Welcome to Day 9!
If you have not heard of Syd Field, you need to. That’s Screenwriting 101. Besides, Syd Field is the Jesus Christ of Screenwriting. Seriously, he actually died and rose again for your writing sins: bad formatting, one dimensional characters, stilted dialogue, lack of narrative throughput, non-causal scene progression, lame first 10 pages, and fizzling out in Act II. These are the 7 deadly writing sins. But they can be forgiven.
The unpardonable sin, of course, is writing a script about Vampires or the End Times.
Anyway, you don’t know how many scripts I’ve read where I just wanted to send them a Syd Field Bible (“Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting“) and tell them to get saved! I’m not here to steal Syd Field’s thunder at all, but I have boiled down his screen theology and would like to present that for your consideration.
Remember when we were talking about loglines and I said we would talk more about the four points you need before you begin writing your script? Yup! Okay, then, let’s dig in…
Syd Field’s – Four Point Plot Structure
Most, but not all screenplays, are broken down into 3 Acts.
1. ACT I – The first 20 to 30 pages of your script. If it’s a 90 page Comedy, Act 1 leans more toward the 20 count. For a 120 page Drama, it tends toward the 30 page count.
This Act establishes all the characters. It introduces the HERO who has a PROBLEM. Act I ends the moment HERO makes a decision about the PROBLEM.
For Example: Elliot is the runt in his single parented family. Meanwhile, some Extra Terrestrials land to pick some flowers and when they leave, one of them is left behind. The abandoned E.T. is befriended by Elliot and his brother and sister. Elliot utters the words: “I’m gonna keep him” (BOOM! Did you hear that? That’s the decision which signifies the end of Act I)
2. ACT II – The next 45 to 60 pages
Also known as the “Sea of Act II” because it’s a loooooong expanse to voyage across. It can be very traumatic if you haven’t tossed in enough elements in Act I to create the DRAMA needed to propel the narrative into Act III.
SIDE NOTE about Drama: Drama=Conflict and Conflict=Drama Conflict fuels the action of Act II.
Act II is also the section where the HERO tries everything in his/her power to fulfill the decision of Act I and all hell breaks loose to stop them. The end of Act II is a specific point called the LOW of LOWS. This is the absolute LOWEST point the HERO has faced. It appears the goal is unattainable and that ALL IS LOST!
For example, in the MATRIX, Neo hits his LOW of LOWS. He’s dead. Killed off by Agent Smith. Meanwhile, Morpheus’ ship is under attack by the machines as they rip into the hull and they have to ignite the ElectroMagnetic blast which will prove even more fatal (since he’s just mooooostly dead) since he’s plugged into the Matrix, which is generally considered a no-no.
What happens next in the LOW of LOWS is a turn of events that is sparked by the SEEDS of the SOLUTION which have been planted all along the way throughout the story. In Neo’s case, the seeds have been the idea that maybe he is The One. Maybe he is endowed with special powers because he is a Saviour for all humanity. Is he or isn’t he? All along through the film the audience has gone back and forth on this one. Finally…we realize the truth. He is. (BOOM! Hear that? That’s the sound of us the audience careening headlong into Act III!)
In E.T. the SEEDS of the SOLUTION which have been planted through the story is the fact that ET’s life force is linked to other things like Elliot and that flower that ET “healed”. So after ET dies, Elliot cries and everyone leaves to give him a moment and then as he walks out he sees the Flower, coming back to life and he KNOWS that ET is back! (BOOM! You guessed it! Act III!)
3. ACT III – 15 to 20 pages
In this Act the HERO has one more chance to reach his/her goal. Act III barrels along as the HERO attains this goal, or not. Once the GOAL has been attained (or not) the story is over…it would be tempting to keep on going, but resist the urge. End the story as soon as possible after the GOAL has been reached. Do not dip to black 7 times a la “Return of the King” and do not pass Go and do not collect $200. Just finish your script, a.k.a:
4. The DENOUMENT. (2 to 3 pages).
In DIE HARD 2, after the climax and the Airplane with the baddies is blown up, the Denoument is the 2 to 3 pages where Bruce Willis makes up with his wife, gets apologies from the skeptical authorities and his wife punches out the pesky reporter and they ride off into the sunset together….er….they ride off into the dark of night on the back of an emergency vehicle.
So, to recap:
ACT I >>>DECISION>>>ACT II>>>LOW OF LOWS>>>SEEDS OF SOLUTIONS>>>ACT III (Climax)>>>>DENOUMENT
This becomes the spine of your story. The stronger you make it, the better your narrative holds up. Take a little time to dissect some other films and figure out the 4 Point Plot Structure. Here are some choices below, but it’s best to pick a film that you’ve seen 5 or 10 times and you know backwards and forwards for this exercise.
Using Syd Field’s structure, map out some of the following films:
“Facing the Giants”
“Back to the Future”