1935 - 2013
Syd Field literally wrote the book on screenwriting. He wrote quite a few books on it. There are sites that reflect on his life and achievements much better than I can (one being SydField.com), so instead I want to tell a quick personal story on how a man I never met shaped my love of writing and changed me forever.
I'd spent the greater part of my childhood with cousins and friends using old clunky video cameras to shoot skits, movies, and various other improvised (and mostly unwatchable) projects. We filmed our playtime, and it was the most magical childhood I could ask for.
As we matured, a couple of us began taking the projects a bit more seriously. We suddenly yearned for production value! Pre-written plots and dialogue! And...brace yourself...multiple takes! Playtime gradually became work time, and striving for better quality became an end goal that still drives me to this day.
I think I was around 17 when I had a brand new story idea I wanted to write, but decided it was about time I'd learned the proper format. My mother took me to a local Borders book store and the most logical book it seemed I needed was "Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting" by Syd Field. Third edition.
While I was prepared to simply learn things like what font size to write a script in, Mr. Field went much, much deeper. He was the first to introduce me to the "Three Act Structure" of a film, and with his paradigm model, he shined a new light on how I view my favorite movies. Back in a post I wrote in 2007, Mr. Field's book was the first I'd cited as a source of my writing education. I'd also cited the second book of his that I'd read: "The Screenwriter's Problem Solver," and I criticized them both of being a bit repetitive. This may be true, but it is still a fact that without being exposed to these two works, I would not understand the most fundamental and important lessons in shaping a story for screen.
Case in point: there are two things I do before I attempt to write a screenplay. Without doing both of these things, it is a fact that my script will never be finished (I've tried. I usually get to page 50 before it falls apart). These two things are proven to be the elements that get me to the finish line.
One, I write a complete biography of my main protagonist. Even if I never incorporate most of the details into the script, it helps me understand who this person is, and what their dramatic need is. Two, I use index cards to storyboard the entire film. This amazingly useful technique allows me to visualize the entire movie at once: one scene equals one card, and there's incredible freedom to arrange, rearrange, delete and add scenes until the story is right. After these two things, I write my screenplay. And honestly, I'm usually able to finish the first draft in a week or two.
With these two things, I wrote that first full screenplay at age 17. And at 33, I still go through the exact same process to reach the words "Fade Out" on the last page.
I give full credit of these ideas to Syd Field. He didn't just teach me how to write a screenplay. He taught me how to finish a screenplay. For the rest of my writing life, his guidance will live in my technique and writing style, and for that, I am forever grateful.