A screenplay is a story told with pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure. It is the art of visual storytelling.
– Syd Field
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field is largely considered one of the authoritative texts on screenwriting to date. Utilizing real screenplays, anecdotes and real-world insight, Field lays out structured fundamentals of developing a screenplay.
Although Field seems to have a handful of go-to examples he uses again and again (some of which are a little dated), and he tends to beat certain points further into the ground than necessary, the reader comes away with a solid idea of structure, and a sense that he or she has seen behind the writer’s room curtain.
While I won’t give away all the Syd Field secrets, I’d like to offer somewhat of an outline to the book, and key takeaways from each chapter. I have gone back to these points again and again for inspiration and instruction while writing, and I hope they can offer the same insight to other writers, or at least give movie fans insight into the structure of some (actually pretty much all) of their favorite films.
First, some terminology
Dramatic premise – What the story is about.
Dramatic need – What the character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay.
Situation – The circumstances surrounding the action.
Plot point – Any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction. Always the function of the main character.
Inciting incident – The plot point that sets the story in motion.
Key incident – What the story is about.
I. WHAT IS A SCREENPLAY?
A story is the whole, and the elements that make up the story – the action, characters, conflicts, scenes, sequences, dialogue, Acts I, II and III, incidents, episodes, events, music, locations, etc. – are the parts, and this relationship between the parts and the whole make up the story.
What Field is saying is that structure is important.
ACT I: THE SET-UP – In Act I, the screenwriter sets up the story, establishes character, launches the dramatic premise, illustrates the situation, 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 – this first ten pages of dramatic action is the most important part of the screenplay.
ACT II: CONFRONTATION – During this second act the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that keeps him/her from achieving his/her dramatic need. If you know your character’s dramatic need, you can create obstacles to it and then your story becomes your character, overcoming obstacle after obstacle to achieve his/her dramatic need.
ACT III: RESOLUTION – Act III is that unit of action that resolves the story. Resolution does not mean ending; resolution means solution.
To get from Act I to Act II then Act II to Act III, use plot points. Here it is laid out visually:
II. THE SUBJECT
A subject is defined as an action and a character. An action is what the story is about, and a character is who the story is about. It is essential to isolate your generalized idea into a specific dramatic premise. The dramatic premise is what the screenplay is about; it provides the dramatic thrust that drives the story to its conclusion.
Or, as Blake Snyder would say, “It’s about a guy who…”
THE NEXT STEP IS EXPANDING YOUR SUBJECT
The character’s need (the dramatic need) determines the creative choices he/she makes during the screenplay, and gaining clarity about that need allows you to be more complex, more dimensional, in your character portrayal.
Without conflict, there is no action. Without action, there is no character. And with out character… there is no screenplay.
III. CREATION OF A CHARACTER
Character is the essential internal foundation of your screenplay. The cornerstone. It is the heart and soul and nervous system of your screenplay. Before you can put one word down on paper, you must know your character.
Action is character; a person is what he does, not what he says. Film is behavior. Because we’re telling a story in pictures, we must show how the character acts and reacts to the incidents and events that he/she confronts and overcomes (or doesn’t overcome) during the story line.
Screenplays are usually about a key incident, and the story is the character acting and reacting to it. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James says that the incidents you create for your characters are the best ways to illuminate who they are – that is, reveal their true nature, their essential character. How they respond to a particular incident or event, how they act and react, what they say and do is what really defines the essence of their character.
Know your character! For a more practical look at how Field tells us to develop a character, check out “Screenplay” by Syd Field (A Practical Application).
IV. BUILDING A CHARACTER
Underneath this skin, we’re really just the same. We share the same needs, wants, fears and insecurities; we want to be loved, have people like us, be successful, happy and healthy. Given this, there are four essential qualities that go into making a good character:
- The characters have a strong and defined dramatic need – What your main characters want to win, gain, get or achieve during the course of your screenplay.
- You, as the writer, must know your character’s dramatic need.
- If your character’s dramatic need does change, it will usually occur at Plot Point 1, the true beginning of your story.
- They have an individual point of view (the way a person sees or views the world).
- Point of view is acquired through personal experience.
- There is no right or wrong here, no good or bad, no judgment, justification or evaluation.
- Look for ways your characters can support and dramatize their points of view. Knowing your character’s points of view becomes a good way to generate conflict.
- They personify an attitude (a manner or opinion – a way of acting or feeling that reveals a person’s personal opinion).
- An attitude, differentiated from a point of view, is an intellectual decision, so it can, and probably will, be classified by a judgement.
- They go through some kind of change or transformation.
Every action, every word of dialogue, every individual character trait expands our knowledge and comprehension of the character.
V. STORY AND CHARACTER
Find a starting point for developing a character: “A woman from Boston.” Then we create context. As much detail as possible. Remember, drama is conflict. Look for ways to develop tension within your character’s story.
Through the process of trial and error, search for a theme, or dramatic premise: something that will move the character in a particular direction to generate dramatic action. The subject of the screenplay is an action and a character. If you’ve got the character, then go searching for the action.
Next, it’s time to expand the exterior forces working on the character and fashion the story into a dramatic narrative line.
Note: In Chapter V, Field explained a practical explanation of developing a story through character. To gain better insight from this chapter, I’d have to recount the story in its near entirety, so… I won’t. But it’s certainly worth reading! Or, I go more into detail in “Screenplay” by Syd Field (A Practical Application).
VI. ENDINGS AND BEGINNINGS
Again, the first 10 pages of your screenplay are absolutely the most crucial. You’ve got approximately 10 pages (about 10 minutes) to establish three things to your reader or audience: (1) who is your main character? (2) what is the dramatic premise? and (3) what is the dramatic situation?
The primary rule for the opening is:
- Does it set your story in motion?
- Does it establish your main character?
- Does it state the dramatic premise?
- Does it set up the situation?
- Does it establish or set up a problem that your character must confront and overcome?
- Does it state your character’s need?
What’s the best way to open your screenplay? Know your ending!
The ending is the first thing you must know before you begin writing. Why? It’s obvious when you think about it. Your story always moves forward – it follows a path, a direction, a line of progression from beginning to end. You don’t have to know specific details of your ending when you sit down to write your screenplay, but you have to know what happens and how it affects the characters. The ending comes out of the beginning. Someone, or something, initiates an action, and how that action is resolved becomes the story line of the film.
Sometimes you start out writing with a specific ending in mind and you base the structure and story line around it, but as you’re writing the story, you suddenly get a better idea about how to end the script. Go with it. Let it change. It probably is a better ending.
Before you write one shot, one word of dialogue on paper, you must know four things: your ending, your beginning, Plot Point I and Plot Point II. In that order.
VII. SETTING UP THE STORY
A screenplay is a whole, and exists in direct relationship to its parts. Therefore, it becomes essential to introduce your story from the very beginning. The relationship between scenes of seemingly unrelated information sets up the entire story.
The dramatic need drives the main character through the story. The dramatic premise sets up the direction of the screenplay. One question, one drive propels the story to its final resolution, and it is all set up from the very beginning, in the first ten pages, and moves forward in a linear direction to the end.
Remember: Setting up your story by explaining things through dialogue slows down the action and impedes the story progression.
VIII. TWO INCIDENTS
The inciting incident sets the story in motion; it is the first representation of the key incident, what the story is about.
The inciting incident serves two important and necessary functions: (1), it sets the story in motion; and (2), it grabs the attention of the reader and the audience.
Though both deal with the foundation of the story line, the dramatic premise is the conceptual description of what the story is about, while the key incident would be that specific scene or sequence that is the dramatic visualization of what the story is about.
Remember: No matter what form a film takes, whether linear or nonlinear, there is always going to be an inciting incident and a key incident.
IX. PLOT POINTS
The only way you can get through the intricate tangle of seemingly endless creative decisions, solutions, and choices is by knowing what you’re doing and where you’re going. You need a road map, a guide, a direction – a line of development leading from beginning to end. When you’re in the paradigm, you can’t see the paradigm. That’s why Plot Points are so important.
You need to know only four things to structure your story line: the ending, the beginning, and Plot Points I and II. Each act has a direction, a line of development that begins at the beginning and ends at the Plot Point. However, this does not mean there are only two plot points in your screenplay. When the screenplay is completed, it may contain as many as 10 to 15 plot points, most of which will be in Act II.
A Plot Point does not have to be a dramatic moment, or a major scene or sequence. It can be a quiet moment, an exciting action sequence, a line of dialogue, or a decision that affects the story line.
X. THE SCENE
The scene is the single most important element in your screenplay. It is where something happens – where something specific happens. Good scenes make good movies. When you think of a good movie, you remember scenes, not the entire film.
The purpose of a scene is twofold: Either it moves the story forward or it reveals information about a character. If the scene does not satisfy one, or both, of these elements, then it does not belong in the screenplay.
With regards to length, there is only one rule to follow: Tell your story. The scene will be as long or as short as they need to be; just trust the story and it will tell you everything you need to know. It is your story so you make the rules. Sometimes, in certain situations, it’s good to lay out the action line of the scene in terms of beginning, middle, and end, and then use only portions, bits and pieces, of the action line to present the scene.
As a writer, it is your responsibility to know why your characters are in a scene, what the purpose of the scene is, and how the characters’ actions, or dialogue, are relevant to the story. You’ve got to know what happens to your characters in the scenes, as well as what happens to them in between the scenes.
Remember: Drama is conflict; seek it out. For a more practical look at creating a scene, check out “Screenplay” by Syd Field (A Practical Application).
XI. THE SEQUENCE
A sequence is a series of scenes connected by one single idea with a definite beginning, middle and end, and can usually expressed in a word or two: a wedding; a funeral; a chase; a race; an election; a reunion; an arrival or departure… It is a unit, or block, of dramatic action unified by one single idea. It is the skeleton, or backbone, of your script and, like the nature of structure itself, holds everything together.
Sequences can be written any way you want; they are a creative, limitless context within which to paint your picture against the canvas of action. Generally, a good action sequence builds slowly, image by image, word by word, setting things up, drawing us into the excitement as the action gets faster and faster. We literally see the action as it unfolds, step by step, bit by bit. Notice how visual it is, and how short the sentences are, almost staccato in their presentation, and how much “white space” is on the page.
Action and character, joined together, sharpens the focus of your screenplay and makes it both a better reading and a better viewing experience.
XII. BUILDING THE STORY LINE
Building the screenplay is different from writing the screenplay. They are two different processes.
If your character acts in your screenplay, somebody, or something, is going to react in such a way that your character then reacts – thus creating a new action that will create another action.
Many aspiring and inexperienced screenwriters seem to have things happen to their characters, and as a result, the the characters are always reacting to their situations rather than acting in terms of dramatic need. Your character must act, not merely react. This needs to be established immediately, from page one word one.
It is the responsibility of the screenwriter to know and clearly define who the main character is, what the dramatic premise is, and what the dramatic situation is. If you don’t know your story well enough, if you haven’t spent enough time doing the required research, then you run the risk of inserting incidents and events into the story line just to try to make it work, and then the narrative thread of the story usually goes awry.
XIII. SCREENPLAY FORM
While this is very practical, it also doesn’t bare much repeating from me. Here’s my favorite piece of advice I took from this chapter: “You don’t have to tell the director and cinematographer and editor how to do their jobs. Your job is to write the screenplay.”
An annoying aspect of screenwriting is that form isn’t entirely set in stone. But if you have any specific questions, Google it! (Then I’m not held responsible – everyone has their opinions.)
This concludes what I would call the “practical” part of the book. The remainder is centered more on advice by the “guru of screenwriting.” He touches on process, collaboration and even relationships. I actually like many bits of advice in these chapters, so I will include them in bullet form below:
- If you’re in a relationship, your loved ones will tell you they understand and support you, but they won’t – not really. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t understand the writing experience.
- Inspiration is measured in moments, a few minutes or hours; a screenplay depends on diligence, and is measured in weeks and months.
- If in doubt, write. Keep moving forward in your story. If you write a scene and go back to clean it up, polish it, and “make it right,” you’ll find you’ve dried up about page 60. Any major changes you need to make, do it in the second draft.
- If you understand that being challenged by writer’s block, being dazed, lost, and confused is only a symptom, this “problem” becomes an opportunity to test yourself. And isn’t that what life is all about – putting yourself on the line in a situation where you test yourself to rise to another level?
- The art of screenwriting is finding places where silence works better than words.
- You want feedback; you want someone to tell you what he or she really thinks about your script, so choose the people you give this first draft to carefully. After you read it, listen to what they say. Don’t defend what you’ve written; don’t pretend to listen and leave feeling rites, indignant, or hurt. See whether they’ve caught the “intention” of what you wanted to write about. Listen to their observations from the point of view that they might be right, not that they are right. Question them; press them on it. Find out what they like and dislike; what works for them and what doesn’t.
- There is a dearth of salable material in Hollywood. The opportunities for new screenwriters, writing fresh and original ideas, are enormous.
- Just write your screenplay!
So, here are the highlights of the book from my point of view. While Field doesn’t explicitly lay out an algorithm or step-by-step guide to writing your screenplay (at least not in this book – he may here), I’ve done my best at laying out a practical application in this post!