Every great second act has a midpoint. In this instant something happens that ratchets our entire story to a higher level. The stakes go up, way up.

“But if Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for me … then I’ll kill them both.”

Characters whom we thought we understood must suddenly be viewed in an entirely different, and far more serious, manner. The story upshifts. Every relationship in the narrative alters. Until this moment, we had thought the drama was about “X.” At once we understand it’s about “X squared.”

MICHAEL

They want to have a meeting with me, right? It’ll be me, McCluskey and Sollozzo. Let’s set the meeting. Get our informers to find out where it’s going to be held. Now we insist it’s a public place, a bar, a restaurant, some place where there’s people so I feel safe. They’re going to search me when I first meet them, right? So I can’t have a weapon on me then. But if Clemenza can figure a way to have a weapon planted there for me … then I’ll kill them both.

This speech from Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the midpoint of The Godfather. If it ain’t Shakespeare, it’s pretty damn close.

Consider what happens in this moment.

Up to this juncture in the story, Michael has been at best a minor helper in the emergency that is engulfing the Corleone family. His quick thinking has saved his father the Don (Marlon Brando) at the hospital, but otherwise his brother Sonny (James Caan) and the capos have tried to protect Michael and keep him out of the central action. Recall that, at this point in the story, Michael is still in essence a civilian—a Marine Corps captain freshly home from WWII, with an innocent, non-family fiancee, Kate (Diane Keaton), with whom he intends to make a life outside of the Mob and its business.

That’s how we—and all the characters in the movie—perceive Michael at the start of this scene.

By the scene’s finish, sixty seconds later, every assumption has been overturned. We realize that Michael is the hero of this drama. The Godfather is his story, not the Don’s, and he will turn out to be the rightful (and only possible) heir to his father’s empire.

Director Francis Ford Coppolla shoots this speech in one slow “move-in.” Where does he position Michael? Not on a sofa or standing or sitting in a common chair.

Michael sits in the Don’s chair. The camera pushes in … in … in until the frame contains nothing but Michael as he pronounces, “Then I’ll kill them both.”

When you and I as writers enter the Belly of the Beast of our Second Act, we need to know what that “Michael moment” is for our story.

We have to ask ourselves,

What must happen in my story that will raise the stakes dramatically, change the dynamics between all my principal characters, and make the drama suddenly become about a deeper, more profound version of the conflict as I’ve presented it so far?

Knowing we must have a midpoint—and what changes that midpoint must deliver—will help us enormously when we encounter the despair of Act Two, the writer’s struggle as she enters the Belly of the Beast.

 

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

14 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on January 29, 2020 at 5:56 am

    I guess this might be squeezed into the archetype of “the hero’s journey” (ie, “We realize Michael is the hero of this drama”). He’s in his ordinary world (not mobbed up), has some resistance or refusal of the call (intent on living a life outside of the bounds of crime), and then crosses a “boundary threshold” (stepping up to take out McCluskey and Sollozzo), which takes him out of the ordinary world into the extraordinary. Not sure who fits the role of Yoda, but it seems to fit as far as this goes.

  2. Kent Faver on January 29, 2020 at 8:06 am

    Profound analysis Steve. And, let’s not forget – we felt sorry for young, clean Michael when McCluskey taunted him, bullied him, and then broke his jaw. No way Michael had that moment in him, or did he?

  3. Chuck DeBettignies on January 29, 2020 at 8:13 am

    I must confess… that these blog posts on the highlight of my Wednesdays.
    It’s just so fascinating how we can use the “heroes journey” to put a structure, a framework, to the muscle of our message. And when we do, it becomes compelling and memorable as it connects with people at the deepest levels. Is just so fascinating how this can be done deliberately and intentionally.
    Thank you Steven for this and all your work!

    • Bill on January 29, 2020 at 1:27 pm

      The highlight of my Wednesdays too!

  4. Marie on January 29, 2020 at 8:27 am

    And to think there are people who have a low opinion of this movie when it has held up well over time and contains numerous storytelling lessons.

  5. Mary Doyle on January 29, 2020 at 8:28 am

    Thanks for this, and for once again mining gold from The Godfather!

  6. Bob vanderMark on January 29, 2020 at 8:42 am

    I wonder if for a songwriter, “the bridge” of the song could be thought of in the same way (as Act II).
    As an example, think about these McCartney lyrics:

    “Try to see it my way,
    Do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?
    While you see it your way,
    Run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone.
    We can work it out,
    We can work it out.”

    Then Lennon added this bridge:

    “Life is very short, and there’s no time
    For fussing and fighting, my friend.
    I have always thought that it’s a crime,
    So I will ask you once again.”

    Wow! To me that takes it to the next level.
    Steve, love your weekly emails. It always make me think.

    -Bob van der Mark
    https://studiocodeblue.com/

  7. Michel DuBil on January 29, 2020 at 10:26 am

    John Vorhaus explains this better than anyone else I’ve encountered. In his book, “The Comic Toolbox”, John writes, “The keyword is loyalty. A character always starts out with loyalty to himself and loyalty to his personal goal.” Generally, that goal is to get laid; that’s why the romantic character is too frequently referred to as the B-Story. However, it’s not so much the romantic character, per se, but what the romantic character represents. When the magical “Monkey Wrench” is thrown, the main character –for the first time- begins to subordinate his allegiance to him self and shifts his loyalty to the prospect or promise of what that other character represents.

    In “Tootsie”, Michael Dorsey stops thinking about getting laid and starts falling in love with Julie. He shifts his loyalty from himself to her. He goes so far as to abandon his (Tootsie) character. Too bad; the Producer won’t let him out.

    In “City Slickers”, Billy Crystal is having a Texas time: ridin and ropin, chompin that chuckwagon cuisine until he falls in love with Norman who is a cow. He shifts his loyalty from entertaining himself to saving the herd.

    In “The Fugitive”, Richard Kimble shifts his loyalty from running (escaping) to hunting for the killer.

    In “Star Wars”, Luke shifts his loyalty from his own self-interest to the cause of the Rebel Alliance.

    And herein “The Godfather”, Michael Corleone stops thinking about himself and starts thinking about the Family. He shifts his loyalty from his wife and her aspirations to the Family and its aspirations.

    In every good story, the midpoint represents a shift in loyalty –generally from the main character’s hedonism (that’s the A-Story) to another’s more noble cause (that’s the B-Story).

    • Augustina on January 29, 2020 at 11:13 am

      You wrote that the romantic character was in the B story.

      • Micke D on January 31, 2020 at 11:30 am

        Looking over what I wrote, I cannot find where I said that. I said, the romantic character usually represents the B-Story; ie: the “Girl” possesses that quality which the main character needs to learn. These are movie references. I apologize for that. The post began with analysis of “The Godfather;” that refers to the movie; so I followed suit. Look at every movie ever made -from “Casablanca” to “Avatar”- and this pattern appears. Western movies are generally written so the dumb man learns from the smart woman. Wow!

  8. Renita on January 29, 2020 at 11:47 am

    “In every good story the midpoint represents a shift in loyalty”
    . I can see that in Pride and Prejudice when Lizzy reads Darcy’s Letter.
    However, in a murder mystery like Agatha Christie’s “A Pocket Full of Rye” nothing of the sort occurs that I can see. It’s a different genre. There is a murder. Miss Marple’s goal is to solve the murder. The detective finds himself in a maze. More murders. More threads.
    The dissonance is carefully increased by degrees. Note by note. Complexity builds. It’s an orchestrated symphony.
    I suppose one might say Miss Marple is an arbiter of justice or angel of vengeance. The murder gets her in the game. Maybe due to their lack of violent changes those are old-fashioned cozy stories. The tone doesn’t really change. And if we think the stakes are up, they aren’t either. Miss Marple says the murderer has finished his killing. The point of the mystery seems to be the value of justice.

    • Micke D on January 31, 2020 at 11:48 am

      Hey, Renita. You’ve challenged me to read Agatha Christie. As a Student of Dramatica Theory of Story, I am encouraged to believe the shift occurs. I don’t know how, but I want to report my findings to you.
      Sometimes, it’s hard to see, especially if there is no physical “woman” involved. Dramatica counsels: the character can be represented by an idea (freedom) or an inert object (the McGuffin). In my favorite novel, “Catch-22”, John Yossarian shifts his loyalty from himself TO himself. In the first half of the book, he plays defence: merely pranking the administration. In the second half -after discovering his mortality -he goes on the offense: he’s going to force them to discharge him. The second half of the story begins on the first page of the book. Fascinating.

  9. Veleka on January 29, 2020 at 11:08 pm

    Thank you, Steve. I suddenly saw how this works in one of my favorite movies, and now I can detect it in others. YEA!!!

  10. slitherio on February 18, 2020 at 12:36 am

    The story upshifts. Every relationship in the narrative alters.

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