Part 4 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
“How can I fix the saggy middle of my story?”
I love it when writers ask me that.
Why? Because the answer is so incredibly juicy–and it all revolves around the Moment of Truth that needs to occur at every story’s Midpoint.
The Second Act—that longest of all the acts, spanning a full 50% from the 25% to the 75% marks—is largely misunderstood. The setup of the First Act and the Climax of the Third Act are pretty self-explanatory. But what’s supposed to happen in between? How can you come up with enough story to entertainingly fill up such a huge chunk of the book?
The short answer is: structure.
There are more important structural moments in the Second Act than anywhere else in the story. If you’re aware of how to use the First Plot Point, First Pinch Point, Midpoint, Second Pinch Point, and Third Plot Point, you’ll never lack for forward impetus in your story’s hard-working Second Act.
Today, we’re going to take a look at what is, arguably, the most important of these structural turning points—the Midpoint and its Moment of Truth. (Click here for more info on structure in general, here for more info on the Second Act in general, and here for more info on the pinch points.)
The #1 Reason Thor Works Despite Its Problems
Welcome to Part 4 of our ongoing series exploring what Marvel has done right (and sometimes wrong) in their cinematic universe. I debated whether or not to focus Thor‘s post on a “do” or a “don’t” of storytelling.
This is far from a perfect movie.
- The pacing is wonky: sometimes rushed, sometimes lagging.
- The antagonist—the ever-charismatic Loki—is relatively absent from the protagonist’s main conflict for most of the story, and he fails to provide solid pinch points.
- The parallel worlds of Asgard and Earth are never balanced well in the presentation of scenes.
In a lot of ways, it feels like a “small” movie, despite its obviously epic and interstellar stakes. Some people complained that the romance between Thor and scientist Jane Foster was given too much emphasis. Personally, I loved Natalie Portman in this role and thought she was a highlight of the entire movie—but I don’t disagree because, ultimately, the greatest problem with both this movie and its sequel Dark World is that it has a muddy thematic focus. What these movies are really about is family, and Jane, however adorable she may be, keeps getting in the way of that.
In short, we’d have to objectively say the script and its execution are pretty choppy. And yet I still really like this movie. For one thing, it was the movie where the whole cinematic vision of the Avengers throughline really gelled for me and started getting exciting. I thought the Earthside humor was charming. And, of course, it gets full credit for introducing the single most loved and interesting villain in the entire series.
However, at the end of the day, the reason I like this movie—and the reason I decided to focus on its good qualities instead of its weaknesses—is because I love its heart. I love its character arc (however rushed). I love the transformation of the protagonist from arrogant, self-centered war-monger to humbled, self-sacrificing, crown-worthy hero.
And most of all I love the Moment of Truth at the story’s center.
What Is the Moment of Truth?
The Midpoint is your story’s second major plot point. It occurs, as its name suggests, smack in the middle of the story. It divides both the Second Act and the entire book into two distinct halves. The first half of the book is all about the character’s reaction to the conflict; the second half is all about his ability to take action in light of a revelation he experienced.
That revelation is the single most important job of your story’s Midpoint. It is the Moment of Truth, and it is comprised of two different layers—one pertaining to the plot and the other pertaining to the character arc.
Layer #1: The Plot Revelation
Within the exterior conflict of your story’s plot, your protagonist is going to reach a game-changing revelation at the Midpoint. This revelation pertains directly to his exterior conflict with the antagonist. He desires a goal, and the antagonist has been throwing up obstacle after obstacle throughout the first half of the story. The antagonist has been squarely in control of the conflict, and the protagonist has had little choice but to remain in a reactive role.
Now, thanks to this Midpoint revelation, the protagonist suddenly sees the nature of the conflict much more clearly. He learns the true nature of both the conflict and the antagonistic force. He gains important info that will allow him to finally start taking control of the external conflict—thus allowing him to phase out of reaction and into action in the second half of the story. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier offers a great plot-based Moment of Truth, which I talked about in this article.)
Layer #2: The Character Revelation
Even as your character has been navigating the story’s external conflict throughout the first half of the story, his internal conflict has been closely mirroring, affecting, and being affected by the external plot. When he reaches the plot-centric Moment of Truth at the Midpoint (which grants him important new information about the nature of the external conflict), he also reaches an all-important personal Moment of Truth.
Remember, character arcs are founded on the protagonist’s inner battle between the story’s Lie and Truth. Throughout the first half of the story, he has been learning to see, more and more clearly, the nature of his Lie and that, indeed, it is a Lie.
The Midpoint is where he finally sees the Truth. He still has a long way to go until he’ll be able to fully claim that Truth by surrendering to it and acting upon it. But the Midpoint is where something happens to him that’s so dramatic, it prompts a shift in his personal allegiance—away from the Lie and toward the Truth.
How a Good Moment of Truth Transforms Your Story
Some stories will require a different Moment of Truth for both aspects of the Midpoint mentioned above. Often, one aspect’s revelation will lead right into the other. Other stories, however, will be able to harmonize plot and character into a single Moment of Truth.
Thor is such a story.
Thor’s Lie is that he is a worthy leader simply by right of birth and personal power.
His story is that of growing into an awareness that true worthiness is instead based on personal merit—humility, foresight, love, and self-sacrifice. Worthiness is something that must be earned. Despite getting boxed around by his Lie (in essence, “punished” for believing in it) throughout the first half of the story, he does not come face to face with that Truth until the Midpoint.
After using his old Lie-based methods to batter his way through SHIELD’s defenses on his way to reclaim his hammer Mjolnir and his Asgardian powers, he discovers he can’t so much as much lift his own hammer. He doesn’t know his father enchanted the hammer so that only “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.”
Thor is not worthy. That realization changes everything. It rocks his world. It undermines everything he has believed about himself, about others, and indeed about the universe. It forces him to reconsider his old belief—the Lie—in exchange for a new paradigm. As Dr. Selvig tells him after rescuing him from SHIELD, “It’s not a bad thing finding out that you don’t have all the answers. You start asking the right questions.”
Boom. Moment of Truth. Right between da eyes.
3 Questions for Planning Your Story’s Moment of Truth
What should your story’s Moment of Truth be? The answer depends on three factors:
1. What’s Your Protagonist’s Truth?
Can’t have a Moment of Truth without first knowing what that Truth is, right?
Naturally, the Moment of Truth cannot live in isolation. It is a product of everything that has come before it in the first half of the story, just as it is the catalyst for everything to follow. You can’t just shoehorn in any ol’ Truth. It has to be the Truth your protagonist requires in order to overcome the Lie he’s been carrying around since Page 1.
So take a look at Page 1. What’s the Lie Your Character Believes? What Truth will he need to overcome that Lie?
2. What Is the Key to Overcoming the Antagonist?
Now consider the plot. What is the one bit of information the protagonist requires in order to transform his understanding of the external conflict and allow him to shift from reacting to the antagonist into taking action?
(Note that Thor’s external conflict is not defeating Loki, but rather returning home. In reaching his Moment of Truth he becomes worthy of the hammer—and thus his ride back to Asgard—even though he doesn’t yet realize it.)
Ideally, both the plot and character revelations should be the same or at least lead organically one into the other. If they’re too disparate from one another, then you need to consider whether or not your plot and theme may be too different from one another to belong in the same story.
3. What Is the Best Visual Representation of Plot and Theme?
Once you understand the Truths your character will come to understand at your Midpoint, you must then create a scene to represent them. Your Midpoint will usually be one of your story’s biggest scenes (in Thor, the fight in SHIELD’s compound is one of the the biggest action setpieces in the movie).
Even though the Moment of Truth will probably be a quiet moment of personal introspection, it should be featured within a huge plot catalyst—one that visually and symbolically represents the Lie and the Truth.
James Scott Bell talks about a “mirror moment,” in which the character must metaphorically look at his own reflection and confront what he sees. In some stories, you can portray this outright, either by having the character literally look at himself in a mirror (e.g., Thor sees his battered appearance in a reflective door after he’s imprisoned by SHIELD), or by providing some other visual reflection of his inner battle (e.g., in Iron Man II, a drunken Tony who is using his suit for dangerous party tricks is confronted by his best friend Rhodey, also in a suit, telling him he’s a disgrace).
Note: this visualization of the “mirror moment” isn’t a must; don’t shoehorn it in. But it can present a nice symbolism if handled well.
Once you understand your story’s Moment of Truth at the Midpoint, you already have your single most powerful tool for crafting, not just an interesting Second Act, but a powerful and resonant character arc, story structure, and theme. Think you’re worthy?
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about one of my all-time favorite examples of subtext-rich dialogue from Captain America: The First Avenger.
Previous Posts in This Series:
- Iron Man: Grab Readers With a Multi-Faceted Characteristic Moment
- The Incredible Hulk: How (Not) to Write Satisfying Action Scenes
- Iron Man II: Use Minor Characters to Flesh Out Your Protagonist