November 18, 2013

Remembering Syd Field, the First Voice on Screenwriting Most of Us Ever Heard

Syd FieldChances are, if you've ever tried your hand at screenwriting, the first book you picked up to learn how to do it was one written by "guru of screenwriting" Syd Field, who sadly passed away yesterday at the age of 77. His contribution to the cinematic world is without question massive and far-reaching -- inspiring the writing of Tina Fey, Judd Apatow, Frank Darabont, and countless others. However, his greatest achievement wasn't necessarily in writing the perfect paradigm or formula -- there isn't one -- it was in his incredible ability to introduce so many people to the art of screenwriting.

Mentored by famed filmmaker Jean Renoir, Syd Field had quite the illustrious career. He has taught in Europe, Asia, South America and Canada and his books have been translated into many languages. Over the years, he has assumed many important roles, such as a script consultant to Fox, the Disney Studios, Universal, Tri-Star Pictures. According to Field's obituary, which was published by Raindance, he was also inducted into the Final Draft Hall of Fame in 2006 and was the first inductee into the American Screenwriting Association's Screenwriting Hall of Fame.

One of Field's biggest contributions to screenwriting in his 50-year career, and that for which he's most celebrated for, is being the first writer to outline the three-act structure -- a classic paradigm that most screenplays follow. He has penned 8 best-selling books, but his first, Screenplay, which was published in 1979, is regarded as the screenwriting bible in most circles.

Now, among screenwriters there is always a little squabbling over which guru breaks down the giant monster that is screenwriting best -- who teaches the better technique, formula, etc. To be honest, I don't think any one screenwriting teacher or expert will ever have all of the answers. The beautiful thing about what Syd Field gave the filmmaking and screenwriting community was, as screenwriter John August put it this morning on Twitter, "an inciting incident."

Syd Field was the first name I heard when it came to learning how to write screenplays, and for several years, his were the only books from which I gleaned information about the subject. (Not to sound like a total nerd, but I absolutely have Field's Scriptor app on my phone.) His name is attached in some strange way to my experience of falling in love with screenwriting -- as most teachers often are.

Even though I, as well as most of you, I'm sure, have branched out and stretched the bindings of other screenwriting teachers' books (as we certainly should), Syd Field will always be remembered by the community as being the guru, the teacher, the most sought-after mind in the screenwriting world. However, to individual screenwriters he's the first.

Syd Field_RenoirYou always remember the one who raised the curtain on the things for which you have a lifelong passion for. It's feels as though they mentor you through the entire stretch of your long journey, of both your craft and your life. For screenwriters, our craft mirrors life, after all, and you know who taught me about that connection? Syd Field.

I look back over the footprints of my journey. I see where I began my trek, gaze over the ground I've covered, the trails I've traversed, and understand that it's not the destination but the journey itself that is both the goal and the purpose. It's just like writing a screenplay. [Screenplay, 306]

How has Syd Field influenced your journey as a screenwriter? Let us know in the comments. And for those of you who'd like your first introduction to screenwriting, I suggest checking out Syd Field's books and his website.

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Your Comment

11 Comments

If there's one rule you want to break, please let it be his screening writing forumla.

November 18, 2013 at 10:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Cee

I should have read the article, i guess the guy on twitter already applogized for the forumla (:

November 18, 2013 at 10:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Cee

"He was an inciting incident..." - JA

Fuck... that's why John August is a professional writer and I'm not. Damn that's good.

November 18, 2013 at 11:05PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Brock

What's better for a beginning screenwriter - knowledge of some basic professionalism or an arching conceptual understanding of what a screenplay is trying to accomplish?

November 18, 2013 at 11:15PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Why not both?

November 19, 2013 at 6:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Kraig

People overthink. Sometimes your story can bear a by-the-page format (exposition of 5-10 pages, then the main story line, then story twists every 10, big moment in the scene before last, etc.). And sometimes your story just has to unfold differently and fitting it into a formula would detract from its overall impact,

November 19, 2013 at 9:08PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Kraig makes a good point -- it's not an either/or thing. What Syd Field did, at least for me, was give me a structure with which to organize my wild and untrained storytelling. That structure helped me finish my first script in 3 months. Six years later, sure, I don't always follow his paradigm (though breaking up the 2nd act is always golden to me.) The Hero's Journey is a great tool. Robert McKee teaches great tools. These are all just tools that help different people in different ways -- sometimes even not at all. If writing within a structure helps get your vision on the page, why not use it?

November 19, 2013 at 9:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

If it helps ... my point was that it could hurt. I think it was John August who said something like, "Keep writing .. don't worry about the formatting or any of that other stuff ... get your thoughts down first".
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Plus, I do think structure can be overrated. The "Graduate" is one of my favorite films - and I like it more the more I learn about the various subtleties of film making - but about a half of it is about Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson. Then you have a twist to Elaine and then a long "chase". In terms of the traditional 120 page structure, it's against all rules. But that's how the story had to play itself out. The Godfather's story structure is a mess as well.

November 19, 2013 at 9:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

We can fight the idea of a formula as much as we like, but there is no getting away from it. Our screenplays need structure, or they will descend into a bloody mess. The only way to break a rule successfully is to understand what we are breaking. If we don't, we're shooting in the dark.

Syd Field and Blake Snyder have helped me enormously. By knowing how it should be done, and taking slightly different paths here and there, I have been able to create stories that seem to resonate with the reader and viewer. For that, I am grateful.

Thanks...

November 19, 2013 at 2:33AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Same here! As the article states, Syd was the first name I ever heard when began my journey to write stories back in 2009 and up to this day I go back and re-read Syd Fields and Blake Snyder when needed.

November 22, 2013 at 12:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Syd Field was a gladiator in screenwriting. The master who taught people to express themselves authentically and keep the line of action engaging to the audience in terms of screenplay. He is the first to highlight essential story 'spicing up' in a way that is easily understood.May his soul rest in peace. America has lost a giant

November 22, 2013 at 1:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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