Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Legacy of Syd Field

As many of you reading this will undoubtedly know, Syd Field passed away earlier this week. Syd was the original screenwriting guru. His book, Screenplay, published in 1979, was the first real how-to book on screenwriting and introduced the terminology of “three act structure” which is now the language Hollywood. Syd called three-act structure the “paradigm.”

Although it’s likely that Syd was familiar with the philosophies of Aristotle and the book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lagos Egri (about playwriting), he primarily developed his theories by reading thousands of screenplays and asking himself: What do the good ones have in common? And what do the bad ones lack?

Screenplay and the follow up The Screenwriter’s Workbook were two of the first screenwriting books I read. (I liked The Screenwriter’s Workbook better… it had exercises and if you did them, at the end of the book you’d have a screenplay).

One of the problems of being the first to do something like this is that others come along and expand and improve on what you’ve done. Screenplay looks a little unsophisticated today. It’s not the first book I recommend to new writers. But his books are the foundation of most contemporary screenwriting education – including the class I teach and this blog.

There are always people who resist the idea that you can teach any kind of art. Syd was criticized for dumbing down movies and making them more formulaic. (Recently the Save the Cat book came under similar criticism.)

I think such accusations are ridiculous. Knowing craft does not preclude creating art; in fact it enables art. Only the weakest of aspiring artists would think that knowledge could somehow squelch their creativity. Syd himself was flexible on his paradigm. He’d often say that you have to know the rules to break them.

Which doesn’t mean Syd’s theories and others that followed have never been used improperly. Much of the Hollywood development community has read these books. Trouble comes when they start to use the theory rather than their own judgment to evaluate screenplays and give notes.

But if you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing I don’t have to convince you of the value of learning craft.

An important thing that people tend to forget about three-act structure: it’s an analytical tool to discuss aspects of storytelling. There are no actual acts in feature films. Plays can have acts, separated by the curtain lowering, the lights coming up, and people going to the lobby for a drink. Television has acts separated by commercial breaks. But movies are a continuous experience.

Acts as Syd Field used them are different. They are a way to discuss different parts of a story and the requirements of those parts. He could have chosen different terms. But we needed some language to discuss what worked and what didn’t in screenwriting. Syd’s paradigm is not a formula to be followed, but a way to understand narrative.

If you’d like to read my approach to three-act structure, start with these posts on Story Structure, The Dramatic Question, and Breaking Your Story Into Three Acts:

If you’d like to know what other books I recommend on screenwriting, see this post.

And if you’d like to read Syd’s books, I’d start with these:

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