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Interview with Syd Field

By Athena Hayes

A real gem on the craft of screenwriting, the third edition of Syd Field's preeminent book, Screenplay, provides easily understood guidelines on writing a script from concept to finished product. Syd sits down to talk to the Writers Store about the next generation of screenwriting.

What led you to write Screenplay in 1979?

At that time, there were only a few books on the market that dealt with the art and craft of screenwriting. I was teaching screenwriting at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood, where hundreds of people flowed through my courses, and asked me to present what I was teaching in book form. It became clear that everyone had a story to tell, they just didn't know how to tell it. Screenplay changed all that. It became an immediate best seller because it was the first book of its kind to use well-known and popular movies of the time to illustrate the craft of writing for the screen.

What are the major differences between the original and the newly revised version?

The revised edition of Screenplay is a new book. What I did when I rewrote it is remodel an old house to make it modern. As a result, of the eighteen chapters of the revised edition, five are new additions. It is a total rewrite from page one, in fact, this book is almost twice as long as original.

I have taken the foundation of Screenplay, and expanded it to include detailed chapters on the creation of Story, Character and Scene. In the chapter on Scene, I use Collateral as an illustration, and included is a reprint of ten pages of the script along with an in-depth interview with screenwriter Stuart Beattie.

The chapter on Story Line gives the writer a whole new way of using the card system, and the chapter on Adaptation examines successful translations of books to screen, such as Seabiscuit and Mystic River. Lord of the Rings writers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens serve as an excellent illustration for the chapter on Collaboration. I also use all new examples to illustrate the basic screenwriting principles, including American Beauty, The Bourne Supremacy and As Good as it Gets. The only film that hasn't changed from the first book and the one I will not give up is Chinatown - it's the perfect screenplay!

A new subject you bring up in your book is the "Two Incidents." Tell us more about this concept.

The Two Incidents and in particular, the Key Incident is a relatively new idea in my teaching. The Inciting Incident, the first incident, opens up the screenplay and sets the story in motion. In The Lord of the Rings, the inciting incident is when Bilbo Baggins finds the ring at the bottom of the river. It is the first visual representation of The Key Incident which is what the story is about, and what draws the main character into the story. In The Lord of the Rings, the Key Incident is when Frodo, by fate, destiny or karma becomes the ring bearer.

The Inciting Incident always leads us to the Key Incident, which is the hub of the story line, the engine that powers the story forward. The Key Incident reveals to us what the story is about.

All films can break down as such. The Key Incident will generally be the plot point at the end of Act One, but not always. One such example is Ordinary People. The entire screenplay revolves around the key incident of the drowning, which occurs before the story begins but is pieced together and finally seen in its totality at Plot Point II.

What do you believe is the most influential screenplay in the last 20 years?

Pulp Fiction. People say Tarantino broke the mold, but in fact it's three stories about one story. It's just a shift in the point of view. Pulp Fiction doesn't break the mold of Three Act Structure, what it does is incorporate the Three Act in a new way. All three stories bounce off the key incident: Jules and Vincent retrieving Marcellus Wallace's briefcase. I did an experiment; I put all three stories in a linear progression. It makes it boring and dull. The genius of Tarantino was that he could see that, so he moved the story around. Each section is a short story, in linear fashion, presented from a different character's point of view.

The revolution that Pulp Fiction led is that films are becoming more novelistic. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and The Royal Tennenbaums use titles, chapters and other novelistic tools.

What do you feel is the most significant change in the craft of screenwriting since Screenplay was released in 1979?

I think the influence of technology on the way a story is told is the most significant change.

The way we see things is different than 20 years ago. In both Casablanca and The Bourne Supremacy there is a love story that takes place in the past. In Casablanca, the love story we see in a flashback, and that flashback is inserted into the storyline. If you take The Bourne Supremacy, in contrast, you have an incident that Bourne is trying to remember, and it becomes integrated not inserted, it becomes part of the storyline.

The way we view technology, from Bluetooth, to WiFi to cell phones, all these new technological aspects change the way we see stories and the way we express them in screenplay. Take Kiss Kiss Bang Bang by Shane Black which is amazingly stylistic, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, by Charlie Kaufman, which is an amazing way to see a story.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from someone in the business?

From Jean Renoir, "Perfection exists only in the mind, and not in reality."

Meet the Author: Athena Hayes

Athena Hayes is an experienced writer specializing in online content. Her knack for bringing a clever twist to her projects has brought accolades from her high-profile clients, including Banana Republic, Old Navy, CBS Interactive and National Planning Corporation. She received an English degree from UCLA, and studied screenwriting and television writing at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. 

Athena has worked with The Writers Store and Writers University since 2001, writing and editing the eZine, marketing collateral and va...