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.
IF I don’t manage to write a brilliant novel, there is no telling what I might do.
Got your attention? Good, that was my aim. Have no fear, despite dwelling in my fair share of writer’s angst, I am not about to throw myself in front of a bus, I am only imparting more of what I am discovering about how to tell good stories, and, if you’re still reading, my first line seems to have snagged you.
Many years ago while at ARTTS International media college, television producer John Sichel sat and imparted some basics about writing, tips he’d picked-up working in the trenches of the BBC.
The one thing I recall vividly was John’s demonstration of what he called the ‘shit, click’ moment.
Leaning back in his chair, he mimed a remote control in one hand, turned on an imaginary television, and made us feel we were in the living room with him, about to sit down in front of the ‘next big thing’ on the box.
Only the opening scene of the program wasn’t that great, and John said “shit” as he “clicked” over to another channel.
His improvisation imagined a writer failing to engage their audience.
In storytelling parlance, the antidote to the ‘shit, click’ moment is called a narrative hook. Good use of the classic five-part dramatic structure is all very well, but whether writing a novel, a short story, a screenplay, a play, or telling a ghost story around a campfire, your story needs to avoid the ‘shit, click’ moment.
There are endless ways of writing hooks. One of the most often cited is Jane Austen’s opener for Pride and Prejudice – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
In only 23 words, Austen distills for her reader the energy behind every plot point of her best-known and best-loved novel, which continues to engage readers two centuries after its publication. Love her or hate her, Austen knew how to engage readers.
Austen does this by making an assertion which might be interpreted as both a joke and as deadly serious – she buries opposing forces deep within her hook. You might continue to read because you completely disagree with her, or because you’re nodding your head in assent.
In a screenplay, the narrative hook need not be dialogue, in fact in film and television they work far better as a purely visual moment, and can unfold across the entire opening scene.
Action movies and thrillers make great use of the narrative hook, indeed the example we were shown at college was the 1987 film Robocop (screenplay by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner), the opening scene of which shows a semi-futuristic board meeting at which a prototype robot designed to police the streets is shown to a group of unwitting execs in suits (warning: the scene contains graphic violence).
The unit is revealed as both aggressive and docile when it is ordered to be, but when the confident designer hands one of the execs a gun and asks him to wield it at the robot to demonstrate its police skills, things go horribly wrong and the exec is slain mercilessly by the prototype in moments of sheer terror.
I was instantly hooked, because I needed to know where that story went after such a scene of corporate horror.
Another excellent reason for having a great narrative hook is when submitting work for consideration. So often a publisher will want to see only the first few chapters, or an agent requests the first ten pages of a script for consideration.
If there is no narrative hook in those brief pages, the publisher or agent may not find what they are looking for, which is access to an entertained readership or audience. They need to make sales, not friends. Even if your novel or script has great material in part three of its narrative structure, they’ll probably only see your idea as a dud.
WHEN Hal McElroy, one of Australia’s most prolific film producers, read the play script The Sum of Us by David Stevens, he described it as “absolutely irresistible” – the two words every aspiring playwright wants to hear from a producer after just one read.
The desire to create a film of Stevens’ script was so firmly implanted that it took only four years to bring the work to the screen as one of the iconic Australian films of the 1990s.
With flashbacks that shed light on the family which is the centre of the story, and regular breaking of the ‘fourth wall‘ (the imaginary barrier between a character and their audience), The Sum of Us presents as a less linear story than my first subject, and great fodder to observe how another writer might have bent ‘the rules’ in interesting ways.
Here’s what I found … beware, there are spoilers.
Exposition – “He hasn’t been this excited for ages”
The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.
At the age of 24 Jeff Mitchell remembers his grandmother fondly as a woman with boundless love and energy for her grandchildren. He’s a plumber who lives in suburban Sydney with his widowed father Harry, a ferry captain. Jeff (the protagonist) is getting ready to go out, with the strong chance of meeting that someone special at the pub that night. In the most loving, accepting manner, it’s Harry (the antagonist) who spills the beans that his son’s ‘someone special’ will be a man, not a woman. The call to action is Jeff’s memory of his grandmother’s great love for her partner, Mary; posing the big question: How did this obviously straight, typical Australian father become so accepting of his gay son?
Rising Action – “How can you be too bloody domestic?”
The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.
On his way to meet Greg, a gardener, at the local gay-friendly pub, Jeff reminds the audience that his Grandmother was a lesbian in a very long-term relationship with his “Aunt Mary”. Their kind of love is something he aspires to. Harry, meanwhile, calls Joyce, whom he met through a dating agency, and arranges to meet her for lunch. Jeff and Greg get on like a house on fire and make their way home, but Harry proceeds to make Greg so welcome that a night of passion becomes a scene of domestic normality, the likes of which Greg, with his homophobic father, has never experienced. Jeff’s date is ruined by his well-meaning but overbearing Dad.
Climax – “If only you’d been honest”
The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.
Harry and Joyce’s relationship develops so easily it puts Jeff and Greg’s false start into sharp perspective. Jeff is staying at home, depressed. Harry reveals his relationship with Joyce and declares he will marry her only if she and his son get on, although he has not yet told her that Jeff is gay. Jeff is thrilled for his father, but when Joyce visits, she innocently stumbles across the gay magazines Harry bought for Jeff, is affronted by the presence of homosexuality in the family she was seriously considering becoming a part of, and leaves. As the city celebrates New Years Eve, a deeply disappointed Harry has a stroke while watching the fireworks from the porch.
Falling Action – “I didn’t have the guts”
The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.
When Harry wakes up in hospital, Jeff is there to comfort him, and immediately steps up to the plate as his father’s primary carer. Greg, meanwhile, gets thrown out of home for participating in Sydney’s Gay Mardi Gras. Despite being neutralised by his inability to speak or walk, Harry causes a scene at the supermarket in order that Jeff and Greg meet again. Joyce comes to visit Harry at home, and is confronted by the love the Mitchell family have for one another, and she leaves, acknowledging to herself that she has missed out on sharing in it. Harry ponders what it is to lose love, once it has been made.
Dénouement – “How do you say thankyou for love?”
The dénouement (“to untie”) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.
Reminiscing on the core love of his family, Harry recalls the day that he and his brother separated his mother and her long-term partner Mary, in their old age, wondering what they would have said to one another the night before they knew they would never see one another ever again. On a day trip to the botanic gardens, Harry notices Greg is working there, and ensures the two men meet yet again. Jeff and Greg talk. Both men have been set free from the expectations and fears of their fathers, and there is a great sense that they’ll continue growing the love of the Mitchell family together
Picking the antagonist and protagonist in this screenplay was difficult – most of the characters are affable and it was hard to position one of them as an anti-hero. But it is Harry Mitchell, Jeff’s father, who unwittingly places the obstacles in the way of his son’s happiness, by being so very keen for his son to experience the joys of love as he defines it.
Jeff is not a classic protagonist either – in the climax he remains almost neutral and does not seem to ‘do battle’ with his father in the relationship stakes. This is because ‘the battle’ is a lot deeper in this plot than usual.
This is a story about relationships in the one family – there is Gran and Mary, separated tragically after forty years; there is Harry and Joyce, trying to rebuild love after losing it to death and divorce; and there is Jeff and Greg, attempting to start a relationship from scratch under conditions that are not favourable.
But these moments of guilt and inspiration are played-out through the father-son relationship of Jeff and Harry, and it’s the lessons that Gran taught these men which make the flashbacks in the script essential (especially the placement of Jeff’s boyhood recollection of Gran and Mary’s love right in the exposition), because they ultimately see Jeff and Harry through their own battle.
And it’s that discovery which answers the big question posed in the Exposition: it was Gran Mitchell’s courageous love that caused her son Harry to accept his son so unconditionally, and made him capable of taking emotional risks out of love for his son.