In my last post, the first in this series of opposites, I discussed the first main set of opposites required for every good story based on the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, that is, the opening image and the final image.
In this post, I’ll discuss three more important opposing pairs, the Thesis World & Antithesis World, the first half of Act II & the second half of Act II, and the Midpoint & All Is Lost moments.
These opposites are so important because they clearly delineate the change taking place in a story, and, after all, that’s exactly what a good story is: a narrative about change over time.
Thesis & Antithesis, or Act I and Act II
If you’re even a little bit familiar with general story structure, you’re likely aware that all stories start out with the protagonist living his life, usually (but not always) a life he or she is unhappy with, and then getting a call to action that propels him or her into a new world or new situation.
This set of opposites is known as the Thesis World and Antithesis World, or Act I and Act II. In Act I, we get the set up of the hero’s world. We learn who they are and what their character flaws are, and we see the catalyst, which is the call to action, that the hero must accept. After actively accepting the call to action, the hero is in Act II, the new world, the upside down world, whatever you want to call it. Either way, it’s the opposite of the Thesis World.
Let’s look at a few examples to understand this better.
Journey to the Center of the Earth
In Journey to the Center of the Earth, we get a pretty clear example of this thesis vs. antithesis opposing pair. The set up in Journey is Professor Liedenbrock preparing for his journey to the center of the Earth, and Act II is Liedenbrock and his nephew exploring said center of the Earth. Adventure stories like this are clear examples of this change from Act I to Act II.
Here the opposing pair is above ground-under ground.
In 1984, we see a similar set up, except the antithesis world is more of an internal change within Winston Smith (though we do explore the parts of the city where the Proles live). When we meet him he is a Party Member, and we learn what his life is like in the highly controlled state of Oceania. He then decides to do a bit of thinking for himself, propelling the story into Act II, which is a more chaotic version of his previous life as he attempts to elude Big Brother, even though he knows that eventually he will be caught.
Here the opposing pair is compliant Party member-rebellious Party member.
The Minority Report
In Minority Report, the set up is the reader learning about John Anderton’s precrime division with his precogs, who can predict a crime before it happens, thus allowing the police to arrest criminals beforehand. The catalyst, or call to action, that leads us into Act II, is when the precogs predict that Anderton himself will commit a crime. This leads us into an upside down, antithesis version of the Thesis World, because Anderton’s systematic world (he established the precrime division) has now seemingly turned on him.
The opposing pair here is Anderton running the precrime division-precrime division turning on Anderton.
As in my previous post, let’s also look at an example from a sci-fi film.
Another Christopher Nolan classic, scored by Hans Zimmer, Interstellar is an incredible film, and if you haven’t seen it yet then quite frankly you haven’t lived.
Act I of Interstellar sets up the characters, Cooper and his family, as well as the fact that extreme weather is threatening humanity’s survival on Earth. Cooper, once a NASA pilot, is now a farmer because food is so scarce. The world is dusty, arid, and hopeless. Of course, Cooper still longs for the stars. The catalyst of Act I is when Cooper and Murphy discover the secret NASA base that plans to find another planet for humans to settle on, since Earth is basically dying.
Act I (and the main dichotomous theme of the film) is perfectly exemplified by Cooper’s lamentful statement in the set up:
“We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
Act II is when Cooper accepts that call to adventure (the mission, of course, is in need of a pilot, what a coincidence!) and goes on the mission to space to find an alternate homeworld. It’s literally the opposite of Act I: earth-space.
If you are interested, there’s a great video on YouTube about how Interstellar is structured perfectly within the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.
First Half of Act II & Second Half of Act II
As you may have guessed by now, a well-structured story has opposing scenes (such as the opening image and final image) and opposing sections. It’s the Inception of storytelling; opposites nested within opposites, right down to the basic unit of a story, the scene, which also has to start out one way and end the opposite way (because all stories are about change).
The first half of Act II and the second half of Act II are also an opposing pair. We’ve met the characters, were introduced to the Thesis world, had the call to action, and now we’re in the Antithesis opposite world. This Antithesis World itself comprises a pair of opposites: its first half and its second half.
The first half of Act II is an introduction to this new world. For a while, things seem to be going well. There are two main beats here, the B Story and the Fun & Games beat, which I won’t get into here, but needless to say, things are going pretty okay for the protagonist in the first half of Act II. Whatever the plan is, it seems to be on track.
In the second half of Act II, things start to go south for the protagonist and his or her team, starting with the Midpoint, which I’ll discuss in more detail below. The second half of Act II comprises the beats Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, and Dark Night of the Soul. Without getting too much into these beats here, basically, things start to go south for the protagonist and his team.
Let’s return to our trusty Interstellar to see this in action.
Interstellar Act II Part I
In the first half of Act II, Cooper, Brand, Romilly, and Doyle start their mission. They go to space, go to sleep for a few months until they reach past Mars, then they wake up and traverse a wormhole in order to get to the first new possible replacement planet. So far so good, everything is on track.
Interstellar Act II Part II
Things then start going south at the Midpoint. When the team lands on the water planet, they are confronted with a tidal wave, Doyle dies, and they lose too much time. Because of the time distortion on that planet caused by its proximity to a blackhole, by the time they get back to the ship, 23 Earth years have passed. At this point we see the famous scene where Cooper is catching up on old messages from his children, crying at the realization that he’s missed so much of their lives. The rest of the second half of Act II shows us things getting worse. The crew arrive at Dr. Mann’s planet, only for him to have gone mad and try to kill them all.
Surviving that, it still seems like their plan will completely fail unless Cooper sacrifices himself to the blackhole so that Brand has a chance of making it to the final possible habitable planet. Going through the blackhole, Cooper finds himself in a tesseract where he’s forced to relive his greatest mistake, leaving his daughter behind.
Any well-structured story will feature this dichotomy: things going according to plan in the first half of Act II, and then things going south in the second half of Act II.
Not all of the books on my list have stuck by good, clear structure, and it’s one of the reasons I haven’t even finished a few of them. It’s also why it seems a bit easier to give examples from movies that I know have a good structure.
Midpoint & All Is Lost
Now let’s look at the Midpoint and All Is Lost beats. In case you’re not familiar with the Beat Sheet, the Midpoint is that part of the story that is exactly the middle, hence the name. But aside from that, it is a really important part of the story that should strongly propel us into the second half of Act II. At the Midpoint, the hero experiences a false victory or a false defeat that makes him known to the villain and raises the stakes of the story. There’s no turning back once the events of the Midpoint happen.
The All Is Lost moment is the opposite of the Midpoint and comes almost at the end of Act II. It’s a moment when we have a false victory or false defeat, depending on what happened at the Midpoint. If the Midpoint was a false victory, All Is Lost is a false defeat. And if the Midpoint was a false defeat, then All Is Lost is a false victory.
This may seem counter-intuitive, All Is Lost sounds like, well, all is lost. But if you look at the really well done movies of our time, you’ll see a lot of this. One example is, of course, Interstellar.
In Interstellar, we see a false defeat at the Midpoint when, as mentioned above, Doyle dies on the water planet and the team loses 23 years of Earth time. There’s no turning back now because they’ve already sacrificed too much and so much time has passed. Since the water planet didn’t turn out to be a good planet to colonize, the crew must continue on to the second option.
This is a false defeat because it’s a temporary setback. It doesn’t mean the end of the plan just yet. The characters must regroup and continue on. In this case, they still need to find another new planet for humans. So they go on to the second option.
Interstellar All Is Lost
Since we had a false defeat at the Midpoint of Interstellar, now we must have a false victory. How can we have a victory at a point called All Is Lost? In Interstellar, Cooper sacrifices himself to help Brand get to the last planet on their list, which will hopefully be able to support human life. This seems like a victory, since he is hopeful his plan will work and that Brand will succeed in reaching and settling on the new planet.
However, this isn’t the end of the story for Cooper. Our protagonist still has to confront his greatest regret, leaving his children, and he must still figure out a way to help Murphy solve the gravity problem so humans can leave Earth. So the victory is only half a victory because Cooper still wants to save his family stuck on Earth. In his view, there’s no point in finding a new homeworld if there’s nobody left to take there.
In looking for a more classic example of the Midpoint being a false victory and All Is Lost being a false defeat, I ended up finding more examples of the counter-intuitive opposite, whereby the Midpoint is a false defeat and the All Is Lost beat is a false victory.
Let’s look at two more sci-fi examples, one clear and one a little trickier..
World War Z Midpoint
World War Z is a roughly two-hour movie, so the Midpoint happens at the one-hour mark. At that point, we see the zombie invasion in Jerusalem, which up till then boasted a large wall that kept the zombies out. However, the zombies become agitated and attracted to the chanting that is going on within the walls and soon scale it no problem. (You might remember that now-famous image.) Jerusalem is completely overwhelmed by zombies, and Jerry, played by Brad Pitt, escapes onto an airplane just in the nick of time. Very exciting stuff! (I’m serious. I actually love this movie!)
This is a defeat because Jerusalem was supposed to be secure within its wall. If the zombies can bring Jerusalem down, what hope is there? But it’s just a temporary defeat because Jerry still needs to figure out how to stop the zombies. (The answer, we later learn, is actually in this scene.) His plan must continue. The stakes are raised and Jerry must press on. He can’t give up now!
World War Z All Is Lost
The opposite pair of World War Z’s Midpoint, which in this movie is a false defeat, is its All Is Lost beat, which is a false victory. I’d argue that in World War Z the false victory in the All Is Lost moment is when Jerry and the Israeli soldier survive the plane crash and find the WHO Research Facility. It’s a victory because he survived the plane crash and then finds the facility. That can only be a good thing right? A WHO facility when you’re trying to stop the zombie apocalypse? Right?
It’s a false victory because after this point, Jerry will have to dig deep to execute his final plan to save humanity. Not to mention that he collapses in front of the gates and wakes up strapped to a gurney, and then finds out that his family has been kicked off the UN military ship! So for Jerry all really is lost unless he can convince the WHO scientists to help him with his final plan, and then actually succeed in it!
From what I can tell, even if the All Is Lost moment is supposed to be a false victory because it’s acting as the opposite of the Midpoint, it still usually stays true to its name. There can be a slight victory here, but it will immediately be overshadowed by an even bigger problem. We see this clearly in our next example.
As with Interstellar, if you haven’t seen Inception you haven’t lived. That’s just the way it is. The Midpoint of Inception is when Saito gets shot in the first level of the dream heist. (The movie is about 2 hours 20 minutes long, and the Midpoint happens at about 1 hour 10 minutes.)
They start the heist, and as soon as they get to that first level, where it’s raining and they’re in a downtown core, Fisher’s militarized and trained subconscious goes after the team, sensing that someone is invading his mind. Heavy gunfire ensues and the team regroups in that industrial building, but not before Saito is critically shot.
At this point, Eames wants to shoot Saito to wake him up. After all, if you die in a dream, you wake up, right? Wrong! Cobb and Yusuf inform the team that they’re too heavily sedated to wake up that way. Therefore, if Saito dies, he’ll fall into limbo instead, from which there may be no return. (So he’s as good as dead.)
At exactly 1:10 in the movie (give or take a few seconds), Eames protests to the team going any further with the plan given Saito’s condition, since Fisher’s subconscious is so dangerous and they’re not prepared for it. And remember how the stakes are raised at the Midpoint? Check out what Eames says right at that point:
“Forget it. If we go any deeper we just raise the stakes.”
Yes, Eames, yes you do!
This Midpoint is a false defeat here because it’s a major, but temporary, setback. The team has to go on with the plan to incept Fisher if they want to have any hope of completing the mission before Saito dies so that he doesn’t get trapped in limbo and so he can hold up his end of the deal and get Cobb into America.
Inception All Is Lost
Since we know that Inception’s Midpoint is a false defeat, to find its corresponding All Is Lost moment we just have to look for a false victory before Act III. This one is a little trickier, however, and I’m not sure the opposition holds here. It seems to be a classic All Is Lost moment, when, at about 1:53, Mal kills Fisher:
Cobb: “Look, there’s no use in reviving him. His mind’s already trapped down there. It’s all over.”
Eames: “So that’s it then? We failed?”
Cobb: “We’re done. I’m sorry.”
It seems as though the plan has failed. Fisher is trapped in limbo. Saito is also almost dead. And Cobb will never see his children again. In fact he’ll probably be arrested as soon as they land at LAX. Oh my!
Is there any victory here? However false?
The only thing I can think of is that right after Mal shoots Fisher, Cobb shoots Mal. His initial hestiation results in Mal having time to shoot Fisher in the first place, but when she does, Cobb reacts immediately and shoots her, when just a moment ago he was doubting her non-existence. This is actually a huge step for Cobb, who’s main character arc is learning to let go of his projection of Mal, rather than getting trapped in his mind with his memories of her.
In case you think I’m making a huge leap here and just trying to find a false victory (maybe I am), I’d ask you to turn your attention to the beginning of the film when Cobb and Arthur are in a dream with Saito trying to steal secrets from him for Cobol Engineering. If you recall, Mal also inconveniantly shows up then and shoots Arthur in the leg to cause him pain. Just as she’s about to shoot him in the other leg, Cobb grabs his gun and shoots Arthur in the head to kill him and wake him up before Mal can hurt him further.
But, I argue, he could have just as easily shot Mal to stop her. But he didn’t. He shot Arthut instead. At that point, the beginning of the movie, and the beginning of his arc, Cobb couldn’t bring himsef to harm even the fake/projected version of Mal just yet. Later though, after an initial hesitation, he does shoot her, beginning his final character developmental step of letting her go.
So it’s a small little victory in an overall very All Is Lost moment, but there you go.
After about 3,000 + words, I hope I’ve been able to make clear how powerful, useful, and necessary these opposing beats are in good story structure. All of these ups and downs, nested within other ups and downs, are what make stories so dynamic, gripping, and compelling. Stories are about change, and understanding the beats of a story (I seriously recommend Save the Cat and the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet for this) allows you to map out that change most effectively.
If you’re not a writer but enjoy reading fiction and watching movies, these beats and dynamics will help you understand why good stories resonate with you. I think we can all instinctively tell when a story is good or bad, even if we can’t always articulate what exactly was wrong with it or why it was so great. When you start to understand some of the basics of story structure, it allows you to put a name and reasoning to that instinctive feeling.
I have one more post about this topic that I want to write, specifically about the opposing dynamics in the hit show Cobra Kai, which does “opposites” really well.