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According to Syd Field’s book Screenplay, it is on page 25 that the first Plot Point should occur. And he’s right. It works. Here’s a few examples of page 25 moments through movie history…

CASABLANCA, min. 25: Ilsa and Victor Laszlo enter Rick’s bar for the first time. Up until this point, Rick has continually pointed out to others that he sticks his neck out for no one — his goal is to merely stay out of trouble. He seems unfazed by others, be they Nazi Majors, Police Captains or beautiful women. But when Ilsa and Rick’s eyes lock at min 25, we know the stakes have been raised — he might stick his neck out for this one. This Plot Point ushers us into ACT II, where he will cease merely existing and CHOOSE to seduce Ilsa away from Victor — he’ll stick his neck out now, but only to pursue selfish desires. The second Plot Point, at the start of ACT III, will be the moment Rick springs his plan to get Ilsa and Victor onto a plane into action and he becomes the opposite of what he was at the beginning. Not only has he been reborn as a man who will stick his neck out, he’ll stick it out for a cause bigger than himself or Ilsa.

Minute 25
Minute 25

SOME LIKE IT HOT, min 25:  We learn of Joe and Jerry’s choice to flee town with the all-women band by cutting to them, in drag, on the train platform. Up to that point, they’d been exhausting every other option to avoid being rubbed-out by the mob.  With nothing left to lose, they CHOOSE to leave Chicago, and their dignity, behind. It’s also at minute 25 that we first see Marilyn Monroe as she boards the train, and the camera gives her a head-to-toe goings-over that lets us know, in the language of cinema, that her intellect is respected above all else.

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Minute 25

THE GRADUATE, min 25:  Ben calls Mrs. Robinson and invites her to a hotel. Back at minute 12, she had tried to seduce him (in a scene you may have seen referenced several thousand times). But he resists her smokey, smokey charms because…well…it would turn future, family dinners into etiquette nightmares. But then her gin-soaked husband lectures Ben about making the most of his youth — playing the field, and so on — and his parents throw him the world’s lamest, birthday, pool-party. Seeing the adults around him trapped in a lifestyle he’s not eager to embrace, he CHOOSES to call Mrs. Robinson at minute 25 as a way of procrastinating his own perceived decent into his parent’s stolid existence (see: dictionary definition of “passive-aggressive”).

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MORE EXAMPLES…

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, min 25:  Indiana Jones walks into Marion’s bar, gaining the world’s worst sidekick and the bronze medallion that leads him to the Ark. But first they have a Casablanca moment with the genders reversed — he left her and now she’s the drunk with a bar — “Of all the Mongolian gin joints in the world, he had to walk into mine.”Raiders_of_the_Lost_Ark_1

GROUNDHOG DAY, min 25: Phil wakes-up to “I Got You Babe” for the third time. He’s already lived the same day over again once, but at minute 25, he realizes this problem isn’t going away. He CHOOSES to stop going through the motions and actively changes his behavior. He refuses to cover Punxsuntawney Phil and begins his journey of…doing stuff without consequences…

groundhogday-d

On page 25, your character should make a CHOICE that changes the direction of the story and sends it on an irreversible journey towards the film’s climax. Some films have this moment happen at minute 27 or 29, and that’s fine. But in your script, discipline yourself and make Readers, Agents and Producers know you’ve got a handle on your story by sticking Plot Point One on good ol’ 25.

Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for another tip from Screenplay that I’ll be discussing. And feel free to leave your own thoughts in the “Comments” section!

— Benjamin

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This screenwriting tip comes from this week’s book, Screenplay by Syd Field:

A lot of people don’t believe that you need to have an ending before you start writing. “My characters,” people say, “will determine the ending.” Or, “My ending grows out of my story.” Or, “I’ll know my ending when I get to it.” Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. At least not in a screenplay. Why? Because you have only about 110 pages to tell your story. That’s not a lot of pages to be able to tell your story the way you want to tell it. THE ENDING IS THE FIRST THING YOU MUST KNOW BEFORE YOU BEGIN WRITING.  Why?  Everything is related in the screenplay, as it is in life. You don’t have to know the specific details of your ending when you sit down to write your screenplay, but you have to know what happens and how it affects the characters.” — Syd Field

I couldn’t agree more with this idea. Screenplays are stories. Stories convey morals and ideas. Morals and ideas are conveyed by showing the RESULTS of actions chosen by a protagonist at the start of a story. If you don’t know where your story is going, then you don’t REALLY KNOW what your story is about. Why would I want to read a story whose author had such a weak grasp of their own ideas that they didn’t even know what they wanted to say when they sat down to write? Great scripts contain echoes of early dialog and actions in their climax — everything that’s come before culminates in an ending that is the thesis of the film.

Take the nearly perfect film “BROADCAST NEWS”.

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One of the first scenes shows Jane, the protagonist, giving a speech to her fellow journalist about the dangers of entertainment passing for news.  To make her point, she shows them a clip from the evening news that’s embarrassingly lowbrow and the audience of journalists gets way too into it. She chastises them…

JANE: I know it’s good film. I know it’s fun. I like fun. It’s just not news!

By the end of the film, she has succumb to the charms of Tom, a handsome but empty-headed anchor. And when she confesses to her best friend Aaron that she may be in love with Tom, he gives her a speech that perfectly mirrors the one she gave at the opening of the film…

Aaron: I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone so please don’t take it the wrong way when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil.

When James L. Brooks sat down to write this classic screenplay, he didn’t just start writing stuff that happens to Jane and hope he’d stumble upon a brilliant turn of plot. No. He decided that he would write the story of a principled woman who would be seduced by mediocrity. And at the end, she would have to decide to give up her love for her principles. HE KNEW THE END.  And once he knew the end, how would he start his story? By having her state the very principles she would later be tempted to throw away.

Thanks for reading. Tune in tomorrow for another tip from Screenplay that I’ll be discussing. And feel free to leave your own thoughts in the “Comments” section!

— Benjamin

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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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