Interview with Syd Field
by Athena Schultz (Writers Store Staff)
gem on the craft of screenwriting, the third edition of Syd Field's
preeminent book on screenwriting, Screenplay, provides easily
understood guidelines for writing a screenplay, from concept to
finished product. Here Syd sits down to talk to the Writers Store about
the next generation of screenwriting.
What led you to write Screenplay
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
What do you believe is the most
influential screenplay in the last 20 years?
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.
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
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.
Casablanca, the love story we see in a flashback, and that flashback is
inserted into the storyline.
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.
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
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