Utilizing Syd Field’s Screenwriting Paradigm to Understand Script Timeline Structure
Field’s Paradigm allows the organization of stories into structured timelines. Act One: story set up; Act Two: confrontation; Act Three: resolution. In 1979, for the first time in screenwriting history, Syd introduced the Paradigm in Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting.
Structure always exists. Filmmakers, writers, and actors find structure to better tell the story. Syd invites us to study the Paradigm: «Screenplays that work follow the paradigm… don’t take my word for it. Go to a movie and see whether you can determine its structure…». I revisited the paradigm with the film Kodachrome, written by Jonathan Tropper. The characters are defined, their dramatic needs clear, and their journey believable.
The Kodachrome message: make peace with your loved ones, ask for forgiveness, allow yourself to give and accept that forgiveness.
Kodachrome follows struggling record executive, Matt, (Jason Sudeikis), summoned by his estranged father, photojournalist Benjamin (Ed Harris), who has terminal cancer. Benjamin summons Matt for a road trip to Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, the world’s last processor of the discontinued film, Kodachrome. Benjamin has film rolls to develop before the lab closes forever.
Here is Syd’s Paradigm defined for Kodachrome:
– runs about thirty pages, sets up the world of the story and introduces the main character.
In Kodachrome, Matt is the lead. He is a struggling music industry executive who can keep his job if he signs a famous band. He is single, uptight, and unhappy.
Inciting Incident and Plot Point One are within Act One. Inciting Incident happens first – within the first ten pages. Plot Point One happens at the end of Act One – somewhere between pages twenty and thirty. The page numbers are guides to stay on track. In Screenplay, Syd says : « It is the form of the screenplay that is important, not the page numbers where Plot Points occur. »
The Inciting Incident is the circumstance that brings the lead character to the forefront; the situation that emotionally involves the character in the story. The scene without which there would be no story.
In Kodachrome, Benjamin’s nurse informs Matt that his father is dying. Benjamin’s last wish: for his only son to join him on a road trip from NY to Kansas to process his last Kodachrome film.
Benjamin has to see Matt before he dies. He seeks forgiveness. Without this scene, there would be no history to the relationship.
Matt refuses. He’s angry, narcissistic, unlikable. Matt is the reluctant hero, not ready to step into his destiny, to forgive his father, and become a man of compassion.
Plot Point One
– moves Act One into Act Two. The true beginning of the story, embarking the lead character on a NEW journey.
Since Matt refused dad, Benjamin’s manager offers introductions between Matt and the Spare 7’s band he has unsuccessfully tried to sign. One condition: Matt takes dad to Kansas. Stuck – Matt accepts. This is Plot Point One. Matt leaves his current journey, hustling in NYC, and ventures into the NEW journey, where he will have to DEAL with dad.
– approximately sixty pages long – confrontation, obstacles, and tests on the character.
Matt’s obstacles range from arguments with dad, to his own hatred, to feeling compassion for his father.
Syd Field’s «discovery» in his second book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook. In this volume, Syd presents «the new paradigm» and includes the scene called Midpoint: «What happens to your main character from Plot Point I to Plot Point II? Knowing the Midpoint is a tool; with it you have a way of focusing your story line into a specific line of action». Syd recommends dividing Act Two into two sections of thirty pages. The division is called Midpoint. On or around page sixty, this scene spins the action into a different direction.
In Kodachrome, Midpoint reveals to Matt that his father is more important than his career. Matt meets with the band. His father coaches him to get the contract. Matt follows dad’s advice and gets the gig! Father and son connect, however Benjamin, weak from his illness, urinates in his pants. The band makes fun of him. Matt is outraged, calls it quits on the deal, and goes to his father’s aide.
This scene spins the action. Matt learns that money and fame mean nothing if matters of the heart are not in place. He chooses his father over his career.
Plot Point Two
– takes Act Two into Act Three, from conflict to resolution. It happens on or around page ninety. After the obstacles the hero, literally or metaphorically, returns or finds «home».
Matt finally gets his father to the lab and drops off the Kodachrome film. Father and son have dinner. Benjamin tells Matt that he loves him. The best time of his life was when Matt was born, when he held him, and promised to always be there. He pleads forgiveness for spending his life avoiding that promise.
Matt is moved and forgives. This is Plot Point Two. Matt is now ready to begin a new relationship with his father; thus taking us into resolution – into Act Three.
– where all loose ends are tied up, where closure begins. It goes from Plot Point Two to the end of the screenplay.
Matt wakes up the next morning – happy, relieved, eager to see his father, but his father has passed.
– by understanding the ending, writers can construct what must be built for the development of the characters.
In the final scene, Matt returns home – to his father’s house. He projects the Kodachrome photos. They are of his mother, him as a baby, and of his father’s happiest time – holding Matt in his arms. Matt cries for all he has lost, for all he has gained… Closure for Matt is coming to terms with the new feelings he has for his father.
In sum, by dissecting Kodachrome with Syd’s Paradigm, we witness human dynamics in primal relationships. Universal Dramatic Needs are highlighted through self reflection and analysis – all of which relate to the craft of screenwriting. Even 40 years after the first publication of Screenplay, Syd Field’s breakthrough teachings and insights live on, hopefully for generations to come.
For your own study and celebration of Syd’s gift to screenwriters, engage with his invitation: “Go to a movie and see whether you can determine its structure…”
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