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What Syd Field meant to me

November 19, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Syd Field, author of the book "Screenplay" and widely considered the "guru of screenwriting," died on Sunday at the age of 77.
Syd Field, author of the book "Screenplay" and widely considered… ( )

Back in the 1980s, before I moved to California, I had a brief flirtation with screenwriting. It started in college, after my best friend transferred to New York University's film school and began to make short movies; I would write the scripts (or drafts, anyway) and then we would relentlessly hone my scenes and exposition down to the bare bones language of screenplay form.

By the end of the decade, my friend was in Los Angeles, where he’d sold a script. Eventually, we had the idea to collaborate on a kidnap caper called “The Grab,” inspired by our affinity for noir.

But while the hard-boiled fiction we loved was often what one might charitably call plot-challenged -- a favorite anecdote involved William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett (who were adapting “The Big Sleep” for Howard Hawks) calling Raymond Chandler to find out who had killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur; “I don’t know,” Chandler is reported to have said -- screenplays couldn’t work that way. No sooner had we started than my friend told me to buy Syd Field’s “Screenplay,” which was even then a legendary how-to guide.

All these years later, what do I remember? Not that much, if truth be told. But what has stuck with me is Field’s faith in structure, his belief that if the narrative is built solidly enough, the story will emerge. When I read the book, I was trying to be a novelist; my models were Faulkner, Kafka, Vonnegut, Camus.

Every one of them, I understand now, also relied on structure, but at the time, I saw their work almost entirely through the filter of inspiration, as if to produce art that searing, that visionary, was a matter of genius rather than of craft.

In some ways, this was a self-serving fantasy; the novel I was writing (interior, stream of consciousness) was loosely plotted, if at all. To say, then, that “Screenplay,” with its emphasis on plot points and the three-act structure, was eye-opening is an understatement. Once I got past my resistance to Field’s sense of story as a construction, I realized he and I were not so far apart.

What, after all, was the message of those novels I’d been reading, of the novel that I was trying to write? That narrative, that meaning, was a frame we build around the chaos of the world.

In his own way, Field was saying the same thing, although he would have never phrased it in such terms. His three-act structure resonated because it is a classic notion: It echoes through the history of literature. What is “The Odyssey” if not a three-act structure? What is “The Metamorphosis” or “The Stranger”?

“The more you do it,” Field wrote, referring to his habit of seeing three acts in virtually every narrative, “the easier it gets. Pretty soon it will be ingrained in your consciousness; you’ll grasp the essential nature of the relationship between structure and story. ”

“The Grab” never went anywhere, and I never wrote another screenplay, but even now, Field’s lesson continues to reverberate. I never learned as much about structure as I did from reading his book and applying it to the screenplay my friend and I were writing; I began to think about story from the inside.

This is crucial, for any writer in any genre; we are all storytellers, after all. And the genius of Field was his ability not only to articulate that but also to teach it -- especially to a young writer as reticent about being taught as I once was.


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