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Navigating Obstacles: Plot Point Power

By Michael Schilf · November 27, 2010

Now when it comes to steering your screenplay ship, you must know how to navigate the obstacles your character faces between the major plot points, so like any mariner, you need a map. I suggest using the eight-sequence structure as a general guide.

Obviously, obstacles and conflict are present in the first act, but your protagonist is not moving forward toward his or her main objective against the current of the second act tension. Simply put, your character is not yet locked in.

So the first major obstacle that faces your main character as he or she begins the journey through the second act tension happens early in sequence three, right after the character is locked in at the end of Act One. This conflict raises the stakes of the main tension, and when your protagonist overcomes this first major obstacle, it’s time to begin sequence four where he or she will then be confronted with a higher obstacle, which sets in motion more rising action.

The resolution of this higher obstacle occurs at the first culmination (or midpoint). Remember, a resolution wraps things up – positive or negative – for your character(s). And it’s okay if your protagonist reaches a low point half way through the movie.

There are no absolutes to a midpoint being a high or low point for your protagonist, but in most genre films, the end of the film (or final resolution) mirrors the midpoint. So if it’s a rom-com and everyone “lives happily ever after” right before credits role, it’s pretty much the standard for the midpoint to also be a victory for the main characters. The same approach is applied to the horror film, for example, in which everyone dies in the end. Since it’s a tragedy, the midpoint should also be a low point for the characters.

What’s great about this is that it creates an easy template to build obstacles through multiple sequences. When reaching the first culmination (midpoint), the main culmination (end of Act Two), and the final resolution (the film’s end), the basic formula follows either an up, then down, then up progression (as is the case for most rom-coms) or a down, then up, then down pattern (illustrated in the horror example above).

Obviously, there are minor victories and failures along the way, but it’s a great help to know that from the lock in at the end of Act One, you have two full sequences to reach the first culmination, then another two sequences to arrive at the main culmination, and a final two sequences to come to the final resolution.