It has been said that a movie is a story told with pictures. So, it only follows that a screenplay is nothing more than that “picture story” written out in words – the dialogue, setting, sometimes camera angles – a simple translation onto the page of the images that will tell the movie’s story.
If only that were true! Screenwriting, like any other writing, is a craft. And like all crafts, it has rules. These rules weren’t written before the first screenplay, but instead they have evolved as quality screenwriting has been analyzed and studied over the decades. In other words, these rules didn’t create the first great screenplays. In fact, the opposite is true. Great screenplays created these rules. Scholars of film simply observed what characteristics these screenplays had in common, and wrote down what they learned. One person, in particular, translated what he observed into a structure that has become Hollywood’s most trusted tool for testing a screenplay’s viability and potential for success.
Who is this mythical man, you may ask, who has had such wide-reaching impact on how a screenplay is judged? His name is Syd Field, and his watershed work on screenwriting is a little book called Screenplay.
Before I say more about screenplay structure, let me repeat that Syd Field didn’t “invent” the ideas he describes in Screenplay and his subsequent books. He simply observed and articulated what has become known as the paradigm of three-act structure.
Field’s theory of screenplay structure is easy to understand, once you’ve familiarized yourself with the paradigm. Basically, Field proposes that in the most successful screenplays (and by that I don’t mean “box-office success”; I mean that the screenplay can most successfully be translated into a vivid on-screen story) share certain characteristics.
In Field’s structure, the film’s “Set-up” (Act One) must be established within the first twenty to thirty minutes before the protagonist experiences a “plot point” that gives him or her a goal that must be achieved. About half of the film’s running time begins at this first “plot point” and must then be taken up with the protagonist’s struggle to achieve his or her goal. This middle fifty percent of the script is known as the “Confrontation” (Act Two.) Field also refers to the “Midpoint,” a more subtle turning point that happens in the middle of Act Two, which generally has a profound impact on the protagonist’s path. Sometimes a new character is introduced at the midpoint; sometimes a subplot is introduced or heats up. The final quarter of the film, the “Resolution” (Act Three,) depicts a climactic struggle by the protagonist to finally achieve (or not achieve) his or her goal and the aftermath of this struggle.
If before reading this post you were completely unfamiliar with Syd Field and his impact on the film industry, you may be cursing him at this moment, blaming him for introducing “formula” to the wonderful world of cinema and destroying creativity. As a writer who has attempted to write within this structure, I must admit it can be very daunting. But keep in mind that Syd Field’s structure is just that – a structure. It’s like a wash line. It gives support, but it doesn’t limit the variety of what you can hang on it.
If you doubt Field’s influence, here’s a challenge. Choose one of your favorite movies. Take the total running time of the film, divide it according to the structure laid out in the diagram above, and then look for the turning points that Field denotes in his paradigm. Let me know if you find a modern Hollywood film that departs drastically from the paradigm. I’m sure there are a few out there. For my part, I’ve tried it with Chinatown, Like Water for Chocolate, and Say Anything. They all fit. And, in my opinion, they are all well-structured films.
Whether you write screenplays, novels, or poetry, most writers have strong opinions about structure and RULES! I look forward to reading your comments – both positive and negative!