‘I don’t even really understand the second act,’ a filmmaker said to me just last week. He obviously hadn’t read Syd Field’s Screenplay, which is nothing if not about act structure: the first, second and third acts, but also the inciting incident, pinch one, plot point one, midpoint, pinch two, plot point two and resolution.
Syd Field was the pioneer. The first one. The one that found the key and the door.
He set himself on a mission to find a method to teach screenwriting. He did it, not by using only abstract content, but by finding tools. A breakthrough for many.
Once as a script reader, he was forced to read 2000 scripts and he selected only 40. What amazes me is not the 40 but the 2000. By reading so many he inferred what all good scripts had in common and what all the bad scripts had in common too.
Field is known and will be remembered for one word: paradigm. The rest of his concepts may be debatable, but this one is not. As in many amazing discoveries, it is a very simple thing. Having graduated in the most demanding of trades (2000, remember?), he created what follows:
If we wanted to take a screenplay and hang it on the wall like a painting, this is what it would look like:
This is the paradigm of a screenplay.
This is it. As God created the Sun and we all saw. Simple and powerful, what you just read changed the way the craft of scripting was viewed, made a lot of scholars debate and created a new form of business that singled out a figure known as the Guru of Screenwriting. And Field is Guru #1.
OK, in a way he was not the first. First came Aristotle, Lajos Egri… They started the ladder, but Field filled it in with a new basic step.
One script page equals one minute of screen time.
at least as a rule of thumb. In my experience of directing TV series, that is generally true. But once I was given two 70 page scripts, one ended with a 60 minute episode and the other with an 85 minute episode. Those were extreme cases. Usually, it’s about right.
What do all stories have in common? A beginning, middle, and end (…) ; it [a screenplay] is a story told in pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure. Aristotle talked about the three unities of dramatic action: time, place, and action. The normal Hollywood film is approximately two hours long, or 120 minutes.
Act I, the beginning, is a unit of dramatic action that is approximately twenty or thirty pages long and is held together with the dramatic context known as the Set-Up.
I think that this is true and that there a physical reason for this: generally the human mind can’t take more than 30 minutes without knowing what’s going on.
Acts and Plot Points
In (…) Act I, the screenwriter sets up the story, establishes character, launches the dramatic premise (what the story is about), illustrates the situation (the circumstances surrounding the action), and creates the relationships between the main character and the other characters who inhabit the landscape of his or her world. As a writer you’ve only got about ten minutes to establish this, because the audience members can usually determine, either consciously or unconsciously, whether they do or don’t like the movie by that time.
Act II is a unit of dramatic action approximately sixty pages long, and starts from the end of Act I, anywhere from pages 20 to 30, to the end of Act II, approximately pages 85 to 90, and is held together with the dramatic context known as Confrontation. During this second act the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that keeps him/her from achieving his/her dramatic need, which is defined as what the character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay.
Act III is a unit of dramatic action approximately twenty to thirty pages long and starts from the end of Act II, approximately pages 85 to 90, to the end of the screenplay. It is held together with the dramatic context known as Resolution.
If these parts make up the whole, the screenplay, how do you get from Act I, the Set-Up, to Act II, the Confrontation? And how do you get from Act II to Act III, the Resolution. The answer is to create a Plot Point at the end of both Act I and Act II. A Plot Point is defined as any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction—in this case, Plot Point I moves the action forward into Act II and Plot Point II moves the action into Act III.
Plot Point I occurs at the end of Act I, anywhere from pages 20 to 25 or 30.” “Plot Point II is really the same as Plot Point I; it is the way to move the story forward, from Act II to Act III. It is a story progression. As mentioned, it usually occurs anywhere between pages 80 or 90 of the screenplay.
Let’s have a quick look at the main chapters of the book:
1. What Is a Screenplay? If you have time to read only one chapter, this is it. It contains the core of Field’s philosophy in a very clear manner. His basic concepts are all there.
2. The Subject. It deals with “Subject” but ignores “Theme”. I find that very surprising. In my opinion, “Subject” is the way to give “Theme” a dramatic action and context, to make it “real”. In fact, the word “theme” doesn’t appear in the book until Chapter 3 “The Creation of Character”, but it seems to me that “Theme” should deserve a chapter of its own. “Theme” is, at the end of the day, what your script is about. I mean, “Misery” is not about “a famous writer kidnapped by his number one fan” but about “how hard is to make a good work of art”. The “writer kidnapped” thing is the way, conscious or unconscious, to deal with that theme (that is much clearer in the original book than in the film.)
3. The Creation of Character, 4. Building a Character and 5. Story and Character. Some very big essential truths are being said and developed here: “Action is Character”, “A character is not what he says, it is what he does”, “Know your character”. But the way Field emphasises the creation of biographies for characters does not work for me. It’s my belief that a given character exists as it is connected to the story and only the aspects of his/her private life and history linked to the story are relevant. The rest seems superfluous to me.
6. Endings and Beginnings.
Direction (…); your story moves forward from point A to point Z, from set-up to resolution.
That means your story moves forward from beginning to end. You’ve got approximately ten pages (about ten minutes) to establish three things to your reader or audience: (1) who is your main character? (2) what is the dramatic premise—that is, what’s your story about? and (3) what is the dramatic situation—the circumstances surrounding your story?
All true and essential. But then Field displays one of his favourite mantras: “KNOW YOUR ENDING”. And this is where I find myself at odds with him again (with all due respect, of course. He is a Master, I am not). I do believe that at some stage you have to know your ending, but I do not think that you have to from the very beginning. Writing is a voyage, and sometimes when you travel, you get to unexpected places. And those places will make your travels worth remembering. Of course you have to have some ending when you work. But probably the final ending will appear in front of you as, by sweating and working your brains out, you get to know the characters, the plot, the atmosphere, the genre and the style. But still, if KNOWING YOUR ENDING from the very beginning works for you, please use it. I wouldn’t.
7. Setting Up the Story. When Field deals with structure, he is at his best:
I tell my students you have to approach the first ten pages of your screenplay as a unit, or block, of dramatic action. It must be designed and executed with efficiency and dramatic value because it sets up everything that follows.
It is a proven fact that, as members of an audience, we decide whether we like a film or not during the first ten minutes. So getting those right is a matter of creative life-or-death.
8. Two Incidents.
More about structure, so Field at full steam:
Remember Henry James: ‘What is character, but the determination of incident? And what is incident, but the illumination of character?’ You can’t reveal a character (…) unless you have him/her react to a particular incident.
The first ten pages of your screenplay (…) establish three specific things. The main character is introduced so we know who the story is about.
The second thing (…) is the dramatic premise. What is this story about?.
The third thing we need to establish is the situation, the circumstances surrounding the action.
I could cite example after example of the Inciting Incident, but what I feel is most important is the understanding that this incident serves two important and necessary functions in the craft of storytelling: (1) it sets the story in motion; and (2) it grabs the attention of the reader and audience.
The two incidents provide the foundation of the storyline. The Inciting Incident sets the story in motion and the Key incident establishes the story. (More on the Key Incident below).
9. Plot Points.
Plot Point I, the key incident of the script. This is the incident that sets in motion the entire screenplay.
Plot Point I is the true beginning of the story.
The Plot Points at the end of Acts I and II are there to hook in the action and spin it around in another direction. They are the hub of the story progression, amp the story up to the next.
Summing Up Syd Field
What follows is, to sum it up, what Syd Field is about:
Act I, Act II, Act III. Beginning, middle, end. The beginning starts with the opening scene or sequence and goes until the Plot Point at the end of Act I. The middle starts at the end of Plot Point I and goes until Plot Point II. The end begins at the end of Plot Point II and continues to the end of the screenplay. Each act is a unit, or block, of dramatic action, held together with the dramatic context: Set-Up, Confrontation, Resolution.
Act I is a unit of dramatic (…) action that goes from the beginning of the screenplay to the Plot Point at the end of Act I. There is a beginning and an end point. Therefore, it is a whole, complete unto itself, even though Act I is a part of the whole (the screenplay). As a complete unit of action, there is a beginning of the beginning, a middle of the beginning, and an end of the beginning. It is a self-contained unit, approximately twenty to twenty-five pages long, depending on the screenplay. The end is Plot Point I: the incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction, in this case, Act II. The dramatic context, which holds the content in place, is the Set-Up. In this unit of dramatic action you set up your story—introduce the main character, establish the dramatic premise (what the story is about), and sketch in the dramatic situation, either visually or dramatically.
Like Acts I and II, Act III is a whole, a self-contained unit of dramatic (…) action. As such, there is a beginning of the end, a middle of the end, and an end of the end. It is approximately twenty to thirty pages long, and the dramatic context is Resolution. Resolution, remember, means “solution,” and refers not to the specific scenes or shots that end your screenplay, but to what resolves the storyline. In each act, you start from the beginning of the act and move toward the Plot Point at the end of the act. That means each act has a direction, a line of development that begins at the beginning and ends at the Plot Point. The Plot Points at the end of Acts I and II are your destination points; that’s where you’re going as you’re building or constructing your screenplay. You build your screenplay in terms of individual units of action—Act I, II, III.
Later on, Field added two more concepts (Pinch 1, 2 and Midpoint) which added consistency to his structure ideas. But that belongs to a future post…
Want more? Check Syd Field.com.
More about screenwriting in Ten Amazing Discussions On Screenwriting And Filmmaking From The Masters Of Cinema, Save the Movie! The 2005 Screenwriting Book That’s Taken Over Hollywood — And Made Every Movie Feel The Same, Screenwriting Tech, Best Scriptwriting Books Ever: Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, Best Screenwriting Books Ever: Edward Dmytryk’s On Screenwriting and Endings, amongst many other posts!