STRUCTURING THE SCARE: HOW THE SYD FIELD PARADIGM HELPED ME WRITE A HORROR SCREENPLAY
It’s October. Spider webs, creepy decor, and elaborate costumes are rising from the dead. Halloween, one of my least favorite holidays, looms just beyond the horizon, creeping closer, preparing for a jump scare. When I was a kid, I donned my mask and cape with glee, preparing for a massive candy haul bigger than the previous year. Now I feel like I’m too old to dress up and hunt for candy and all my friends seem to feel the same.
Even though I’m older and not driven by a thirst for a sugar rush, the horror genre still fascinates me. The distinction between good and bad horror is so simple. Either you’re scared or you’re not. Despite its simplicity, creating a story intended to scare your audience raises seriously difficult questions in my mind. Fear is such a broad and vast emotion. So many filmmakers have harnessed its power expertly while others seem to only scratch the surface.
How can I make my screenplay scare everyone? Wrong question. According to the Syd Field screenwriting method, that’s not what I need to be thinking about right now. What I should focus on is my ending, beginning, Plot Point I, and Plot Point II. I had a story, I just needed to write it.
Structure. Arguably the most important aspect of any screenplay. I struggled with this concept ever since I wrote my first book as a first grader. I despised the idea of structure because I believed it hindered my creativity. As a teenager, anyone, whether it be Shakespeare or an English teacher that got in the way of my rebellious angst was the enemy.
In The Screenwriters Workbook, Chapter 2, “About Structure” – Syd Field says, “Structure is a context; it “holds” the bits and pieces and fragments of images that tell your story in place.” Now that I’ve matured and have a fully developed frontal lobe, I agree with my superiors.
My writing career up until I studied Syd Field’s teachings was like Harry Potter’s arm after the quidditch match in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Before Harry is rushed to the infirmary, Professor Lockhart’s spell, instead of mending Harry’s broken arm removes the bones completely. Yes, it resembled an arm but without bones, it not only didn’t work but it made putting the pieces back together like playing chess with no chessboard. The poor pawns and knights and bishops would wander aimlessly with no structure. And that’s what my writing was like.
The hardest thing for me had always been finishing. I’d run out of steam and interest after 30-80 pages. Like chess pieces without the structure of a checkered board, all the pieces of my screenplay were scattered all over the place. I needed structure. I downloaded Syd Field’s The Essential Screenplay (3 book bundle) and got to work.
Which brings me to a screenplay I’ve wanted to write since I was in grade school – a horror short titled Antidote. Like many kids, I was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication. My film is an attempt to capture the feeling of mental instability and our dependence on medication. For years I struggled with trying to figure out how to write this story. How to accurately capture that feeling of uncertainty and do justice to a topic I and others struggle with daily.
The Syd Field three-act paradigm helped me actualize a large portion of the story ideas swirling around in my head. Now instead of faint voices and vague concepts, I have the clarity needed to control my creative urges and funnel them into finality. This inevitably pushed me to dig deeper and explore ideas I would never have attempted otherwise. After studying Syd Field, I had an outline finished in a day.
First, I figured out my ending, which rarely comes to me when I begin. When the creative rush hits me, it almost always leaves before the conclusion. Deciding how the short would end made it more real and thus made me more accountable. It’s easy to be flimsy with an unfinished story, but by giving the story a life expectancy, simultaneously gives it life.
The opening scene makes or breaks a film. If I can’t grab you in the first 10 pages, then how will I hold you hostage for an hour? That sounds like pressure but it’s not. I can’t make you scared or entertained. All I can do is tell my story and let the story do the talking.
Plot Point I was tricky but manageable. Inciting and key incidents were the blood, bone, and sinew I needed to keep moving forward. Their relationship, intrinsic to any story, is the only thing that mattered.
Plot Point II is when the fan is either covered in excrement or parting the last of the thunderstorm away to let the sun shine in. I found that when I finally arrived at Plot Point II, I had almost finished my journey. The only reason I could feel good about that journey, to truly feel a sense of accomplishment, is because I had a destination. I’d created my ending before I began, so now I got to blow out my candles and get ready to eat my slice of cake.
Structure didn’t confine me, it freed me from confining myself.
When I think of the power of horror films, nothing stands out more than a scene from a movie I saw as a kid called The Haunted Mansion. In the movie the young black son, who I identified with, must free his family from a crypt infested with zombies. As he is about to open the door, a swarm of tarantulas covers the crypt entrance. The boy hesitates, trapped because of his arachnophobia, (which I also share!). He is unable to see that the only thing trapping him is himself. Nothing, for me, is more frightening than my wandering, wildly scattered imagination. Syd Field’s books have provided me with the tools to build foundations strong enough to house some of the rowdiest tenants imaginable that constantly blast my brain with their life stories right when I’m trying to sleep. Structure made my ideas tangible, furthering them to completion instead of barring the door to entry with fear. I can’t thank Mr. Field enough for that.
Now that I’ve learned how to structure my writing fear, maybe I’ll start to enjoy Halloween again.