Sydney Alvin Field (1935-2013), acclaimed as “the guru of all screenwriters,” was a leading American screenwriter and author who wrote several influential books on screenwriting.
by Linda Myro Judd
Have you ever been the recipient of helpful comments and critiques that come dribbling in one at a time? And do you have a muse who lives with you? I have to admit that I sometimes write things backwards, chronologically, and sometimes inside out. I’ve become better over the years at catching these pieces of writing before they get too far out of hand. But when I’m all excited about what I’m writing these habits creep in. My writing partner, who still wants to be careful of my toes during these exciting times, will dribble his edits to me. We’ve edited each other’s writing over three anthologies. His writing is powerful and less wordy than mine. He doesn’t like to beat around the bush. But I have a knack for tackling word flow. I love the pattern and rhythm of words. So we’ve learned from each other.
Lately, I’ve been using writing contests as a source for writing deadlines. Since I work best under deadline, I figured that if I could actually finish my short story before a deadline arrived then I would submit my work. With that personal stipulation in mind, I sailed past three deadlines before I got to the one that brought my work up to speed.
During the past year, I wanted editorial feedback to coalesce and so I asked several more writing friends to help. And I still got a little here and a little there. It was time for some professional help.
Over the past couple of years I’d been reading Syd Field’s book, Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting, for my bed time reading when I could read for an hour. If I’m too tired when I start to read, I’ll fall asleep too fast and don’t remember what I’ve read. So I played the field with Syd, I loved his writing style, and friendly banter. He conveyed his experience and wisdom in a folksy, yet concise way.
Even though Syd focused his book on the screenplay, his ideas are great for book writers too. I’m a short story writer, so I was curious if he could help me. Short stories are an American invention, a slice of time, usually one scene, with few characters and mostly about one incident, one plot point. So I read Syd’s book with this filter in mind.
Chapter 5, Story and Character, helped me the most with my short story. “There are really only two ways to approach writing a screenplay. One is to get an idea, then create your characters to fit that idea. Another way to approach a screenplay is by creating a character, then letting a need, an action, and, ultimately, a story emerge out of that character.”
In this chapter, Syd walked through how he and his students created a character and then proceeded to create a story based on that character. This was one of his favorite classes to teach. Can you imagine the energy created by having such participation in class? This second approach appealed to me, where character development dovetailed into story development.
As I read more of Screenplay, I found it didn’t matter what I was writing. Syd’s style of imparting his experience is so inclusive, and entertaining, about storytelling that any writer can use his wisdom. He gives examples left and right. He emphasized knowing the ending of your story before you start writing. He talked about Chinatown, and the three screenplay rewrites that took place. Each had a different ending that affected the start of the film.
I finally read enough to know that I needed to be specific about what I wanted for feedback from my live-in muse. I also had a pending deadline, only two weeks left! So I got on his case for dribbling his feedback and that I wanted it all at once. He warned me that I wouldn’t like it. But I said go for it. Well he was right. I frowned, but I pulled up my big girl panties, and got to work. I had a lot to do.
Over the last six months I had expanded my original short story. The new stuff had my famous out of order writing handicap. With Syd’s help, I looked at how to formulate the order of the action. I moved major pieces around, and found that little blips were cleaned up from the reordering. My knack of sentence flow expanded to a bigger scale. I was excited.
I’ll keep reading Screenplay for more insights. Syd’s a good teacher. Everyone who offered feedback helped me see the pieces of my story that needed help. Syd gave me the grand picture of how to rewrite my story.
My hope to write a book has been rekindled. I see a glimmer of rewriting a couple of my longer stories into novels. It’s just a matter of time to gain speed on story development. My muse doesn’t like to read about writing, doing is his style. I tend to eat up books on writing, but I’ve been choosy about who I’ll use as a reference. There is one other writer who has great tools for digging out important events for writing memoirs. Keep doing research and putting pen to paper, or, fingers to keyboard!