Vanishing point

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I once accidentally got involved in a discussion/argument about the midpoint of Back to the Future.

It was one of those pointless online scriptwriting debates where lots of people who’ve never sold scripts harangue each other for not following rules laid down by other people who have also never sold scripts and have instead taken to writing books about how people can achieve successful writing careers by following the advice which didn’t work for them.

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For some reason (call it capricious youth, call it naivety, call it shit-stirring) I chipped in with my opinion:

The midpoint in Back to the Future is when Doc Brown points at the audience and says “We’re sending you back to the future.” The reason I think that’s the midpoint is because that’s where the intermission was in the cinema … so it’s probably roughly halfway through.

I got called a lot of names.

Actually, I don’t think I did. I think people just disagreed … but that doesn’t sound as interesting as the version where everyone except me is an idiot. Despite the precise opposite being true in almost every case.

Some people thought the midpoint came a few sentences later when the characters realise Marty’s past is disappearing.

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Others thought it was at the end of the scene when Marty accidentally outshines George in the town square/skateboard bit.

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Others still thought it was later on again, when Marty fails to get Lorraine interested in George and they come up with the new plan to get them to kiss on the dance floor.

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Yet more people thought it was when Marty threatened to melt George’s brain.

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One or two even thought it was earlier when Marty finally managed to persuade Doc to listen to him. An upbeat midpoint.

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I believe there was even one lone voice who insisted (quite vocally, possibly in ALL CAPS) that the midpoint comes when Doc realises it’s impossible to generate the 1.21 gigawatts needed for time travel.

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At the time I remember distinctly not caring.

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But it’s been playing on my mind ever since.

Well, not ever since. Occasionally. When I’ve got nothing better to do. Or when I have got better things to do and don’t want to do them.

It’s not that I think I was right (which is weird – I always think I’m right) and don’t get me wrong, I still don’t care … but my not caring has become the point. For me.

I don’t think these points should be points. I don’t really like having a specific frame of film I can point at and go “Aha! That’s the inciting incident!”

Or the midpoint or the ‘all is lost’ moment or … you know, stuff.

Apart from those times where the midpoint is a twist or shock reveal which throws the film onto a completely different path … I think these story points should be kind of smeared out.

To me, a midpoint isn’t point, it’s curve. It’s where the story changes trajectory because sustaining the pursuit of one goal for the entire second act is a tricky thing to do.

Something happens which either knocks the protagonist off course or changes their goals. Or introduces a new goal they have to accomplish before they can achieve their original one.

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Sometimes these are instant, right-angle changes … but more often than not they’re a slight change of course. Sort of heading towards the original goal but on a tangential path. Or maybe a parallel one?

A single event may initiate that course correction but more often than not several things have to happen to push the protagonist onto the new course. The curved path between course A and course B is a constant state of change during which the protagonist tries to stay on course A like a satnav refusing to accept the driver is trying to avoid the A259 … before finally (and grumpily. I’m sure my satnav gets the hump) accepting the new route home.

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In other words, it’s not an obvious text-book point. It’s a gentle, organic change from one state of play to another. The midpoint I scribbled on an index card at the beginning of the process becomes a scene or a sequence, smearing the point out over several pages of script.

I kind of see that as my job, to make clear and identifiable points and then hide them in the flesh of the piece. The changes should feel surprising but also inevitable. They should feel like there was no other way for that change to happen … but not stand out as a plot point we were aiming to hit precisely on page 55.

I like my stories to have smooth transitions from one act to another rather than sharp and spiky points which flag themselves as screenwriting 101.

Except when I don’t.

Sometimes that shock twist or reveal is the best thing for the story. I guess each story defines its own type of plot points.

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So in the case of Back to the Future – who was right? Where is the midpoint?

Well … all of the above. Surely? All of those things contribute to a change of direction and a new goal for the character. All of those things happen somewhere in the middle and the fact no one can agree on which one is THE one is kind of the point.

At least I think it is anyway.

Bullshit or not?

I don’t know how to end this post, so I’ll end it on a largely unconnected anecdote. My six-year-old daughter watched all three Back to the Futures on consecutive weekends. During the third film, Doc Brown tells Marty to take the time machine back to 1985 and dismantle it. My daughter made me stop the film and demanded to know why he wanted the time machine destroyed?

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“Well,” says I, “you remember in the second film when Biff got hold of the time machine? He changed everything didn’t he? He made it all bad and Doc doesn’t want that to happen again.”

My daughter thought that was silly:

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“He doesn’t have to destroy it though, does he? Why doesn’t he just put a lock on it? It could be an electric lock with a voice thing so you have to say ‘Hello, this is Doc’ or ‘Hello, this is Marty’ and the door would open. But if you didn’t say it then it would electrocute you and kill you.”

Which, as points go, is a damned fine one … and one I wish I’d thought of.

A bit like this watch:

I’m going to stop now. Choco-delirium has set in.

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Categories: Bored, Industry Musings, My Way, Random Witterings, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Vanishing point

  1. At the risk of over-simplifying, I’ve always thought the writing-by-numbers idea was cruel and soulless. A bit like Hollywood saying “This is a sad bit! Give the lead character cancer! And his dog dies! And that kid he made friends with is hit by the car he fixed and sold to his best friend who’s now a drug dealer! SAD SAD SAD!”
    There may be a good set of points that lay out the mechanics of a fine screenplay, but you shouldn’t be able to see them in the final movie, because you should be caught up in the story. You may be caught up in the story because all those points are there in the right places, but they shouldn’t stand out like signposts…

  2. Pingback: 2015 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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