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By Michael Lee · April 29, 2019
What are the most successful plot points that screenwriters can use in their screenplays?
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Every great screenplay tells a strong story within a journey, a challenge, an obstacle to overcome, or an intriguing series of events.
When you look at every genre, these elements are present in various forms. But the one most common and consistent plot point in the opening act is the Inciting Incident. This is what thrusts the protagonist into the main action or conflict of the story.
The video refers to the Inciting Incident as an invitation, a doorway that opens, a kick in the ass, or a last straw.
In Lords of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, this occurs when Bilbo disappears and a ring is left behind.
In John Carpenter’s The Thing, it happens at the very beginning of the film when the wolf runs into the camp.
In Stand By Me, it’s when Vern enters the treehouse and tells the other boys the tale of him overhearing his brother talk about finding the dead body of a missing boy.
You briefly set up the world of your characters and then you present an event that thrusts them into the major conflict of the story.
With The Fellowship of the Ring, the script introduces the history of Middle Earth in relation to the ring and then segues into the introduction of The Shire, including the likes of Frodo and Gandalf, the two lead protagonists of the story. All of this takes up nearly twenty or so minutes before the Inciting Incident is introduced.
But with The Thing, we only get a very brief introduction of the protagonists and their world. Just a few quick visuals of the camp. When the wolf runs towards them and the mysterious Norwegians chase after it, leading to violence, the inhabitants of that arctic camp are thrust into the story.
In Stand By Me, we’re introduced to the characters and their world as we segue from the narrator in his jeep in present time to him and his friends in the 1950s. Within minutes, Vern appears and they are soon committed to the journey ahead to find that dead body.
The First Act Break is where the major conflict fully takes hold and leads us into the second act (or any variation thereof, depending on what structure you align with for your story).
In The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s when Frodo and Sam set off with Gandalf to leave The Shire.
In Stand By Me, it’s the moment the boys first step on the railroad tracks and set off on their adventure.
But the best one featured within the video is the First Act Break for The Matrix. The film opens with a mysterious reveal of a woman who can seemingly bend the laws of physics to escape from strange agents dressed in black. Then the true protagonist of the film wakes up in front of a computer screen. This is Neo (Mr. Anderson), a computer hacker that is told to follow the rabbit to find the hackers he knows as Trinity and Morpheus. He’s lead into this world and is terrified to discover that reality as he knew it is questioned.
But it’s not until he goes to finally meet Morpheus where the First Act Break presents itself in the form of a choice — blue pill or red pill.
These moments catapult the characters into the main conflict or journey that is the second act.
After the First Act Break, the protagonists venture well into the meat of the story. If you subscribe to the three-act structure, this is where the second act unfolds. The characters are off on their physical or emotional journey (preferably both) and come across additional conflicts that are in the way of their main goals.
In Fellowship of the Ring, the Hobbits are well into their journey with Ring Wraiths close behind. They’ve been tasked to take the ring to Rivendell where they think the ring will be safe. They soon learn that it won’t be safe there. The ring must be thrown into the fires of Mount Doom to destroy it once and for all. The actual Fellowship is formed after Frodo takes on the responsibility of throwing the ring into Mount Doom. This is the midpoint of that story.
The video features the film Back to the Future as one of the top Midpoint examples.
While Marty finally convinces the younger Doc in the 1950s that he is from the future, he soon bumps into his parents and changes the timeline, resulting in the realization that because Marty interrupted the meeting of his parents (and thus, the start of their romance that eventually leads to marriage and the birth of Marty and his older siblings) he is now in danger of being wiped from existence.
Now it’s no longer about Marty getting back to the future. It’s about getting his parents to fall in love so he doesn’t disappear from the universe.
The whole story of a screenplay is often pivoted around the Midpoint. This is where things shift and the protagonist has to change his or her approach to how they thought they could accomplish their goal.
The characters have faced multiple conflicts. The Midpoint thrusts them down a different path that they must take, which leads to the worst conflicts they have ever faced. Things are at their worst. But then something occurs — the Second Act Break. This is where they’ve figured some things out and make their final push towards the climax of the story.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, it comes near the end of the film (which is actually the first act of the trilogy) where Frodo realizes that the Fellowship will not last. He must go off on his own.
In Stand By Me, it occurs during the infamous leech scene where the characters must decide whether or not it’s worth it to move ahead.
The Second Act Break launches the story into the third act, much like the First Act Break launches the story into the second act.
The Climax is where everything comes together, leading the protagonist into the final showdown with the major conflict they’ve been battling this whole time.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, the Fellowship finally faces off against the Orc army. This leads to the final push that forces Frodo to go off on his own (with Sam in tow). Since this is technically the First Act Break of the whole three-part Lord of the Rings story, it leads to a cliffhanger of sorts, but there is certainly the closure of the Fellowship as everyone goes off on their own adventures and separate conflicts by the end.
Frodo is left with the task of taking the ring to Mount Doom and Sam refuses to let him go at it alone.
In Stand By Me, the boys have found the body and are ready to take it back, but then Ace and his friends show up and the boys must confront them.
These five plot points aren’t always universal and they can be interpreted in many different ways within many different types of screenplay structures. But there’s no mistaking the fact that they are the most commonly discovered plot points in a majority of great screenplays and great films.
Watch the whole video for more examples and elaboration.
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