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According to Syd Field, author of Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, screenplays are so simple, so formulaic, so predictable that any idiot can write one. Although, he admits, only about 40 out of 2,000 are worth putting on the silver screen. Sound contradictory? You ain’t seen nothing’ yet!
edit The Beginning
The beginning, Syd says, is the setup because it sets up the rest of the story. It lasts 30 minutes, no more, no less, and devotes its last five minutes or so to Plot Point 1, a spinner or twister that, in Syd’s immortal words, “hooks into the story and spins it around in another direction,” rather like a meat fork. (A page of script, Syd says, equals a minute of screen time, regardless of whether the page is devoted to dialogue, action, or both.) Wow! This is great, you might be thinking, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
edit The Middle
The middle lasts 60 pages (60 minutes), and Syd calls it the confrontation because, in his immortal words, “the basis of all drama is conflict.” This part of the script ends with Plot point 2, which usually occurs, Syd says, between pages 85 and 90, just to keep things fair and balanced. It leads to the story’s resolution in part three, the end of the plot. So far, mot people will have learned all of Syd’s lessons about “drama” and “screenwriting” in high school, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
edit The End
The end of the screenplay or plot or drama or story or whatever Syd is trying to teach us in his book lasts the final 30 minutes (30 pages) of the 120-minute movie/120-page script. The ending must tie everything up in a neat explanation that makes sense of everything and makes the audience damned glad that they came to see such a sensible movie. “The days of ambiguous endings,” such as that of “Young Goodman Brown,” “are over,” Nathaniel Hawthorne be damned. Syd tells us all this in only the first four pages/four minutes of his book, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! And it’s a good thing, too, because he has about 240 pages more to go.
edit Character and Action (and Everything!)
Here are more of Syd’s words of wisdom: a screenplay is like a noun (a character) and a verb (action), and--wow!, Syd!--“action is what happens; character, who it happens to.” Revelation after revelation! And, say it with me: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
Syd also says, “Research is essential in writing the screenplay.” You go, Syd!
edit More Character and Action
Then, back to action and character, Syd informs his reader that there are two kinds of action: physical and emotional, and that once you identify what a character wants, you have defined his or her need. (Syd is unable to distinguish between a need, which is something required, like air, and desire, which is something wanted but non-essential, like pizza, so he uses the two terms interchangeably, saying, “You must define the need of your character. What does he want?” Once you have defined the main character’s need-requirement-want-desire-wish-whim-longing-craving-yearning, you then put obstacles between the character’s need-requirement-want-desire-wish-whim-longing-craving-yearning and his or her acquisition of the same, and the action results from having the protagonist overcome these obstacles as he or she seeks to attain his or her need-requirement-want-desire-wish-whim-longing-craving-yearning. Presto! You have drama! You have a plot! You have a screenplay! You have a movie! Now, all you have to do is write the thing. But Syd has more words of wisdom to help you along in your realization of your own authorial need-requirement-want-desire-wish-whim-longing-craving-yearning, never fear, because you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, nothin’!
A character has two aspects: interior life (from birth to the present), by which his or her character is formed, and exterior life, consisting of his or her conflict between his or her need-requirement-want-desire-wish-whim-longing-craving-yearning and the obstacles that stand in his or her way and his or her interactions with him- or herself and others, by which his or her character is revealed visually (on film). The exterior life is divided into three areas: work, marital or social, and private (alone), which makes the character “real” and “multidimensional,” Syd says. Of course, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
A character is a point of view, Syd says--a way of seeing things--a "context."
A character, Syd says, is an attitude--"a context."
Syd says, a character is a personality--"a context."
A character is behavior, Syd says--"a context."
A character is revealtion, Syd says--"a context."
A character is identification, Syd says--"a context."
edit Creating Characters
Syd says to create a character to create a story or to come up with an idea and then to "fit" characters into the idea. When creating a character, Syd says, the character should be created for a "bankable" actor. As examples of bankable actors, Syd names these names:
- Faye Dunaway
- Jane Fonda
- Diane Keaton
- Raquel Welch
- Candice Bergen
- Mia Farrow
- Shirley MacLaine
- Jill Clayburgh
- Paul Newman
- Steve McQueen
- Clint Eastwood
- Jack Nicholson
- Dustin Hoffman
- Robert Redford
(Syd is a little behind the times, it seems.)
Don't be too specific, Syd warns: "If we write it for Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton's going to turn it down." Yikes!
What's next? Play 20 questions to generate a back story and an interior life for the character. As an example of a "story premise" that results from this approach, Syd says:
- A young woman attorney in Boston discovers unsafe working conditions at a nuclear power plant, amd despte political pressure and threats to her life, succeeds in publicly exposing it. The plant is shut down until repairs are made and a safe condition exists.
It sounds a little like Erin Brockovich, but, Syd says, call it Precuation, and no one will know the difference. A little plagiarism, Syd says, does wonders for creativity, and you still ain't seen nothin' yet!
edit Up and Down Endings
Syd forgot to tell his readers about up and down endings when he was discussing the end as the third plot division, but he remembers now, and, better late than never, mentions that there are "up" endings (popular now) and "down" endings (popular when Jane Fonda and Robert Redford were still hot). See? You ain't seen nothin' yet!
edit After All Is Said And Done
After you finish writing your screenplay, Syd says, you should do this: "Place a copy of your screenplay in an envelope, and send it to yourself. . . When you receive the envelope, file it away. DO NOT OPEN IT!"
In a few months, your screenplay will be a movie!