home to find that Imperial stormtroopers have killed his remaining family.
In one of this weighty science fiction franchise’s few moments of real pathos, Luke realises there is nothing for him at home anymore. His life will never be the same again, so he has nothing to lose in embarking on an interplanetary journey with powerful strangers.
And in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, self-doubt and hesitation become all too real in Shakespeare’s brilliant climax, when the tortured young prince lashes out at a silent observer behind a curtain, running it through with his sword, only to kill the earnest old courtier Polonius.
This grave error sets a tragic course for the rest of the play, and, after so much angst and inaction, is a devastating action which seals the fate of all the characters.
In a sense, attempting to write anything without a climax is always going to result in unresolved issues in a plot. Without the crucial mid-point, our protagonists remain untested and static.
The term ‘mid-point’ is often used for this moment because a climax should generally occur in the midst of proceedings, after the characters have been established in the audiences’ or readers’ minds, once we’ve formed opinions and loyalties about them, and experienced their pathways ignited by the ‘rising action’ of the plot.
Place a climax too early, and we risk having nowhere to go in a storyline. Place it too late, and we risk losing the interest of the audience or reader.
A point of no return need not be some sudden sequence where our characters survive a nuclear event (although action movies regularly place their protagonists in such external extremes, to great effect), it could be an internal crisis – an upsetting diagnosis, a letter containing bad news, or a guilty verdict in the dock.
Burn your character’s bridges, cast them loose in undiscovered country, and record their responses to the shock. It can feel cruel, especially if you’ve travelled with them for some time, but go on, it’s make believe after all, and if the point of no return unsettles you, it’s bound to make your audience feel something too.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.
An extract from Write, Regardless!