Tim Burton's 'Sleepy Hollow' (1999) has a good Mid-Point. Ichabod Crane, a somewhat excessively scientific policeman, is investigating a series of gruesome murders in a remote village. Aided by two friends, a young orphan and a mysterious girl, he finds a gnarled, misshapen tree in the heart of the woods. They watch as the headless horseman bursts through the tree's roots from his underworld lair.
When I first saw the movie, I didn't need to know that it was halfway through at this point. The story had told me so.
The hero had encountered Death. And there was a girl in the vicinity.
The night before I was due to cover story structure in one of my screenwriting courses I happened to catch another film on TV. This was 'The Watcher' (2000). A detective, played by James Spader, has been so psychologically messed up by his failure to catch a serial killer, played in Keanu Reeves, in LA that he has moved to Chicago. But the killer has followed him there.
I didn't see the whole of 'The Watcher'. I still don't know how it ends. But I recognised the Mid-Point. Spader has just been to see his love interest, psychiatrist Marisa Tomei. Leaving the building, he shares a lift (or 'elevator') with the killer. The killer is on his way to meet with the hero's girlfriend.
That's a Mid-Point. The hero has encountered Death. And there's a girl in the vicinity. The cramped confines of the lift (or 'elevator') can be compared with the roots of the Tree of Death in 'Sleepy Hollow'.
Or let's take another one. An idealistic would-be freedom fighter resolves to rescue a beautiful, imperilled princess. With the help of friends he tracks her down to a prison cell, deep in the heart of an artificial planet known as the Death Star. He frees her, and they quickly find themselves inside a garbage chute ... and the walls start closing in.
So - he's ventured into Death's lair. There's a girl in the vicinity. And he's confined.
I often think of the Mid-Point as 'Death and the Maiden'. These are the recurring images which appear at this point in the story.
Returning to the image of the bridge as a metaphor for the hero's progress (see yesterday's post), evidently there is a point, halfway across the bridge, where the hero is at his (or her) most exposed. He (or she) is as far from home as he (or she) is going to be. This is the point-of-no-return. It's exhilarating, standing slapbang in the middle of a bridge. But it's also scary. What if the bridge should fall, or those crossbow-wielding skeletons appear?
Death, of one kind or another, is a necessary part of the hero's journey. The journey undertaken by the hero is essentially the same as the experience of neurosis - 'Thank God he made up his mind to become neurotic!' said C.G. Jung of a patient, knowing that only by succumbing to his neurosis, rather than fighting it, could the patient hope, eventually, to get better. Similarly, initiation rites the world over have instituted a kind of ritual death as the central aspect of their rites of passage.
The hero - the initiate, the neurotic - must descend to their lowest point, deep inside Death's kingdom, if they are to be born again in a new, more advanced incarnation.
Going somewhat deeper into the roots (yes!) of all these stories, the Mid-Point represents the Union of Opposites, the Sacred Marriage in which the opposing principles (male/female, life/death) become fused. Alchemists sought to combine the elements of male and female inside a sealed vessel, believing that what might emerge from this chemical union would be a purer material. In contemporary stories, the opposites collide inside their own sealed vessel (an elevator, a garbage chute) or at the very bottom of the World Tree itself, where Death lives (if you don't believe me, check out the first James Bond movie, 'Dr No': you'll see the World Tree growing right there in the evil doctor's underworld headquarters).
Most stories have a secret, a key, a precious substance which the hero must discover and bring to the light. Sometimes, it is, simply, the girl (or 'love interest'). Other times, it's the answer to the mystery (who on earth has been going round chopping off people's heads?). Although the climax of the story is a long way off, it is, typically, at the Mid-Point that the clue, key, secret or precious substance is found.
So, Ichabod and his friends find Death's lair in the roots of a tree. James Spader shares a lift (or 'elevator') with the serial killer. Luke rescues the Princess and then has to be rescued himself from the garbage crusher. Richard Burton gets the information he needs and then has to escape from Death's dining room in the bowels of an impregnable Nazi castle ('Where Eagles Dare') - and, of course, there's a girl in the vicinity (the delightful Mary Ure).
The Mid-Point shows us the hero at his (or her) very nadir. There will be more challenges to come (the hero's got to get away from this place, for a start) but, in many ways, the greatest ordeal lies at the very centre of the story, halfway through the script.
If you have a screenplay to hand, find the halfway point. See what happens there. (I've just tried it, at random, with 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' - the heroes think their friend has been transformed into a toad for 'fornicating with some whore a Babylon' and they meet the duplicitous Big Dan Teague, who will beat them up beside a big tree and kill their toad. Is there a girl in the vicinity? Well, yes, there's a waitress.)
The Mid-Point should be a major turning point in your screenplay. It's the fulcrum on which the story balances. It's the moment when the hero encounters Death, usually on Death's home ground, and it opens up the mystery at the heart of the story (will the hero solve the problem, overcoming Death in order to enjoy new life, symbolised by the Maiden?)
The Mid-Point will happen. It's part of our storytelling DNA. It's there in the programming. Our subconscious minds tend to let the Mid-Point happen naturally.
But you can make your Mid-Point stronger by knowing that it's there. By preparing for it. By making sure that, when you get to the heart of your script, the midway moment, you've got Death, Death's lair, and a Maiden handy.
We should be able to spot a Mid-Point at five hundred yards. The symbolism seldom changes. Its importance to the hero's story is paramount.
Make sure yours is a good one.