“Syd Field died today,” I tell my son.
“Who’s Syd Field?” he asks.
“He came up with a theory that there was a formula that was used in every great screenplay, and if you followed that formula, then you could write a good screenplay.”
“He made writing math?” My son squinched up his nose in disgust. Writing is a pleasure for my son and math is not. And there lies the rub with Syd Field.
Here is the man who put the first book of film anatomy on the desks of every wannabe film maker. He showed us a different way to look at page upon page of words and pick out the heart of the movie. He diagramed the mystery of how its lifeblood flowed. He showed us ways to dissect it on notecards, which could open your mind to reassembling it.
Suddenly we screenwriters had tools ― corkboards, pushpins and notecards to cover our walls ― writing for tactile learners.
He started the conversation. Is there a formula ― a science to a great story? Just as DaVinci tried to find symmetry in his Vitruvian Man, Field tried to reveal the symmetry in story. It made some people angry. How could beauty and drama be dissected and a beating heart torn from the living creature of our dreams without killing it?
Field made a thousand writers sigh as they scrolled through their screenplays with his book in hand, ecstatic if their plot points and midpoints and midpoint twos were laying out properly. Yet they were terrified that if they didn’t fall into the Syd Field structure, studio executives might not understand their films.
He had offered not only a tool for screenwriters but also a tool for nervous studio executives whose jobs were continuously on the line if they couldn’t produce a film that satisfied an audience. If there was a true scientific way to judge a screenplay other than just taste, it made the job a lot easier.
Have your studio execs study the Syd Field book and they’ll be able to judge the blockbusters by just perusing a few crucial pages. “What happens on page 30?” becomes the most important question, not what your story is about. The question became: “Will this screenplay work?”
Field, who made a thousand writers scream, “Damn your formula! I just need a pencil and my imagination.”
But the body of the screenplay had already been laid out and etherized upon the table for other story scientists such as Robert McKee, Blake Snyder and Linda Seger to probe at with their scalpels and write their own anatomy of a screenplay.
But Syd Field’s name alone will remain iconic ― remembering those early days of film school, that book on every film student’s desk, shelf, bed. Reading the pages out loud to one another, underlining, drawing diagrams on the back cover.
And then wrestling through sleepless nights with my first feature, “I Like It Like That.” Just as I had given up all hope of making that film work, my New York University professor said unto me, “Take up Syd’s book and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.”
Yes, Syd, the formula to me is bitter, but I remember the honey.
“How important is the scene in screenwriting? It is the cell that holds everything together. It serves two functions ― either it moves the story forward or it reveals character. If it does not serve either of those two functions, cut it!” ― Syd Field.
“Write from your heart and don’t be afraid” to write bad pages ― Syd Field, who employed some more colorful language.
Those two quotes inspired me and gave me the strength to always keep writing.
I go to my bookshelves to look over the notes and bent pages in that battle-worn book from the trenches of NYU’s film school. But it’s gone, given to some aspiring young writer decades ago. That’s what you do with books that change the way you think. You keep them moving. Whether you believe in Field’s three-act structure or a four- or five-act structure isn’t relevant to appreciate what he did for young writers.
By Darnell Martin
Darnell Martin is the writer and director of “I Like It Like That” and “Cadillac Records.” ― Ed