The Guru: Syd Field
The Book: Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
The Year: 1979
The History: Field had been an unproduced screenwriter (aren’t we all?), a development exec, and a lecturer for many years, until he got fed up with the lack of any books about screenwriting. He wrote the first one and it became a wild success. He’s published several more books and lectured around the world ever since.
Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: (On how well you have to know your characters) “I’ll write more than 20 pages, starting with my character’s parents and grandparents on both sides, and then I’ll even use past lives and astrology to further insight into my character.” Ah, the ‘70s…
Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:
- Field, like most screenwriting gurus, is maddeningly generic. Anyone who charges money for their seminars loses the luxury of saying “well maybe my ideas don’t apply to your story.” They have to insist that their ideas are universally applicable, which turns them into mush.
- And so phrases like “inciting incident” and “plot point” are too vague to be useful. Here’s a typical paragraph: “The function of the Plot Point is simple: It moves the story forward. Plot Point I and Plot Point II are the story points that hold the paradigm in place. They are the anchors of your story line” Oh, okay. Wait, what? It’s meaninglessness. It provides no real guidance.
- The now-omnipresent phrase “Inciting incident” makes no differentiation between the problem, the opportunity and the conflict. I’ll delve into that more soon...
- The other huge problem with Field’s structure, as you can see from the diagram, is that it leaves you totally adrift in the second act, without even a recognized midpoint, writers have no clue how to get through the meat of their screenplays. The result is that a lot of Field’s devotees wind up just marking time until the climax finally begins.
- For good or ill, Field ideas were generally applicable enough to give the entire industry some common terminology, such as “Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3,” which does greatly help the notes process.
- Field is the most laid-back of the major gurus. His tone is calm and helpful, he does a great job linking everything back to examples.
- He’s great with character creation and gives good examples of ways to show character through behavior.
Field was the first and therefore most influential guru I encountered. Truth is, to this day, I find it hard to shed his teachings.
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