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SYD FIELD SCREENPLAY THE FOUNDATIONS OF SCREENWRITING A STEP- BY-STEP GUIDE FROM CONCEPT TO FINISHED SCRIPT DOWNLOAD PDF. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. A step-by-step guide from concept to finished script. By Syd Field. Summary by Kim Hartman. This is a summary. Editorial Reviews. From Library Journal. Screenplay is one of the bibles of the film trade and has launched many a would-be screenwriter on the road to.
Don't worry about it. Was he mischievous? I auditioned for the world premiere of Renoir's play Carola, and was cast in the third lead, playing the part of Campan, the stage manager of a theater in Paris during the Nazi occupation in the last days of World War II. Bernstein says during the film, adding, "Mr. Within the paradigm, we can have a low table, high table, narrow table, or wide table; we can have a round table, square table, rectangular table, or octagonal table; we can have a glass table, wood table, plastic table, wrought-iron table, or whatever, and the paradigm doesn't change— it remains what it is, a top with four legs. It was during my second semester at Berkeley that I auditioned for, and was cast as, Woyzeck in the German Expressionist drama Woyzeck, by Georg Buchner. In Louise's case, it is an incident that happened to her when she was a young woman; it's only mentioned briefly, but it's implied that she was raped in Texas and then brought charges against her attackers, but could get no satisfaction, no revenge, no justice.
At the same time, Aragorn and the others must overcome many challenges to defeat the Ores at Helms Deep. Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom and watch as the ring and the Gollum fall into the fires and are destroyed. Aragorn is crowned king, and the hobbits return to the Shire and their life plays out. Set-up, confrontation, and resolution. It is the stuff of drama. I learned this when I was a kid sitting in a darkened theater, popcorn in hand, gazing in awe and wonder at the images projected on the white river of light reflected on that monster screen.
A native of Los Angeles my grandfather arrived here from Poland in , I grew up surrounded by the film industry. I don't remember much about the experience except that Van Johnson taught me how to play checkers.
During my teens, going to the movies became a passion, a form of entertainment, a distraction, and a topic of discussion, as well as a place to make out and have fun. Occasionally, there would be unforgettable moments—like watching Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not, or Walter Huston's mad dance as he discovered gold in the mountains in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or watching Brando stagger up the gangplank at the end of On the Waterfront. I attended Hollywood High School and was invited to join the Athenians, one of the many clubs whose members hung out together during high school.
A short time after graduation, one of my best friends, Frank Mazzola, also a member of the Athenians, met James Dean and formed a strong relationship with him. Frank introduced Dean to what a high school "club" was like during this period by today's standards it would probably be referred to as a gang.
Occasionally Dean would come with us when we strolled down Hollywood Boulevard on a Saturday night looking for trouble. We were the so-called tough kids, never backing down from anything, whether it was a dare or a fight.
We managed to get into a lot of trouble. Dean loved hearing about our "adventures" and would continually pump us for details. When we pulled some wild stunt, whatever it was, he wanted to know how it started, what we were thinking, how it felt. Actors' questions. It was only after Rebel Without a Cause was released and stormed the world that I became aware of how significant our contribution to the movie had been. The irony of Dean's having hung out with us during that period had no real effect on me until after he died; only then, when he became an icon of our generation, did I begin to grasp the significance of what we had contributed.
My family—aunts and uncles my parents had died several years earlier —wanted me to be a "professional person," meaning a doctor, lawyer, or dentist. I had been working parttime at Mount Sinai Hospital and I liked the drama and pace of emergency room medicine, so I entertained thoughts about becoming a doctor. I enrolled at the University of California, packed up the few belongings I had, and drove to Berkeley.
It was August Berkeley at the dawn of the '60s was an active crucible of revolt and unrest; banners, slogans, and leaflets were everywhere. Protest rallies were held almost every day, and when I'd stop to listen, FBI agents, trying to be inconspicuous in their shirts and ties, would be taking pictures of everyone.
It was a joke. It didn't take long for me to be swept up in the activities personifying the fervid issues of the time. Like so many others of my generation, I was influenced and inspired by the "beats"—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso: Inspired by their voices and their lives, I, too, wanted to ride the waves of change. It wasn't too long before the campus exploded into a political frenzy initiated by Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement. It was during my second semester at Berkeley that I auditioned for, and was cast as, Woyzeck in the German Expressionist drama Woyzeck, by Georg Buchner.
My relationship with Renoir literally changed my life. I've learned there are two or three times during a lifetime when something happens that alters the course of that life. We meet someone, go somewhere, or do something we've never done before, and those moments are the possibilities that guide us to where we're supposed to go and what we're supposed to do with our lives. That's true. But over the years, I've learned not to believe too much in luck or accidents; I think everything happens for a reason.
There's something to be learned from every moment, every experience we encounter during the brief time we spend on this planet. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it what you will; it really doesn't matter. I auditioned for the world premiere of Renoir's play Carola, and was cast in the third lead, playing the part of Campan, the stage manager of a theater in Paris during the Nazi occupation in the last days of World War II.
For almost a year, I sat at Renoir's feet, watching and learning about movies through his eyes. He was always commenting on film, his opinions vocal and fervent about everything he saw or wrote, either as an artist, a person, or a humanitarian. And he was all of these. Being in his presence was an inspiration, a major life lesson, a joy, a privilege, as well as a great learning experience. Though movies had always been a major part of my life, it was only during the time I spent with Renoir that I turned my focus to film, the same way a plant turns toward the sun.
Suddenly, I saw movies in a whole new light, as an art form to study and learn, seeking in the story and images an expression and understanding of life. My love for the movies has fed and nourished me ever since. He was a man like any other, but what separated him, at least in my mind, was his great heart; he was open, friendly, a man of great intelligence, wisdom, and wit who seemed to influence the lives of everyone he touched.
The son of the great Impressionistic painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean, too, had the great gift of sight. Renoir taught me about film, mentored me in the art of visually telling a story, and imparted the gift of insight. He showed me the door, then held it open as I walked through. I've never looked back. He would quote his father about bringing an idea into existence. No two leaves are exactly the same.
The artist who paints only what is in his mind must very soon repeat himself. No two leaves, no two flowers, no two people are ever painted in the same way. It's the same with his son's films: Renoir told me he "painted with light," the same way his father painted with oils. Jean Renoir was an artist who discovered the cinema in the same way his father "discovered" Impressionism.
The Fellowship of the Ring to The Royal Tenenbaums; from The Matrix to Close Encounters of the Third Kind; from the first few shots of Bridge on the River Kwai to capturing the scope of human history as a wooden club thrown into the air merges into a spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick's Thousands of years and the evolution of humankind condensed into the poetry of two pieces of film; it is a moment of magic and wonder, mystery and awe.
Such is the power of film. For the past few decades, as I've traveled and lectured around the world on the art and craft of screenwriting, I have watched the style of screenwriting evolve into a more visual medium.
As I mentioned, we're seeing certain techniques of the novel, like stream of consciousness and chapter headings, beginning to seep into the modern screenplay. It's clear that a whole new computer-savvy generation, who grew up with interactive software, digital storytelling, and editing applications sees things in a more visual way and is thus able to express it in a more cinematic style. Great films are timeless—they embody and capture the times in which they were made; the human condition is the same now as it was then.
My purpose in writing Screenplay was to explore the craft of screenwriting and illustrate the foundations of dramatic structure. When you want to write a screenplay, there are two aspects you have to deal with. One is the preparation required to write it: The other is the execution, the actual writing of it, laying out the visual images and capturing the dialogue.
The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write. That was true when I first wrote the book, and it is now. This is not a "how-to" book; I can't teach anybody how to write a screenplay.
People teach themselves the craft of screenwriting. All I can do is show them what they have to do to write a successful screenplay. So, I call this a what-to book, meaning if you have an idea for a screenplay, and you don't know what to do or how to do it, I can show you. As a writer-producer for David L. Wolper Productions, a freelance screenwriter, and head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems, I have spent years writing and reading screenplays.
At Cinemobile alone, I read and synopsized more than two thousand screenplays in a little over two years. And of all those two thousand screenplays, I only found forty to submit to our financial partners for possible film production. Why so few? Because ninety-nine out of a hundred screenplays I read weren't good enough to invest millions of dollars in. Put another way, only one out of a hundred screenplays I read was good enough to consider for film production. And at Cinemobile, our job was making movies.
At that time, in the early '70s, Cinemobile was a portable location facility that literally revolutionized film production. Basically, the Cinemobile was a Greyhound bus with an eight-wheel-drive, so we could store equipment in the luggage area, then transport cast and crew to the top of a mountain, shoot three to eight pages of script each day, and return home.
My boss, Fouad Said, the creator of the Cinemobile, became so successful that he decided to make his own movies, so he went out and raised several million dollars in a few weeks, with a revolving fund of many million more, if needed. Pretty soon everybody in Hollywood was sending him screenplays. Thousands of scripts came in, from stars and directors, from studios and producers, from the known and the unknown. That's when I was given the opportunity to read the submitted screenplays and evaluate them in terms of cost, quality, and probable budget.
My job, as I was constantly reminded, was to "find material" for our three financial partners: So I began reading screenplays. As a screenwriter taking a much-needed break from more than seven years of freelance writing I had written nine screenplays: It was a tremendous opportunity, a formidable challenge, and a dynamic learning experience.
I kept asking myself what made the screenplays I recommended better than the others. At first I didn't have any answers, but I held it in my consciousness and thought about it a long time. Every morning, when I arrived at work, there would be a stack of screenplays on my desk, waiting. No matter what I did, no matter how fast I read or how many scripts I skimmed, skipped, or tossed, one solid fact always remained: The size of the pile never changed.
I knew I could never get through the pile. Reading a screenplay is a unique experience. It's not like reading a novel, play, or article in the Sunday paper. But that didn't work for me. I found it too easy to get caught up in the writer's words and style.
I learned that most of the scripts that read well—meaning they featured lovely sentences, stylish and literate prose, and beautiful dialogue—usually didn't work. While they might read like liquid honey flowing across the page, the overall feeling was that of reading a short story or a strong journalistic piece in a magazine like Vanity Fair or Esquire. But that's not what makes a good screenplay. I started out wanting to read and "do coverage" on—synopsize— three screenplays a day.
I found I could read two scripts without a problem, but when I got to the third, the words, characters, and actions all seemed to congeal into some kind of amorphous goo of plotlines concerning the FBI and CIA, punctuated with bank heists, murders, and car chases, with a lot of wet kisses and naked flesh thrown in for local color. At two or three in the afternoon, after a heavy lunch and maybe a little too much wine, it was difficult to keep my attention focused on the action or nuances of character and story.
So, after a few months on the job, I usually found myself closing my office door, propping my feet up on the desk, turning off the phones, leaning back in the chair with a script on my chest, and taking a catnap.
I must have read more than a hundred screenplays before I realized that I didn't know what I was doing. What was I looking for?
What made a screenplay good or bad? I could tell whether I liked it or not, yes, but what were the elements that made it a good screenplay? It had to be more than a string of clever bits and smart dialogue laced together in a series of beautiful pictures. Was it the plot, the characters, or the visual arena where the action took place that made it a good screenplay? Was it the visual style of writing or the cleverness of the dialogue?
If I didn't know the answers to that, then how could I answer the question I was repeatedly being asked by agents, writers, producers, and directors: That's when I understood that the real question for me was, How do I read a screenplay? I knew how to write a screenplay, and I certainly knew what I liked or disliked when I went to the movies, but how did I apply that to the reading of a screenplay? What I was looking for, I soon realized, was a style that exploded off the page, exhibiting the kind of raw energy found in scripts like Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, and American Graffiti.
Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel. At the end of the book, Nick, the narrator, recalls how Gatsby used to stand looking out over the water at the image of the green light, beckoning him to past memories of unrequited love. Gatsby was a man who believed in the past, a man who believed that if he had enough wealth and power, he could turn back time and recreate it. It was that dream that spurred him as a young man to cross over the tracks, searching for love and wealth, searching for the expectations and desires of the past that he hoped would become the future.
The green light. I thought a lot about Gatsby and the green light as I struggled through those piles of screenplays searching for "the good read," that special and unique screenplay that would be "the one" to make it through the gauntlet of studios, executives, stars,financialwizards, and egos and finally end up on that monster screen in a darkened theater.
It was just about that time that I was given the opportunity to teach a screenwriting class at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood. At that time in the '70s, Sherwood Oaks was a professional school taught by professionals. It was the kind of school where Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, and Lucille Ball gave acting seminars; where Tony Bill taught a producing seminar; where Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Alan Pakula gave directing seminars; where John Alonzo and Vilmos Zsigmond, two of the finest cinematographers in the world, taught classes in cinematography.
It was a school where producers, professional production managers, cameramen, film editors, writers, directors, and script supervisors all came to teach their craft. It was the most unique film school in the country. I had never taught a screenwriting class before, so I had to delve into my own writing and reading experience to evolve my basic material. I kept asking myself. And pretty soon I started getting some answers. When you read a good screenplay, you know it—it's evident from page one, word one.
The style, the way the words are laid out on the page, the way the story is set up, the grasp of dramatic situation, the introduction of the main character, the basic premise or problem of the screenplay—it's all set up in the first few pages of the script: A screenplay, I soon realized, is a story told with pictures.
It's like a noun; it has a subject, and is usually about a person, or persons, in a place, or places, doing his, or her, or their "thing. Out of that understanding, I saw that any good screenplay has certain conceptual components common to the screenplay form. These elements are expressed dramatically within a structure that has a definite beginning, middle, and end, though not necessarily in that order. When I reexamined the forty screenplays submitted to our financial partners—including The Godfather, American Graffiti, The Wind and the Lion, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and others—I realized they all contained these basic concepts, regardless of how they were cinematically executed.
I began teaching this conceptual approach to writing the screenplay. If the aspiring writer knows what a screenplay is, what it looks like, I reasoned, it can be used as a guide or blueprint to point out the path through the forest. I've now been teaching this approach to screenwriting for over twenty-five years. It's an effective and comprehensive approach to the writing of a screenplay and the art of visual storytelling. My material has evolved and been applied by thousands and thousands of students all over the world.
The principles in this book have been totally embraced by the film industry. It's not uncommon for major film studios and production companies to contractually stipulate that a delivered screenplay must have a definite three-act structure and be no longer than 2 hours and 8 minutes, or pages, in length.
There are always exceptions, of course. Many of my students have been very successful: At this writing, Screenplay has been reprinted nearly 40 times, gone through several editions, and been translated into some 22 languages, along with several black market editions: When I began thinking about revising this book, I quickly realized that most of the films I had written about were from the '70s and that I wanted to use more contemporary examples, movies people might be more familiar with.
But as I went back into the book and saw the film examples I had originally used, I realized that most of them are now considered classics of the American cinema—films like Chinatown, Harold and Maude, Network, Three Days of the Condor, and others. These films still hold up, on both an entertainment and a teaching level.
In most cases, the films are as valid today as they were when they were made. Despite having some dated attitudes, they continue to capture a particular moment in time, a time of unrest, social revolution, and violence that mirrors some of the antiwar sentiments prevalent today.
The nightmare in Iraq is very similar to the nightmare in Vietnam. What I see and understand now, in hindsight, is that the principles of screenwriting that I delineated at the dawn of the '80s are just as relevant now as they were then.
Only the expression has changed. This material is designed for everyone. Novelists, playwrights, magazine editors, housewives, businessmen, doctors, actors, film editors, commercial directors, secretaries, advertising executives, and university professors—all have benefited from it. As I said earlier, the hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write. When you complete this book, you will know exactly what to do to write a professional screenplay. Whether you do it or not is up to you.
Talent is God's gift; either you've got it or you don't. But writing is a personal responsibility; either you do it or you don't. A pretty stenographer you've seen before comes into the room and you watch her. She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on the table. She has two dimes and a nickel—and a cardboard match box. She leaves the nickel on the desk, puts the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove.
Just then your telephone rings. The girl picks it up, says hello—listens—and says deliberately into the phone, "I've never owned a pair of black gloves in my life. Scott Fitzgerald In the summer of , F. Scott Fitzgerald, drinking far too much, deeply in debt, and drowning in the suffocating well of despair, moved to Hollywood seeking new beginnings, hoping to reinvent himself by writing for the movies.
Despite all the preparation he put into each assignment, he was obsessed with finding the answer to a question that haunted him continuously: What makes a good screenplay?
Billy Wilder once compared Fitzgerald to "a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job. He did not know how to connect the pipes so the water could flow. Mankiewicz eventually rewrote his script. He worked on rewrites for several other movies, including a disastrous week on Gone With the Wind he was forbidden to use any words that did not appear in Margaret Mitchell's novel , but after Three Comrades, all of his projects ended in failure.
One, a script for Joan Crawford called Infidelity, was left uncompleted, canceled because it dealt with the theme of adultery. Fitzgerald died in , working on his last, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.
He died believing himself to be a failure. I've always been intrigued by the journey of F. Scott Fitzgerald. What resonates with me the most is that he was constantly searching for the answer to what made a good screenplay.
His overwhelming external circumstances—his wife Zelda's institutionalization, his unmanageable debts and lifestyle, his excessive drinking—all fed into his insecurities about the craft of screenwriting. And make no mistake: Screenwriting is a craft, a craft that can be learned.
Even though he worked excessively hard, and was disciplined and responsible, he failed to achieve the results he was so desperately striving for. But reading his books and writings and letters from this period, it seems clear that he was never exactly sure what a screenplay was; he always wondered whether he was "doing it right," whether there were certain rules he had to follow in order to write a successful screenplay. When I was studying at the University of California, Berkeley, as an English lit major, I read the first and second editions of Tender Is the Night for one of my classes.
It is the story of a psychiatrist who marries one of his patients, who, as she slowly recovers, exhausts his vitality until he is "a man used up. In the first edition of the novel, Book I is written from the point of view of Rosemary Hoyt, a young actress who shares her observations about meeting the circle that surrounds Dick and Nicole Diver. Rosemary is on the beach at Cap d'Antibes on the French Riviera, watching the Divers enjoying an outing on the sand.
As she watches, she sees them as a beautiful couple who appear, at least from her point of view, to have everything going for them. They are, she thinks, the ideal couple. Rich, beautiful, intelligent, they look to be the embodiment of what everyone wants for himself or herself. But the second book of the novel focuses on the life of Dick and Nicole, and we learn that what we saw through Rosemary's eyes was only the relationship they showed to the world; it was not really true.
The Divers have major problems, which drain them emotionally and spiritually, and ultimately destroy them. When the first edition of Tender Is the Night was published, sales were poor, and Fitzgerald thought he had probably been drinking too much and might have compromised his vision.
But from his Hollywood experience, he came to believe he did not introduce his main characters early enough.
So he opened the book focusing on the main character, Dick Diver. But that didn't work either, and Fitzgerald was crushed. The book was financially unsuccessful until many years later, when Fitzgerald's genius was finally acknowledged. What strikes me so vividly is what Fitzgerald didntsee; his opening section focusing on how Rosemary saw the Divers was more cinematic than novelistic.
It's a great cinematic opening, setting up the characters as others see them, like an establishing shot; in this first edition, Fitzgerald was showing us how this model couple looked to the world, beautiful and rich, seeming to have everything. How we look to the outside world, of course, is a lot different from who we really are behind closed doors.
My personal feeling is that it was Fitzgerald's insecurity about the craft of screenwriting that drove him to change that great opening. Scott Fitzgerald was an artist literally caught between two worlds, caught between his genius as a writer and his self-doubt and inability to express that genius in screenplay form. Screenwriting is a definite craft, a definite art.
Over the years, I've read thousands upon thousands of screenplays, and I always look for certain things. First, how does it look on the page? Is there plenty of white space, or are the paragraphs dense, too thick, the dialogue too long? Or is the reverse true: Is the scene description too thin, the dialogue too sparse? And this is before I read one word; this is just what it "looks" like on the page. You'd be surprised how many decisions are made in Hollywood by the way a screenplay looks—you can tell whether it's been written by a professional or by someone who's still aspiring to be a professional.
Everybody is writing screenplays, from the waiter at your favorite bar or restaurant to the limo driver, the doctor, the lawyer, or the barista serving up the White Chocolate Dream Latte at the local Coffee Bean.
Last year, more than seventy-five thousand screenplays were registered at the Writers Guild of America, West and East, and out of that number maybe four or five hundred scripts were actually produced. What makes one screenplay better than another? There are many answers, of course, because each screenplay is unique. What is a screenplay? Is it a guide, or an outline, for a movie? A blueprint, or a diagram? Or maybe it's a series of images, scenes, and sequences strung together with dialogue and description, like pearls on a strand?
Perhaps it's simply the landscape of a dream? Well, for one thing, a screenplay is not a novel, and it's most certainly not a play. If you look at a novel and try to define its fundamental nature, you'll see that the dramatic action, the story line, usually takes place inside the head of the main character.
We are privy to the character's thoughts, feelings, emotions, words, actions, memories, dreams, hopes, ambitions, opinions, and more. The character and reader go through the action together, sharing in the drama and emotion of the story.
We know how they act, feel, react, and figure things out. If other characters appear and are brought into the narrative line of action, then the story embraces their point of view, but the main thrust of the story line always returns to the main character.
The main character is who the story is about. In a novel the action takes place inside the character's head, within the mindscape of dramatic action. A play is different. The action, or story line, occurs onstage, under the proscenium arch, and the audience becomes the fourth wall, eavesdropping on the lives of the characters, what they think and feel and say.
They talk about their hopes and dreams, past and future plans, discuss their needs and desires, fears and conflicts. In this case, the action of the play occurs within the language of dramatic action; it is spoken in words that describe feelings, actions, and emotions. A screenplay is different. Movies are different. Film is a visual medium that dramatizes a basic story line; it deals in pictures, images, bits and pieces of film: We see a clock ticking, a window opening, a person in the distance leaning over a balcony, smoking; in the background we hear a phone ringing, a baby crying, a dog barking as we see two people laughing as their car pulls away from the curb.
That is its essential nature, just like a rock is hard and water's wet. Because a screenplay is a story told with pictures, we can ask ourselves, what do all stories have in common? They have a beginning, middle, and an end, not necessarily in that order, as Jean-Luc Godard says. Screenplays have a basic linear structure that creates the form of the screenplay because it holds all the individual elements, or pieces, of the story line in place. To understand the principle of structure, it's important to start with the word itself.
The root of structure, struct, has two definitions that are relevant. The first definition means "to build" or "to put something together," like a building or car. The second definition is "the relationship between the parts and the whole. This is an important distinction. What is the relationship between the parts and the whole?
How do you separate one from the other? If you take the game of chess, for example, the game itself is a whole composed of four parts: Those four parts— the pieces, the player s , the board, and the rules—are integrated into the whole, and the result is a game of chess. It is the relationship between these parts and the whole that determines the game. The same relationship holds true in a story. A story is the whole, and the elements that make up the story—the action, characters, conflicts, scenes, sequences, dialogue, action, Acts I, II, and III, incidents, episodes, events, music, locations, etc.
Good structure is like the relationship between an ice cube and water. An ice cube has a definite crystalline structure, and water has a definite molecular structure. Structure is like gravity: It is the glue that holds the story in place; it is the base, the foundation, the spine, the skeleton of the story. And it is this relationship between the parts and the whole that holds the screenplay together. It's what makes it what it is. It is the paradigm of dramatic structure.
A paradigm is a model, example, or conceptual scheme. The paradigm of a table, for example, is a top with four legs. Within the paradigm, we can have a low table, high table, narrow table, or wide table; we can have a round table, square table, rectangular table, or octagonal table; we can have a glass table, wood table, plastic table, wrought-iron table, or whatever, and the paradigm doesn't change— it remains what it is, a top with four legs.
Just the way a suitcase remains a suitcase; it doesn't matter how big or small, or what the shape is; it is what it is. If we wanted to take a screenplay and hang it on the wall like a painting, this is what it would look like: Here's how it's broken down: Aristotle talked about the three unities of dramatic action: The normal Hollywood film is approximately two hours long, or minutes; foreign films tend to be a little shorter, though that's changing as we bridge the language of international film.
But in most cases, films are approximately two hours in length, give or take a few minutes. This is a standard length, and today, when a contract is written in Hollywood between the filmmaker and production company, it states that when the movie is delivered, it will be no longer than 2 hours and 8 minutes.
That's approximately pages of screenplay. Because it's an economic decision that has evolved over the years. Second, a two-hour movie has a definite advantage in the theaters simply because you can get in more viewings of the movie per day. More screenings mean more money; more theaters mean more screenings, which means more money will be made.
Movies are show business, after all, and with the cost of moviemaking being so high, and getting higher as our technology evolves, today it's really more business than show. The way it breaks down is this: One page of screenplay is approximately one minute of screen time. It doesn't matter whether the script is all action, all dialogue, or any combination of the two— generally speaking, a page of screenplay equals a minute of screen time. It's a good rule of thumb to follow.
There are exceptions to this, of course. The script of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is only pages, but the movie is more than three hours long. Act I, the beginning, is a unit of dramatic action that is approximately twenty or thirty pages long and is held together with the dramatic context known as the Set-Up. Context is the space that holds something in place—in this case, the content.
For example, the space inside a glass is the context; it holds the content in place— whether it's water, beer, milk, coffee, tea, or juice. If we want to get creative, a glass can also hold raisins, trail mix, nuts, grapes, etc. In this unit of dramatic action, Act I, the screenwriter sets up the story, establishes character, launches the dramatic premise what the story is about , illustrates the situation the circumstances surrounding the action , and creates the relationships between the main character and the other characters who inhabit the landscape of his or her world.
As a writer you've only got about ten minutes to establish this, because the audience members can usually determine, either consciously or unconsciously, whether they do or don't like the movie by that time.
If they don't know what's going on and the opening is vague or boring, their concentration and focus will falter and start wandering. Check it out. The next time you go to a movie, do a little exercise: Find out how long it takes you to make a decision about whether you like the film or not. A good indication is if you start thinking about getting something from the refreshment stand or find yourself shifting in your seat; if that happens, the chances are the filmmaker has lost you as a viewer.
Ten minutes is ten pages of screenplay. I cannot emphasize enough that this first ten-page unit of dramatic action is the most important part of the screenplay. I'm forty-two years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead In a way, I'm dead already. He wakes up and jerks off the high point of his day, he adds , and then we see his relationship with his family. All this is set up and established within the first few pages, and we learn that: I don't know what it was, but I have lost something I feel sedated But you know, it's never too late to get it back.
Lester regaining the life he has lost or given up, and becoming whole and complete again as a person. Within the first few pages of the screenplay we know the main character, the dramatic premise, and the situation. We also see that Gittes has a certain flair for this type of investigation. A few pages later, we are introduced to a certain Mrs. Mulwray Diane Ladd , who wants to hire Jake Gittes to find out "who my husband is having an affair with.
The dramatic premise is what the screenplay is about; it provides the dramatic thrust that drives the story to its conclusion. Tolkien , we learn in the first six pages of the screenplay the history of the ring and its magnetic attraction. It's a beautiful opening that sets up all three stories. It also sets up the story as Gandalf arrives in the Shire. We also get an overview of Middle Earth. The script opens with the funeral of Rachel's Kelly McGillis's husband, then we follow her to Philadelphia, where her child witnesses the murder of an undercover cop, and that in turn leads to her relationship with the main character, John Book Harrison Ford , another cop.
The entire first act is designed to reveal the dramatic premise and situation and to set up the relationship between an Amish woman and a tough Philadelphia cop. This dramatic need is both internal and external: It is Inman's longing to return to a place in his heart that existed prior to the war, and Cold Mountain is also the place where he lived and grew up, as well as where his loved one, Ada Nicole Kidman , resides.
His desire, his dramatic need to return home, is fraught with obstacle after obstacle, and still he persists, only to fail at the end. Literally, the entire movie is overcoming the obstacles of war and the internal will to survive. In Chinatown, a detective story, Act II deals with Jake Gittes's collisions with people who try to keep him from finding out who's responsible for the murder of Hollis Mulwray and who's behind the water scandal.
The obstacles that Gittes encounters and overcomes dictate the dramatic action of the story. Look at The Fugitive.
The entire story is driven by the main character's dramatic need to bring his wife's killer to justice. Act II is where your character has to deal with surviving the obstacles that you put in front of him or her. What is it that drives him or her forward through the action? What does your main character want? What is his or her dramatic need? The Two Towers, the entire film involves Frodo, Sam, and the Fellowship's confronting and managing to overcome obstacle after obstacle, leading to the climactic battle at Helms Deep.
All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no action; without action, you have no character; without character, you have no story; and without story, you have no screenplay. It is held together with the dramatic context known as Resolution.
I think it's important to remember that resolution does not mean ending; resolution means solution. What is the solution of your screenplay? Does your main character live or die? Succeed or fail? Get married or not? Win the race or not? Win the election or not? Escape safely or not? Leave her husband or not? Return home safely or not? Act III is that unit of action that resolves the story. It is not the ending; the ending is that specific scene or shot or sequence that ends the script.
Set-Up, Confrontation, Resolution—these parts make up the whole. It is the relationship between these parts that determines the whole. But this brings up another question: Plot Point I occurs at the end of Act I, anywhere from pages 20 to 25 or A Plot Point is always a function of the main character. It is the true beginning of that story. In Chinatown, Jake Gittes is hired by the wife of a prominent man to find out if her husband is having an affair.
Gittes follows him and sees him with a young girl. That's the Set-Up. Plot Point I occurs after the newspaper story is released claiming Mr. Mulwray has been caught in a "love nest. Mulwray shows up with her attorney and threatens to sue Jake Gittes and have his license revoked. If she is the real Mrs. Mulwray, who was the woman who hired Jake Gittes? And why did she hire him?
And who hired the phony Mrs. And why7. The arrival of the real Mrs. Mulwray is what hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction—in this case, Act II. It is story progression; Jake Gittes must find out who set him up, and why. The answer is the rest of the movie. In Cold Mountain, as Inman recovers from his wounds he receives a letter from Ada.
We hear her say, in voice-over, "Come back to me. Come back to me is my request.
He will desert the Confederate Army and return home to Ada and Cold Mountain, return to the place in his heart. Plot Points do not have to be big, dynamic scenes or sequences; they can be quiet scenes in which a decision is made, such as Inman's, or when Frodo and Sam leave the Shire.
Take the sequence in American Beauty where Lester Burnham and his wife are at the high school basketball game and see their daughter's friend Angela Mena Suvari performing at halftime. It moves the story forward and sets Lester's emotional journey of liberation in motion.
He chooses the Red Pill, and this truly is the beginning of the story. All of Act I has set up the elements and led Neo to this moment. Any page numbers I reference are only a guideline to indicate approximately where the story progresses to the next level, not how it progresses. How you do that is up to you. It is the form of the screenplay that is important, not the page numbers where Plot Points occur.
There may be many Plot Points during the course of the story line; I only focus on Plot Points I and II because these two events are the anchoring moments that become the foundation of the dramatic structure in the screenplay. It is a story progression. As mentioned, it usually occurs anywhere between pages 80 or 90 of the screenplay. In Chinatown, Plot Point II occurs when Jake Gittes finds a pair of horn-rim glasses in the pond where Hollis Mulwray was murdered, and knows the glasses belonged either to Mulwray or to the person who killed him.
This leads us to the Resolution of the story. The script reads: He goes on. He's home. Do all good screenplays fit the paradigm? But just because a screenplay is well structured and fits the paradigm doesn't make it a good screenplay, or a good movie. The paradigm is a form, not a formula. Structure is what holds the story together. What's the distinction between form and formula?
The form of a coat or jacket, for example, is two arms, a front, and a back. And within that form of arms, front, and back you can have any variation of style, fabric, color, and size—but the form remains intact. A formula, however, is totally different. A formula never varies; certain elements are put together so they come out exactly the same each and every time. The coat does not change, except for the size. A screenplay, on the other hand, is unique, a totally individual presentation.
The paradigm is a form, not a formula; it's what holds the story together. It is the spine, the skeleton. Story determines structure; structure doesn't determine story. The dramatic structure of the screenplay maybe defined as a linear arrangement of related incidents, episodes, or events leading to a dramatic resolution.
How you utilize these structural components determines the form of your screenplay. The Hours David Hare, adapted from the novel by Michael Cunningham is told in three different time periods and has a definite structure. It's the same with American Beauty: The whole story is told in flashback, just like Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Cold Mountain is also told in flashback, but has a definite beginning, middle, and end.
Citizen Kane is also told in flashback, but this does not detract from its form. The paradigm is a model, an example, or a conceptual scheme; it is what a well-structured screenplay looks like, an overview of the story line as it unfolds from beginning to end.
Screenplays that work follow the paradigm. But don't take my word for it. Go to a movie and see whether you can determine its structure for yourself. Some of you may not believe that. You may not believe in beginnings, middles, and ends, either. You may say that art, like life, is nothing more than several individual "moments" suspended in some giant middle, with no beginning and no end, what Kurt Vonnegut calls "a series of random moments" strung together in a haphazard fashion.
I disagree. Isn't that a beginning, middle, and end? Spring, summer, fall, and winter—isn't that a beginning, middle, and end? Morning, afternoon, evening—it's always the same, but different. Think about the rise and fall of great ancient civilizations— Egyptian, Greek, and Roman, each rising from the seed of a small community to the apex of power, then disintegrating and dying.
If there's a beginning, like the Big Bang, is there going to be an end? Think about the cells in our bodies. How often are they replenished, restored, and re-created? Every seven years—within a sevenyear cycle all the cells in our bodies are born, function, die, and are reborn again.
Think about the first day of a new job, or a new school, or a new house or apartment; you'll meet new people, assume new responsibilities, create new friendships. Screenplays are no different.
They have a definite beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order. If you don't believe the paradigm, or in the three-act structure first laid down by Aristotle, go check it out. Go to a movie—go see several movies—and see whether they fit the paradigm or not. If you're interested in writing screenplays, you should be doing this all the time.
Every movie you see is a learning process, expanding your awareness and comprehension of what a movie is: You should also read as many screenplays as possible in order to expand your awareness of the form and structure. Many screenplays have been reprinted in book form and most bookstores have them, or can order them.
You can also go online and do a Google search under "screenplays" and find a number of sites that allow you to download screenplays. Some are free, some you pay for. These scripts are excellent teaching aids. If they aren't available, read any screenplay you can find.
The more the better. The paradigm works. It is the foundation of every good screenplay, the foundation of dramatic structure. The Subject "Rosebud.
Maybe that was something he lost. You see, Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had. From the very first frame, the full portrait of Kane's character is set up visually; the film opens shrouded in fog and the first thing we see is a high wired chain-link fence bolstered with the initial K.
Deep in the background, a huge, isolated mansion stands high on the hill. Moving closer, we see boxes and crates of antiques, artworks, and ancient artifacts stacked everywhere.
Huge pens house exotic animals, and then we're inside the enormous castle, so full, yet so empty of life.
Then we cut to an extreme close-up of the man known as Citizen Kane as he whispers his last word: Like a classic mystery, the story begins. Who is Charles Foster Kane? What is he? Who or what is Rosebud? As if in answer, we cut to a darkened screening room filled with chain-smoking reporters and watch newsreel footage of Charles Foster Kane, a man larger than life, filled with an insatiable appetite, a man of total excess.
It lent an authentic, credible look to the film. Kane's entire life is visually set up in less than a minute—through pictures, not words. Citizen Kane is truly a story told with pictures, a search for the hidden meaning of Kane's life, which revolves around the last words he utters on his deathbed.
I call it "an emotional detective story," because the search for who and what Rosebud is leads us to uncover the life of Charles Foster Kane. It's the answer to this question that tells us what the movie is about. It is the subject of the screenplay. What do you need to write a screenplay?
An idea, of course, but you can't sit down to write a script with just an idea in mind. An idea, while essential, is nothing more than a vague notion.
It has no detail, no depth, no dimension. No, you need more than just an idea to start writing a screenplay.
You need a subject to embody and dramatize the idea. A subject is defined as an action and a character. An action is what the story is about, and a character is who the story is about.
Every screenplay has a subject—it is what the story is about. So, when we talk about the subject of a screenplay, we're talking about an action and a character or characters.
Every screenplay dramatizes an action and a character. You, as the screenwriter, must know who your movie is about and what happens to him or her. It is a primary principle in writing, not only in screenplays but in all forms of writing. Only at the end of Citizen Kane, after his death which is where the story really begins , when the warehouse is being cleared of what seems to be endless piles of junk, curios, furniture, and unpacked crates, do we understand the significance of Rosebud.
As the camera moves into a darkened corner, we see a huge collection of toys, paintings, and statues. Slowly, the camera pans Kane's possessions, until it reaches the blazing furnace. Workmen are tossing various items into the flames. One of the items is a sled, the very one Kane had as a boy in Colorado.
Only then do we recall that when Mr. Thatcher, the executor of Kane's estate, first describes his meeting with Kane as a boy often or so, young Charles is sledding down the hill in the snow.
It is an emotionally riveting moment, emblematic of the lost youth Kane would spend his life searching for, but never find. We cut outside the huge mansion as the smoke from Kane's lost youth curls upward into the night sky. The film ends with the same shot of the iron fence that opened the film. Bernstein says during the film, adding, "Mr. Kane was a man who lost everything he had.
If you want to write a screenplay, what is it about? And who is it about? Citizen Kane begins with a search based on a dying man's last words and ends up revealing the secret of his entire life.
Seeking the answer provides the narrative thrust, the emotional through line of the film. Do you know the subject of your screenplay? What it's about? Can you express it in a few sentences? Do you, for example, want to tell the story of two women going on a crime spree?
If you do, do you know who these two women are? Where they came from? What their background is? And then, what crimes did they commit? It is the stuff of drama. I learned this as a kid sitting in a darkened theater, popcorn in hand, gazing in awe and wonder at the images projected on white river of light reflected on that monster screen.
My friends and I used to sneak into the neighborhood theater and watch the serials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. During my teens, going to the movies became a passion, a form of entertainment, a distraction, a topic of discussion, as well as a place to make out and have fun.
I attended Hollywood High School and was invited to join the Athenians , one of the many clubs who hung out together during high school.
A short time after graduation, one of my best friends, Frank Mazzola, also a member of the Athenians , met James Dean and formed a strong relationship with him. Occasionally Dean would come with us when we strolled down Hollywood Blvd. We managed to get into a lot of trouble at the time. When we pulled some wild stunt, whatever it was, he wanted to know how it started, what we were thinking, how it felt.
It was only after Rebel Without a Cause was released and stormed the world, that I became aware of how significant our contribution to the movie had been.
The irony of Dean hanging out with us during that period had no real effect on me until after he died; only then, when he became an icon of our generation, did I begin to grasp the significance of what we had contributed. A few years after leaving Hollywood High and roaming around the country, I enrolled at the University of California , Berkeley , packed the few belongings I had and drove to Berkeley. It was August, Berkeley at the dawn of the 60s was an active crucible of revolt and unrest; signs, banners, slogans and leaflets were everywhere.
Protest rallies were held almost every day and when I stopped to listen, the FBI agents, trying to be inconspicuous in their shirts and ties, took pictures of everyone. It was a joke. It was during my second semester at Berkeley that I auditioned for, and was cast as Woyzeck in the German Expressionist drama Woyzeck, by Georg Buckner. My relationship with Renoir literally changed my life.
It was that way with my three mentors: Renoir, Michelangelo Antonioni and Sam Peckinpah. Being in his presence was an inspiration, a major life lesson, a joy, a privilege, as well as a great learning experience. Though movies had always been a major part of my life, it was only during the time I spent with Renoir that I turned my focus to film, the same way a plant turns towards the sun. Suddenly, I saw movies in a whole new light, as an art form to study and learn, seeking in the story and images an expression and understanding of life.
My love for the movies has fed and nourished me ever since. The son of the great Impressionistic painter, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Jean, too, had the great gift of sight.
Renoir taught me about film, mentored me in the art of visually telling a story, and imparted the gift of insight. He showed me the door, then held it open as I walked through.
No two leaves are exactly the same. The artist who paints only what is in his mind must very soon repeat himself. For the past few decades, as I traveled and lectured around the world on the art and craft of screenwriting, I have watched the style of screenwriting evolve into a more visual medium. Great films are timeless — they embody and capture the times in which they were made; the human condition is the same now as it was then.
As a writer-producer for David L. Wolper Productions, a free-lance screenwriter, and head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems, I had spent years writing and reading screenplays. At Cinemobile alone, I read and synopsized more than 2, screenplays in a little more than two years.
And of all those 2, screenplays, I only found 40 to submit to our financial partners for possible film production. Reading a screenplay is a unique experience. When I first started reading, I read the words on the page slowly, drinking in all the visual descriptions, character nuances and dramatic situations.
While they may read like liquid honey flowing across the page, the overall feeling was like reading a short story, or strong journalistic piece in a national magazine like Vanity Fair or Esquire. I started out wanting to read and synopsize do coverage on three screenplays a day. I found I could read two scripts without a problem, but when I got to the third one, the words, characters and actions all seemed to congeal into some kind of amorphous goo of plot lines concerning the FBI and CIA, punctuated with bank heists, murders, car chases, along with a lot of wet kisses and naked flesh thrown in for local color.
At two or three in the afternoon, after a heavy lunch and maybe a little too much wine, it was difficult keeping my attention focused on the action and nuances of character and story. So, after a few months on the job, I usually closed my office door, propped my feet up on the desk, turned off the phones, leaned back in the chair with a script on my chest, and took a cat nap.
What was I looking for? What made a screenplay good or bad? I could tell whether I liked it or not, yes, but what were the elements that made it a good screenplay? It had to be more than a string of clever bits and smart dialogue laced together in a series of beautiful pictures. Was it the plot, the characters, or the visual arena where the action takes place that made it a good screenplay?
Was it the visual style of writing or the cleverness of the dialogue? I knew how to write a screenplay, and I certainly knew what I liked or disliked when I went to the movies, but how did I apply that to the reading of a screenplay?