There is an idiom that goes something like this; those who can, do, and those that can’t, teach. There are so many “Screenwriting Gurus” these days; how is a person to select the form of instruction that will satisfy their budget and still give them a chance to succeed? Good question. My intention is to share my opinions and experiences in the screenwriting industry and…Let me be clear…I am not making any claims on being an expert on screenwriting. I teach a screenwriting course at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; and I have written more than 45 screenplays and sold a few, so perhaps I might be considered an exception to the aforementioned idiom.

I will be selecting a particular “expert” on screenwriting, and then if I have personal experience share that and if not, I’ll relate the experiences of friends and colleagues that have interacted with that particular teacher. Let’s begin with what many consider the “God” of screenwriting instruction, Syd Field.

SydField

Syd Field gave us a rule book on how to break a script into smaller pieces and then structure it with “Three Acts.” Using this structure, the script begins in “Act One” and the script’s plot is set in motion with the “Set-up” phase. Following this set-up, the protagonist experiences what Field’s called, “Plot Point 1,” somewhere in the first 20-30 pages which provides the protagonist with a goal to achieve. The protagonist must struggle mightily to achieve said goal. This second act is the “Confrontation Period.” Field also refers to the “Midpoint” here, a more subtle turning point in the plot that happens at approximately page 60 (when you could still submit a 120 page screenplay). This turning point is often an apparently devastating reversal of the main character’s fortune. The third act of the film delineates a climactic battle by the protagonist to finally achieve or not achieve their goal and the aftermath of this battle. He suggests that a second “Plot Point” occur somewhere around page 80-90, finally ending in the “Resolution.”

Syd Field’s paradigm of structure became the gold standard in the movie industry through the 80’s and into the late 90’s; and if your screenplay didn’t fit the Field’s format, it could be declined based on that fact alone. More methods for structuring a screenplay exist today thanks to some of the other “gurus” of screenwriting; but it is not uncommon to still encounter producers and executives that continue to insist that any script they consider follow this formatting.

teach

Syd also felt a script should be written in reverse order, the ending must be known first, then plot point two, mid-point, and so on. I found this advice difficult to use and my thinking and writing process
just didn’t blend with Mr. Field’s system. I have borrowed heavily from Syd Field and somewhere in the back of my mind the small voice from the book Screenplay still makes itself known.

Field’s also was the first to suggest using index cards to map out critical scenes which has become an industrial standard. For those that might not be familiar with it, this standard stipulates that for Act One you use fourteen cards, each with only one sentence describing what happens in that scene; twenty eight cards for Act Two; and fourteen cards for Act Three. Although the use of Field’s card system is hard to grasp for many, it is still in wide use. In fact, the use of index cards in story plotting has become so prevalent in writing that I’m not sure that anyone recognizes Field’s contribution of this now vital system. His internationally acclaimed best-selling books Screenplay, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, and The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver have established themselves as the “bibles” of the film industry. They are used in hundreds of colleges and universities and have been translated into dozens of languages. Although Syd passed away in 2013 from hemolytic anemia, his legacy is being carried on by his wife, Aviva Field. All of his books, webinars, apps, and resources are still available at sydfield.com.

I never had the opportunity to take one of his classes, but I have spoken with many who did and they found him to be truly inspirational and motivating. His audiences left feeling like they could go on to write an Academy Award winning script, and many of his past students did in fact go on to be Oscar nominees/winners and Golden Globe winners.

Although the methods taught by Field are still in use and still looked for by readers, I think modern screenwriting may have grown beyond Syd Field’s teachings and that there are many simpler and more advanced methods available to the journeymen author. The problem I had with Syd was his inflexibility. His system dictates that there is only one way to write a movie and that is all there is to say.

To my knowledge, Syd Field never wrote or had a screenplay produced. What he did do was borrow from the Greeks the three act structure at a time when no one else was teaching a wannabe screenwriter how to go about it…I am sure that Aristotle found the recycling of his storytelling rewarding.

 

 

 

About The Author