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Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
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am 17. August 1999
I am writing a follow-up to my previous review because I think your customers need to know something about this author.
In one section of this book, Field discusses the necessity for "ten pages and a whammy." Meaning, every ten pages in your script you need to have a "whammy," defined in the book as violent occurence such as an explosion, car chase, etc. that will excite the audience.
Anyhow, a friend of Field's once said to him, When you're writing a script, ten pages and a whammy. And then Field says to us, when you're writing a script, ten pages and a whammy. Don't let ten pages get past you without making a whammy happen.
What the hell is he talking about? Seriously, folks...
I recommend this book for one thing and one thing only: read it to learn how NOT to write a screenplay. Eight years ago, when I first picked up this book -- and it was my first book on screenwriting -- I was thrilled, surprised, utterly charmed. But then I realized that Field had designed a system that is tepid and forumulaic to the worst extreme.
Fine. Read the book. Ignore completely all of the other authors whose efforts discuss in far more detail aspects of character development, myth, storyline, etc.
One more example, and then I'm done.
Field slobbers over the film, Chinatown, written by Robert Towne. Granted, the film is a wonderfully written masterpiece, but Field reduces its entire meaning to WHICH PAGE THE PLOT POINT IS ON.
In fact, in one section he discusses how he's told his seminar students for years that the plot point for Chinatown happened on page 27, when finally, one of his "enterprising" students pointed out that the plot point did, in fact, happen on page 33, and that Field contested it, but later realized that the student was right. And then he writes, in a kind of amazement, Here I was, telling them for years that the wrong plot point was the plot point!
But you see, he's missed the point entirely!
One more thing you might want to consider: Field claims, I believe, that he has "worked on films" for years. I have never seen any film whose credits included Syd Field. If you ask me, the old joke comes in handy: "Those who can't do teach." When you get past all of the Final Draft videotape and seminar stuff, you've found an author who has been doing very little writing over the years and has been doing a lot of moneymaking: he makes money on those people who go to seminars.
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am 22. Juli 2000
One of the problems I had with this book is that Field's prose is incredibly mundane. The question I kept asking myself was "Why am I taking writing advice from someone who's such a boring writer himself?" It led to the old axiom: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." I pegged Mr. Field as one who couldn't, so he's teaching. Another problem was that the book was ludicrously out of date. Two examples of this: 1) his reliance on 'Chinatown' as an example of good screenwriting; it definitely is, but it is also a couple of decades old; 2) the chapter on writing with a computer was unintentionally hilarious; it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but just like the tacky clothes we all wore in eras gone by, it's best not to look back on it.
But I realized that it wasn't about the style of the prose, or whether Field's own screenwriting was any good, or whether the specifics of his examples were still relevant. He was able to simplify the basic tenets of the screenplay, and give practical and easy-to-follow exercises for overcoming any obstacles. His paradigm of the three-act story structure (which he must have diagrammed at least a million times!) is simple, and yet effective. After first seeing it visually portrayed, many of the pieces of the story that'd been floating around in my own head fell into place. He also gives helpful hints on how to develop character, how to construct scenes and sequences, and how to begin the story itself (you begin by starting with the end!). Maybe his ideas seem obvious to others, but they are a real help to me.
So my rating is not based on the style of the book. It's based on the effectiveness of the teaching. And this book does well in that regard.
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am 16. Juni 2000
As a 30-year (successful) script writer and scriptwriting prof, it seems this book was intended for those who quickly want to market an idea rather than construct a complete, saleable screenplay. The basics of SCRIPTwriting just aren't here, and without those, you might sell an idea or a treatment, but this book just doesn't hold enough information to take one from novice to knowledgeable screenwriter.
For those who are serious about script structure, don't buy this OR my own books (which are out of print anyhow). Try Louis Catron, the most highly respected scriptwriting professor and writer on Earth. Thank you, Dr. Catron, wherever you are.
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am 29. Dezember 1999
This book is written from the perspective of a seminar teacher who has gotten rich making thousands feel good about screenplays that will never be produced. Syd Field offers no useful insider's perspective on what sells in Hollywood. The sum total of his insight into screenwriting is that your script should have three acts, with turning points at the end of the first two. While this is true, there is so much more to learn about screenwriting, and numerous other books (by such authors as Michael Hauge, David Trottier, Linda Seger) provide far more assistance. Syd Field has made it big as a kind of New Age guru for all those who want to "express themselves" through screenplays that have no hope of ever being purchased. His book may have been more groundbreaking in 1979 when it first came out, but it has been long since superseded. Which brings me to another point. This so-called "completely revised and updated" edition is a total sham. All the examples are from movies that are now a quarter-century old and hopelessly out-of-date; who the heck remembers "Silver Streak," "An Unmarried Woman," or "Three Days of the Condor" anymore? Field tossed in two pages of references to "Witness" in the introduction, and a useless section on screenwriting by computer (already outdated). Otherwise the text here is word-for-word the same as the original 1979 edition. For anyone who is serious about becoming a working screenwriter, don't waste your time on this book.
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am 14. September 1999
There are some serious distinctions to be made about books on screenwriting. Some of them are very good, very theoretical, very serious works. Some of them are throw-away one time reads.
A very few of them are "working books", books that you will never throw away - books that you will use as a reference over and over again.
"Screenplay" is one of those rare books. All of Field's books are excellent for this reason - they not only tell you how to write screenplays, they tell you why screenplays are structured in a unique way.
It is understanding structure that is the key to writing movies. All the ideas about character development, the representation of myth, and the history of cinema are necessary to writing good screenplays. But only one thing is really essential and that is a clear understanding of a form that appears simple but is actually very complex.
I still have many of the screenwriting books I have read over the years, but Field's books are the only ones I actually USE. I know many other screenwriters in the business who say the same thing.
Fashion in screenplay writing and thinking about movies comes and goes - and every new writer thinks they either have to read the latest theory or re-invent the wheel - but when you actually write you only want a book that you can USE. Syd Field never goes out of style because he writes from a serious understanding of structure, and its the structure that you constantly return to in order to make the writing work.
Buy this book and keep it - you will need it.
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am 17. März 1999
Screenplay is a fine book, in a sense, simply because it has achieved such popularity that it has affected what studios expect from spec screenplays. A lot of it still holds true: most screenplays seem to have a "three act structure", whether or not the writer was thinking in these terms; most screenplays are very formulaic and created with buzzwords and phrases like "less black per page" and "show don't tell" in mind... Basically, most people want an easy paint-by-numbers approach to screenwriting. And all too often the paint-by-numbers crowd gets something produced (thankfully, most of them fail).
The problem with this book is that the "Syd Field paradigm" isn't such a hot thing anymore. Movies such as Pulp Fiction, LA Confidential, and Unforgiven, to name a few, have shown us and Hollwood that story is much more important than structure. The other major problem is that many suggestions within the book will get your work rejected at a glance. For instance, Syd Field basically suggests that we "direct on the page" when he advises occasional references to camera angles, reverses, POV, and close-ups in the slug line. Bad idea.
I found this book interesting but creatively stifling and a bit misleading. The author has his heart in the right place but seems a bit too sure of his theories.
Story and creativity are much more important than structure. The best way to tell if you're "on track" with your story is to ask yourself, "Do I like this?" Don't ask yourself, "How can I get Act One to end on page 27?"
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Usually one should be skeptical of any book that claims to tell you how something should be written. Creative writing courses are essentially scams, intruments of brainwashing telling you what the proper way to write is supposed to be, and why you are wrong for showing any undilineated creativity. Syd Field, however, boosts the fundamentals of creativity, not telling you how to write your screenplay, simply making suggestions and proposing guidelines you should follow in the pre-writing period, how to outline your ideas so you won't forget or misplace something, how to structure your thoughts. This is almost a mathematical logic textbook, an 'I wish you luck' pat on the back. Syd never preaches, never says there is a wrong way to approach your story (although he does explain some of the cut-throat tactics of Hollywood and advises you how to skirt the single-minded, dictatorial machinations of Studio bosses.) Finally, Syd's technique is firmly in line with the era of Hollywood's final Golden age, 1967-1976 (the time when this book was written), when Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Network, Taxi Driver, Chinatown, and more were being flashed on the screen, letting the viewer realize that there is more to making a movie that good acting and slick direction. This book helps you to explore what you really want your movie to be about in that easy time, before the egos set in, before your script is changed or stolen and made into the mess that finally wins you an Oscar.
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am 29. Januar 2000
Reading reader reviews of books on writing for the screen is about like reading reviews of movies: There's a lot of disagreement between the eyes of beholders. I sometimes think I should ask the reviewers at Mr. Showbiz what I should get high on before going to see what they consider a masterpiece.
"Screenplay" was sent to me by a movie producer who asked me to write a screenplay for a book I wrote. When I lamented that I knew nothing about writing screenplays, he said the book he'd just read proved to him I could write; all I needed was to understand some important aspects of the screenplay vs. the book.
I've learned a lot from Syd Field. "Screenplay" clearly showed me the visual aspects of film, "It's all about pictures," Field stresses over and over. If I learned nothing else from him, how to put a screenplay into professional format would make "Screenplay" worth the trip.
Sure, I had to study the book, go back over it several times before I got this, or that. But gosh, diving into writing screenplays isn't like a lesson in Microsoft Windows -- click here, drag that over there.
There's a lot to learn, and Syd Field offers a lot of guidance for the serious student. I don't care if he's never written a screenplay. Some of the very best book editors wrote nothing except editorial marks on others' works. The fabled Scribner's editor of old, Max Perkins, who brought some of their best out of Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, James Jones, Marjorie Kennan Rawlings, etc. etc., never wrote a book.
I'll say this: If you want to read a book on screenplays and put it down with the feeling you're ready to roll, don't bother with anybody's book on the subject. But if you really want to learn, if you have the requisite creativity -- AND gritty energy -- you'll get your money's worth from Syd Field's "Screenplay."
Also, his "Four Screenplays" has been very helpful to me. Field has a way of reinforcing things by saying them a different way, in a different setting. I really didn't get his advice to "get into a scene late and get out early" until I read this book. And didn't he pick some dandies? "Thelma and Louise" and "The Silence of the Lambs" are the two I studied most diligently, and what a ride it's been. Two great, great movies, to my mind, both demonstrating what Syd Field repeatedy shows us are important elements of fine screenplays.
One other thing, Field's coaching has put a tiny new edge on my writing skills as regards books, too, a benefit he probably didn't expect a writer would obtain.
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am 21. Januar 2000
No wonder the New York Times calls this book "the classic," and why it's referred to as the "Bible" of the film industry. I read this book many years ago, and I thought it was very good, then I put it away. When somebody asked to borrow it, I loaned it to them, and never got it back. When I started thinking about writing a screenplay, the first thing I did was look for this book. I didn't remember who I loaned it to, so I had to go out and buy another one. Am I glad I did. The way Field writes, the conceptual presentation of his ideas, is truly masterful. The films used are broken down in a clear and concise way. I had truly forgoten what a great book this is. I have a much greater appreciation of what makes a good screenplay now. You begin with structure, then begin to unfold the elements of plot and character within that form. And, form is everything. Once you know the structure you can write it anyway you want. This is a book I'll never loan out anymore. I will always keep it by my bedside for many years to come and refer to it often.
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am 22. Juni 1999
You see, the thing is, this book is a terribly mixed bag in terms of usefullness (I hope I spelled that right). By that, I mean that most parts of it--particularly the storytelling and structuring sections--are basically useless to the independent screenwriter (such as myself). To someone ballsy enough to think they can break in via Hollywood, this book is probably a Godsend. It illustrates perfectly what Hollywood looks for in a screenplay. However, most indie writers don't really care what Hollywood wants--in fact, that's why alot of independent writers go independent--so they should pass on it. I WILL concede, however, that the passages on character building are reasonably sound, even though some of the excercises Mr. Field talks about are rather pointless (trust me, I did 'em). So for Hollywood screenwriters, I give it a '5' or an 'A'. But for independent screenwriters, I must give it a '0', or an 'F'.
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