Screenwriting and Screenwriters - beyond Syd Field


Without denigrating the work and contribution of Syd Field to the art of screenwriting, it is about time many screenwriters moved on.

Syd Field gave us the plot point - a clearer definition of what was previously known as the "twist" - as well as other concepts such as the "pinch" and midpoint. His work is still a valuable start point for screenwriters.

Syd Field's midpoint analysis moved us towards four-act structure, which is well established in many cultures, whereas western culture still tends to dwell on three acts.

It seems as though Syd Field had some issues with the mid-point, one of them being that the inclusion of the mid point and consequently four act structure does not fit well with all stories - his attempt at preciseness resulted in a consequential lack of broadness and hence greater critical analysis as a template.

Hollywood has implicitly accepted four act structure - most movies now have a high point midway - usually a catastrophic event for the protagonist. Resistance to four-act structure is probably a result of our theatrical heritage.

But moving light years ahead in terms of structure is the Hero's Journey.

Ironically, Campbell published Hero with a Thousand Faces before Syd Field published his work. Vogler wrote an easy to read update in 1992 (The Writer's Journey). The Hero's journey is a well established anthropological analysis of stories across cultures.

Depending on the interpretation, there were 17, 18 or 19 stages to the Hero's Journey. But a modern, detailed analysis reveals at least 106.

There is some rejection of the Hero's Journey as a universal template primarily because the archetypes (Mentor, Shape Shifter, Threshold Guardians etc) refer to the Quest, Fable, Fantastic et al genres. However, this is a misunderstanding as a metaphoric and symbolic interpretation leads to such classics as Midnight Cowboy and Get Carter, the original Michael Caine classic.

Ultimately, the Hero's Journey is a much more sophisticated study of Story Structure than Syd Field's analysis - and story structure is the most fundamental and critical of the skills that screenwriters need to possess.

Other theorists, such as McKee in Story are not as structure orientated, but their input when debating structure, is also indicative to it's importance. For example, McKee rightly states that the screenwriting process should involve a step-outline, treatment and then a words-on-paper first draft.

The thing that held us back was this idea that a template had to be broad, which made sense if that template had to explain many stories. But a conceptual leap is the understanding that detailed templates, which may not each explain large numbers of stories, when taken together, can be more useful tools.

Further, whereas Syd Field's analysis left the screenwriter with yawning gaps - the need to fill 30 and 60 pages - detailed templates overcome this problem.

Whereas Syd Field had difficulty with four acts, we are now playing with story structures with potentially 150 acts. This is the natural result of analysing sequences as opposed to acts.

It is like comparing today's scientific analyses to Middle Aged analyses using Fire, Water, Earth and Air.

In conclusion, it is time screenwriters moved beyond Syd Field.

A detailed Hero's Journey analysis and related story structure templates can be found at http://www.managing-creativity.com/

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Kal Bishop, MBA

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You are free to reproduce this article as long as no changes are made and the author's name and site URL are retained.

Kal Bishop is a management consultant based in London, UK. He has consulted in the visual media and software industries and for clients such as Toshiba and Transport for London. He has led Improv, creativity and innovation workshops, exhibited artwork in San Francisco, Los Angeles and London and written a number of screenplays. He is a passionate traveller. He can be reached on http://www.managing-creativity.com


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