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screenplay

THE BOOK

SCREENPLAY: The Foundations of Screenwriting

by SYD FIELD

WHY THIS BOOK?

This is the foundation of the canon; the one on every insecure screenwriter’s bookshelf (including mine) that announces “Not only am I a real writer — I swear ! — I’m also schooled in the classics.” It’s only fitting that this be the first book I break down. Field wrote “Screenplay” in 1979. It was the first book devoted entirely to the art of screenwriting, and it made key distinctions between that form of writing and all others. Up to that point, no one had given the art of filmmaking enough respect to bother analyzing what made screenplays tick. Back in film school it was required reading and I skimmed it to the point that I could reference its main points on a test. But having now written several screenplays myself, and having read piles of scripts for agents and producers, I’m curious to see if there are deeper, more complex ideas in this book that’s now been whittled down in the minds of most film students to the introduction of the three-act concept.

WHAT’S IN IT

First off, let me commend Syd Field for figuring out the three-act-screenplay structure. It’s a good start in the quest to demystify the workings of good films, and it’s the jumping-off point for many, far superior books on screenwriting (it’s also deluded thousands of agents and producers into thinking they have a voice in the creative process). But reading Screenplay in 2009 to learn to write a screenplay is akin to reading Beowulf while preparing to write video game code. Struggling to get through its 300 + pages, I started to feel badly for the author — he was doing the best he could with very little precedent to work from. In desperation for respectability and sources, he quotes everyone from Cat Stevens to Henry James to Joseph Campell, with an occasional, desperate invocation of the New World Dictionary.  Like so many procrastinated thesis papers I wrote in college, Field’s book contains a couple of good points that are propped-up with unstructured ideas he restates over and over and mixes with random trivia.   He keeps jumping from one iconic film to the next and it’s hard to keep his points straight — I get it; “Chinatown” is a great film. But it’s not the film to use as an example when you’re teaching a new writer how to structure a screenplay! Nor is “Annie Hall”! To remain relevant, he’s also added a few “newer” films to the modern edition such as “Seabiscuit” and “Cold Mountain” — film titles I don’t tend to hear getting tossed around by writers I respect.

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Syd Field doesn’t write his book like a screenwriter. His approach to dissecting the structural elements of screenplays, while ground-breaking, reads academically. Experienced scriptwriters will gain the insight reading “Screenplay” that seasoned novelists will have reading “Shrunk and White”, i.e., it contains the fundamentals, but it’s not going to help you compose a great piece of writing. His patented “inciting incident” (the idea that screenplays begin with an event that ushers the protagonist into the main story) is about as helpful as mentioning that every complete sentence contains a verb.  Any writer with a speck of talent is already going to instinctually know that these sorts of elements are part of a successful film, and anyone who doesn’t shouldn’t be writing to begin with.

SCREENWRITING SECRETS

Well…Syd Field’s screenwriting secrets stopped being secrets around 1982 and are now closer to dogma. But they’re still nifty to know. When I first learned about Field’s THREE ACT STRUCTURE in film school, it was a revelation. From that point on, I couldn’t get enough of watching the time counter on the VCR hit 25 minutes, just as a movie’s first plot point is revealed. It’s still a thrilling feeling to hit that magic page count when writing — a feeling that you’re on the right path. But “Screenplay” could be cut down to a 50 page manual.

THE THREE-ACT-STRUCTURE IN A NUTSHELL…

A script’s FIRST ACT has 25 pages, during which we learn about our hero, their desires, and the world in which they inhabit.Around page 25, PLOT POINT #1 occurs. This is an event that either happens to the hero, or it’s a choice made by them, that leads them into a new reality where they go after what they desire. The SECOND ACT is usually about 60 pages long and is all about the protagonist encountering numerous obstacles in the way of their goal. Around page 90, PLOT POINT #2 occurs. This is a final choice made by the hero to make one last push to achieve their goal. The last twenty to thirty pages that follow constitute the THIRD ACT — the climax of the film — during which the hero succeeds or fails.  That’s it!  Pretty simple, right?  Now try doing it.

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IN CONCLUSION

Screenplay feels more analytical than tutorial. It gives film studies professors and hollywood producers the terminology to speak coherenly about parts of a film, but the book doesn’t take too many steps towards helping the actual screenwriters, who are up late at night, searching for a way out of a narrative hole they’ve dug for themselves somewhere in Act 2 (as I knock him, I use the very system he devised). And while it does have some fine ideas about how to write characters and scenes, many others have done so much better. Still, if all that “Screenplay” ends-up giving the world is the three-act-concept, then it’s done enough.

SHOULD YOU READ IT?     WEAK CONSIDER

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