That a film – or any story for that matter – is best told in three acts is an approach that even a movie neophyte is familiar with. But acclaimed screenwriting teacher Syd Field, who died Sunday at the age of 77, drove the point home, with his widely renowned paradigm model, which maps out a film into three acts.
Field published seven books about screenwriting, starting with 1979's hugely influential "Screenplay," which continues to be a staple text of screenwriting classes. He also taught a masters program at the University of Southern California, hosted screenwriting workshops and served as a consultant on a number of films. Judd Apatow ("Bridesmaids," "The 40 Year Old Virgin"), Frank Darabont ("Shawshank Redemption") and Lynda Obst ("Sleepless in Seattle") are just a few of the filmmakers who have sung his praises.
Collected from his well-curated website, as well as various interviews he gave on the subject, here are some of Field's tips for screenwriters.
Structure is what holds it all together. Whether it's a story, a sequence, or a scene, you build and construct into the pieces you need to tell your story. And, by the way, I'm still teaching at USC, in the Master's of Professional Writing Program, a graduate 2-year program leading to an MFA. And, I teach that to the screenwriters – starting out with understanding the language of film – shots, scenes, sequences – they're all structured. They each have a beginning, middle and end – but in some scenes you'll only show a snippet of the beginning, then enter the scene in the middle and only have a shot at the end, or no scene ending at all. But when we come to a sequence that's a different story – by definition a sequence is a "series of scenes connected by one single idea with a definite beginning an end.
[W]hat I've found with most young screenwriters, they try to tell their story through dialogue, through words, and not with action. What they don't understand is, film is behavior, creating an emotional situation that the character reacts to. When the story is told more with words than visuals, it makes for a bad, talky-talky screenplay, where the main character becomes very passive. The main character must always be active. He has to initiate the action.
Comic characters always have to believe they're right. They can never think they're funny. They can never act as if they're trying to be funny. They have to be totally dedicated to their dramatic need and to what it is they want to accomplish.
The executive looks for a "great idea." Think about the passion and manner of your presentation. Your writing ability always comes in second. Everybody's a buyer and seller in Hollywood. It is the Town of Sell, built on a foundation of hype, fear, greed, insecurity and ego. Pitching something just because you think it's commercial is a real trap. The trick is to find a commercial idea that you really want to write; not because it's commercial, but because you love the idea.
I think what scares most screenwriters, or anyone for that matter, is that while they know there's a problem, they just don't know what it is. They can't define or describe it...
When you get down to it, the art of problem solving is the art of recognition. You can't fix something if you don't know what's wrong with it.
To write from your heart and don't be afraid to write sh-tty pages. You can't change something from nothing. Get it down on paper first, no matter what it looks like.