The Foundations of Screenwriting
Syd Field’s Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting is a fount of information regarding what a screenplay is and how to go about writing one. This book is perfect for a beginner because not only does it dissect how to go about writing a screenplay, it shows you detailed examples as well. Oftentimes, for someone slightly past novice level, too much time is spent on explanation. However, there is still information to be gained from, and memorable quotes to be pinned to the corkboard. The thing I had to remember most while reading was that this book was a guide more than a history lesson, the latter of which previous reading assignments have drifted toward.
So many times writers hear, “Write what you know,” and I understand this advice because you must be linked to your material in order for it to have heart. But I’ve realized that doesn’t mean I only have to write about growing up in a small town with divorced parents and two siblings. Finally, Field quotes his mentor, filmmaker Jean Renoir, that contradicts the previous sentence and one that I can latch onto and embrace. “The artist who paints only what is in his mind must very soon repeat himself”. This tells me to branch out, find different subjects to paint on the page, expand your mind outside of your village. This ties into his few paragraphs regarding research. He advocates research, but I love how he explains why research is so important. “The information you collect allows you to operate from the position of choice, confidence, and responsibility. You can choose to use some, or all, or none… Not using it because you don’t have it, offers you no choice at all”. I believe he’s saying you’re wiser for all the knowledge you gather because even though you may not use all of that knowledge, it is there to be accessed, and a person can only gain from understanding all aspects of the spectrum. By not trying to learn new things, you are only limiting yourself and your mind. As in reference to The Matrix, “Only when we can give up the concepts of our limited self can we attain enlightenment and liberation”.
Another truth Field brings to us in his introduction is “…the principles of screenwriting that I delineated at the dawn of the ‘80s are just as relevant now as they were then. Only the expression has changed”. Screenwriting has changed, but its core has always stayed the same. This is a blessing because writers do not have to constantly re-learn a new format, but there are small aspects that come and go with the times. It is interesting that though the movie industry has changed significantly, the screenplay remains steadfast and sure.
The wonderful thing about Field’s book is his breakdown and diagrams, or what Field calls “the paradigm.” This is why it is such a great resource for beginning writers. Diagrams are involved in every chapter, sometimes multiples times. Field asks the question, “What is a screenplay?” then continues to answer it for us. He is also the first to identify what so many others now acknowledge: “I cannot emphasize enough that this first ten-page unit of dramatic action is the most important part of the screenplay”. This reminded me of when a professor, Rosanne Welch, and a visiting speaker, Paolo Russo, gave similar advice, “If they like page 1, they’ll read page 3, and if they like 3, they’ll read 10, and by then they’ll know if they like it or not.” Again, within 10 pages a screenplay is loved or lost. Field continues to stress what a screenplay is and Valerie Woods, my feature mentor, quoted his words when we began our screenplay journey last fall, “All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay”. These beautiful sentences ground us in what is important.
Field continues on, explaining plot points, resolutions (which isn’t the ending but the solution to your tale), building a character, endings, and beginnings, adapting and collaborating, and so much more. He reminds us “A screenplay is a reading experience before it becomes a movie experience”. This is great advice to remember. Before our screenplay becomes real, it must first be approved and someone approves it by reading it. If it doesn’t read well, it becomes the novel no one finishes.
“You want feedback; you want someone to tell you what he or she really thinks about your script”. A lot of times, I don’t want that because I’m terrible at taking constructive criticism. But I know I need it. It’s just another little reminder that that is what a writer needs. Otherwise, our stories will never reach their full potential. And that is the worst thing possible.
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies” (The Shawshank Redemption). This is what Field is giving writers through his books. Hope. He’s guiding us into becoming better writers so that we may impart our gifts onto willing audiences and leave them with maybe a little bit of hope themselves.
Thank you, Amanda for celebrating the 38th anniversary of this classic work, Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting.
As Syd Field always said “Good writing!”