Welcome to Syd Field‘s Screenplay (The Foundations of Screenwriting): The Sequel. Which is Not a Bad Thing at all.
In fact, if you buy The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver, in my humble opinion, you don’t need to read Syd Field’s original Screenplay, as all the important stuff from that book is in this one, slightly improved. But if you do, it can do no harm.
Let’s hear what the master has to say about fixing script problems.
What’s the Problem?
How many times have you read something you’ve written and then gotten that strange feeling in your gut: you know there’s something wrong but you just don’t know what it is? You go over and over the scene or sequence, again and again, examining it, reexamining it, trying it one way, then another, and still it doesn’t work.
There’s an old adage in the film industry that states, what you try that doesn’t work always shows you what does work.
The art of Problem Solving is the art of recognition. Either you look at a problem as something that doesn’t work, or you look at a problem as being a challenge, an opportunity to expand your screenwriting skills. It’s up to you.
You’ve all heard the old expression “Writing is rewriting.” Well, it’s true. I tell that to writers all over the world and they panic: “You mean I’ve got to rewrite it?” they moan. The answer is yes. Yes, yes, yes. Sorry.
Problem Solving is part of the creative process.
Know your Story
What is your story about? And who is your story about? That’s what always has to be kept in mind.
A screenplay is a unique form; it is neither novel nor play, but combines elements of both. Structure is the foundation of all screenwriting, the spine or skeleton that “holds” everything together. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, Maverick) declares that “a screenplay is structure,” and it’s true. Structure is the gravity of story, the road map through the desert. It is both guide and support, and flexibility is its nature, for structure is like a tree in the wind that bends but doesn’t break. The structural elements of a screenplay can be moved around and through the dramatic story line.
Back to Basics
Field takes his time to remind the reader of his basis concepts about screenwriting:
A screenplay is a story told with pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure.
Act I is a unit of dramatic action that is approximately twenty to thirty pages long and held together with the dramatic context known as the Set-Up. Act I sets up the story, establishing who and what the story is about, as well as defining the relationships between the characters and their needs.
Act II is a unit of dramatic action that is approximately sixty pages long, and held together with the dramatic context known as Confrontation; in this portion of the screenplay, the main character confronts obstacle after obstacle in order to achieve his or her dramatic need. The dramatic need is defined as what the main character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay. If you know the dramatic need of your character, then you can create obstacles to that need, and the story becomes one of your character overcoming or failing to overcome, obstacle after obstacle in order to achieve his or her dramatic need. All drama is conflict; without conflict, there is no character; without character, there is no action; without action, there is no story. And without story, there is no screenplay.
Act III is a unit of dramatic action that is approximately twenty to thirty pages long, and held together with the dramatic context known as Resolution.
Plot Point I is the incident that moves the story forward, into Act II, a unit of dramatic action that is approximately sixty pages long and held together with the dramatic context known as Confrontation. Act II begins at the end of Plot Point I and continues until Plot Point II, and in this part of the screenplay the main character will overcome obstacle after obstacle after obstacle in order to achieve his or her dramatic need—what the main character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of your screenplay.
A Maze Called Act II
When you’re writing Act II, it’s very easy to become lost in the maze of your own creation. That’s why the Mid-Point becomes so important, for it connects the First Half of Act II with the Second Half of Act II, and is a link in the chain of dramatic action.
In order to build the First and Second Half of Act II, you need one major sequence to hold the action together. In the First Half, it is a sequence that occurs around page 45, and in the Second Half of Act II it is a sequence that occurs around page 75; I call it the Pinch because it is an incident or event that keeps your story on track; it’s a little “pinch” in the narrative action that keeps your story on line and leads to the Mid-Point, or Plot Point at the end of Act II.
Resolution as Solution
Act III is a unit of dramatic action that is approximately thirty pages long (although in today’s scripts it’s more likely to be about twenty pages) that goes from the end of Plot Point II to the end of the screenplay and is held together with the context of Resolution. In other words, the story must resolve itself, and resolution, remember, means “solution.” What is the solution of your screenplay?
Time for 3 Key Questions
What was it that originally attracted me to the screenplay?
What kind of a story did I end up writing?
What do I have to do to change what I did do into what I wanted to do?
Alvin Sargent’s Thoughts
Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia, White Palace, among others) once described the process this way: “Turn out the lights and close your eyes. Write what your fingers want to say. Be free, as free as you can be. To make no sense is to find sense. Sense will always appear. Trust it to arrive. It is the core of nonsense. It is not about anything but about everything. The glitter gets lost and the truth comes through. And then, when the lights are up, you will sift through it as would a sifter of gold. The mud will be gone and you will find at least a golden kernel or two has been stirred up. Close your eyes. Then write….”
So far it’s only 25% of the book.
Most of The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver is a guide to identify and solve script problems, which, as an example, can be:
PROBLEMS OF PLOT, CHARACTERS OR STRUCTURE
The following is one of the Problem Sheets, this one under the banner:
TOO MUCH, TOO SOON
It deals with:
• THE STORY IS TOLD IN WORDS, NOT PICTURES • THE ACTION DOES NOT MOVE THE STORY FORWARD • THE DRAMATIC PREMISE IS NOT CLEAR • WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER? • CHARACTERS ARE TOO EXPOSITORY • MAIN CHARACTER IS TOO PASSIVE AND REACTIVE • THERE ARE TOO MANY CHARACTERS • EVERYTHING HAS TO BE EXPLAINED • THE FIRST ACT IS TOO LONG • THE STORYLINE IS TOO CHOPPY AND DISJOINTED • TOO MUCH HAPPENS TOO FAST
Then it develops every concept. And so on, and so on. It is thorough and the core of the book. It’s a checklist that allows you to investigate what your script is missing or where you got it wrong.
More about Syd Field? Check Best Screenwriting Books: Syd Field’s SCREENPLAY, Remembering Syd Field, 1935 – 2013 and On The Screenwriting Gurus.
More about Screenwriting? Either type Screenwriting in the website searcher or check How Billy Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT Was Written, How Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT Was Written, How TOY STORY 3 Was Written, Best Screenwriting Books: ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, Best Screenwriting Books: McKee’s STORY (1), Best Screenwriting Books: INTO THE WOODS, How to Make Film Adaptations, According to Linda Seger and Best Screenwriting Books: THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, amongst many other posts!
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