Syd Field. The Screenwriter’s Workbook. New York: Random House, 2006.
This book begins by acknowledging that Jean Renoir defined art as a process of a person producing, finishing, and presenting something for the public to see. He thus believed that movies could possibly be “literature”, but not “art”, because movies are not the result of one artist’s work process.
The author, Syd Field, views screenwriting as both craft and art. One artist, the screenwriter, can produce a screenplay for the public. As the craft has changed, limits on what can be written that can be shown in movies have been lifted. Screenplays become story exposition, the fabric of experience encompassing emotions, thoughts, feelings, and philosophies that are presented as visual and audio movies.
The book presents a process for writing a screenplay. It is recommended that a screenplay idea should be structured and considered in a treatment that examines the planned screenplay’s end, start, and plot points. The screenwriter is then advised to write biographies of the characters, then to write the back-stories of the events prior to the period the screenplay will present. Then, it is recommended to begin writing dialogue.
Syd Field urges writers to avoid the perfectionist urge that some writers seek, noting there is no such thing as perfection. He also encouraged writers to not hold on to concept that events have to show reality. Audiences often respond more to a realistic story shown in an effective and dramatic manner. Thus, he urges writers to consider a real experience but to then find a more dramatic way to present that story, and then merge reality and drama to produce a “dramatic reality”.
Field advises taking an idea for a screenplay and looking thoroughly at each section of the idea’s actions and characters. He notes that screenwriter William Goldman advises considering a screenplay as a whole. As general system theory is that the whole is larger than the sum of all the parts, a screenplay is a whole that mashes various parts, such as dialogue, action, events, scenes, sequences, incidences, events, the screenwriter, etc. into one whole screenplay; one with a start, middle and conclusion. Structure is what keeps all the pieces together in presenting the screenplay ‘s story. The result is the screenplay, which Syd Field defines as a story, presented visually with dialogue, description, and shaped into a dramatic structure, which is the events, episodes, and related incidents that result in a dramatic resolution. It is this structure that merges characters and their actions in the story.
Screenwriters should consider the consider structures of their screenplays when beginning to create them. There should be a beginning, middle, and end to the story. Different points of actions throughout the story should be examined, characters considered, and a resolution found for the various lines of action. It should be noted that what holds everything together is the story.
Field believes what makes for a good screenplay is one with much dramatic action, heading towards a particular resolution that incrementally progresses to that resolution, which is known as a line of development, that takes an audience from one point to another, final part. A good screenplay holds its structure together with maximum dramatic value, including good plot, actions, characters, incidences, events, and episodes. Field stresses that structure is the only common ingredient found in all good screenplays.
Most screenplays present approximately one page for each minute shown in a movie. Most studios stipulate (as of circa 2004) that all movies must run within 128 pages. Thus, all screenplays should be within 128 pages. Act One often (but not always is this is not a set rule) is 18 to 20 pages, Act Two 50 to 60 pages, and Act Three 15 to 20 pages.
Act One presents the story (also known as the dramatic premise), main characters, and then stir some drama (also known as the dramatic situation) and show how the main characters relate to each other. Act One is the Set Up where a plot point, which is an incident that changes the plot’s direction, leads into Act Two, the Confrontation this incidental incident creates.
Act Two presents the drama or comedy that presents obstacles to the main character’s dramatic need. Act Two has a plot point that redirects the action into Act Three, the Resolution that ties the story to its conclusion.
Writing a treatment prior to writing the screenplay often allows a writer to reflect upon plot ideas and improve upon them. Field calls this the “kick in the ass exercise” that sharpens script ideas. Field also forewarns that only established writers, when working with a production executive or some foreign studio executives, ever sell a movice idea from writing just a treatment. Treatments are devices mostly for the writer’s sole use, and it is not at all required. Field recommends that treatments include a dramatic recreation that describes the beginning of the film, a narrative synopsis that sums Act One, sums Act Two including obstacles facing characters and then describe the dramatic context of the confrontation whose conflict resolution ends the story. Syd Field recommends the dramatic recreation of the beginning of the screenplay should be about one half page, the narrative synopsis about one half a page, the dramatic reduction about one half a page, the narrative synopsis of Act Two be about a page, and the narrative synopsis of Act Three be about half a page. Treatments can be registered, thus establishing a dated proof of authorship, with the Writers Guild of America for $20 ($10 for a WGA member). A treatment may or may not resemble the screenplay that is produced. It is written to assist a writer, who is free to reevaluate and make changes to improve the script.
A good character is defined by what that character does, not by what that character says. Good characters are critical to a screenplay. To understand a character, a writer should know the essentials of that character’s life and then create situations that expand that character. A character has to cause and be a part of the action of a screenplay and not a passive observer and reactor. A character must have a strong dramatic need, which is something the main character strongly desires in the story, an individualistic point of view, an attitude that demonstrates the composition of the character, and the character usually changes or is transformed by what happens in the story.
Characterization shows how a character lives, speaks, and is presented to others. Showing the characterizations allow an audience to gain insight into the characters.
Some writers research ideas of facts for their scripts. Live research involves direct interviews of people. Textual research involves direct researching written sources. Dialogue, which is a function of character, is critical in writing. A writer who better understands the characters usually writes better dialogue, as the writer knows how the character should respond in the scene situations. A writer should be aware how characters speak and recall that very few people speak with perfect language skills. A writer will skillfully have characters reveal themselves. Sometimes character is revealed by having a character react by playing against the grain, which is placing the character in a very untypical situation. Author Henry James believed in the Theory of Illumination, where every time a main character interacts with another character a different aspect about the main character is illuminated. A dramatic confrontation between the main character with another character can allow such illumination to occur. The Circle of Being, where something changes a character’s life and emotional arc in reaction to the incident, can be used to present character illumination. A flashback in time can bridge information from the past to the time of the current story to reveal more about a character,
Field recommends, for writing Act Two, that 14 different Act Two scenes be outlined. He states experience has shown him that 14 is often the correct number of Act Two scenes. Writers will often free associate in creating these 14 scenes, something Field recommend should take only a few words per scene to create. He also suggests that Act Two should show different amounts of dramatic action that are held together by a Midpoint in the screenplay’s middle. There also should be a lot of conflict presented. Conflict can occur in dialogue or in physical actions.
Scenes transition to one another by one picture to another picture, from one sound to another sound, from one music to different music, from one special effect to another special effect, by a scene that ends by dissolving, by fading out, or with a smash cut. Different types of transitions work for different movies, such as action films may quickly transition scenes while a character driven movie may contain short dialogue or long silence between transitions.
Act Three has one or two and occasionally three story elements that require resolution. A previously chosen ending can always be changed. The next step after writing the end is to rewrite the script.
There are three different types of rewriting. The first kind is a review of the words written. The second kind involves technical correction that is required from making other changes made while writing the script. The third kind involves polishing and improving the script. In reviewing and rewriting, a writer should be certain the conflicts, midpoints, and all elements are effective.