Two Halves of a Story

Study any movie and you’ll find that it easily divides itself into two halves. In the first half, roughly 60 minutes in a two hour movie, the hero pursues a goal and seems to achieve it. In the second half of the story, the hero runs into a constant stream of bad luck and obstacles that threaten to push the hero into a far worse life than when he or she began.

Watch any good two hour movie and wait until you get to the 60 minute mark. That’s when the hero typically achieves a physical goal. In “Captain Fantastic,” the hero wants to attend his wife’s funeral although his father-in-law insists that he stay away. By the 60 minute mark, the hero shows up at the funeral so he achieves his goal. However, now for the next 60 minutes, the hero’s life starts completely falling apart.

First, his father-in-law has him thrown out of the funeral. Second, his father-in-law has the hero’s wife buried in a cemetery against her wishes as stated in her will. Third, the hero’s own children start rebelling against the hero and feeling like he’s ruined their lives. The first half of every story is all about pursuing a physical goal, but the second half of every story is all about trying to become a better person emotionally.

In the second half of “Captain Fantastic,” the father-in-law gains custody of the hero’s children and the hero is isolated and alone. The whole point of the second half of any story is to keep driving the hero’s life down while making the villain appear victorious to the point where the hero gets completely isolated and appears defeated.

Then the hero gets outside help from a mentor to help him or her finally change and become a better person by defeating the villain. In “Captain Fantastic,” this occurs when the hero’s children return to him and help him bury his wife in the way she wanted.

The first half of every story is always fairly straightforward. The hero has a goal and sets out to pursue it. The second half of every story is always full of complications. The villain takes control and the hero struggles just to stay alive until the villain appears on the verge of victory and the hero appears completely defeated.

In “Star Wars,” Luke’s goal in the first half of the story is simply to get off his boring planet and he finally does that by the 60 minute mark when he flies away in the Millennium Falcon. In the second half of the story, he fails to get to Princess Leia’s planet because Darth Vader has blown it up. Then to make matters worse, Luke gets captured by the Death Star and has to find a way to escape.

In “Back to the Future,” the hero has a goal to find Doc so he can get back to his own time. That goal is pretty straightforward. The second half for the story deals with complications where the hero has to get his mother and father to meet so he’ll be born, and then get back to his own time to save Doc from getting killed by the terrorists.

When writing your own story, identify two things about the hero. First, identify an emotional problem that the hero needs to overcome that he or she likely isn’t even aware of. Second, identify a physical goal for the hero to achieve.

By the 60 minute, halfway mark, the hero will achieve this physical goal (a False victory). From that point on, the hero must struggle and get beaten down until he or she changes to embrace the theme. Only then can the hero achieve the emotional goal that he or she wasn’t even aware of in the first place.

In “Back to the Future,” the hero’s physical goal is to get back to his own time. However his emotional goal is to believe in himself. By believing in himself, he also helps change his family for the better.

Your hero also has an emotional problem to overcome, but to get to that emotional problem, the hero must first pursue and achieve a physical goal. Divide your story in half like this:

  • In the beginning, your hero has an emotional goal and gets a chance to pursue a physical goal that he or she thinks will solve the emotional goal (but it won’t). Halfway, the hero achieves the physical goal.
  • Suddenly, the hero’s life starts falling apart until he or she is completely isolated. Finally, the hero changes to defeat the villain.

By structuring your story ahead of time, you’ll know where your story is going before you start writing. Screenwriting requires every word to be crucial to telling your story so you don’t have time to waste like novelists can do. By focusing on the two halves of your story, you can keep your story focused and on track.

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One thought on “Two Halves of a Story

  1. Haydon says:

    This is gold! Keep up the great posts.

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