I just finished reading Syd Field’s book, “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. A Step by Step Guide from Concept to Finished Script.”
First published in 1979, Field’s book has been translated into 22 languages and is used in more than 400 colleges and universities across the United States. After reading an updated version, I could see why: it is as comprehensive as a textbook. I found I could only read one chapter at a time—any more than that and I stopped absorbing information.
While I read, I realized that though the form of storytelling changes from novel, to short story, to play, to screenplay, the principles of storytelling do not. Each form needs a protagonist (main character) with a problem (conflict) who goes about solving it (action), or at least dies trying (resolution). As Field repeats at several points throughout the text, “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.”
Just like in publishing, Field explains industry standards for sending unsolicited submissions. He discusses not only the process of writing, rewriting, and collaboration, but also the practical issues of trying to sell your script once it’s written: from getting agents, to proper script format, to registering copyright (in the US).
My conclusion? I’m intimidated by this medium. Syd Field describes a screenplay as “a story told with pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure.” After reading the book, I believe it will be much harder to master than I originally anticipated, though he insists, “it will probably be uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier.”
Hmm. Uncomfortable? I bet! It’s one thing to enjoy movies, memorize your favourite dialogue, and analyze story structure from your armchair. It’s quite another to come up with an original idea yourself, and carry such a complex visual process through to completion.
I was also astonished that the likelihood of an unknown writer selling a screenplay is even lower than when trying to sell a novel. Movies cost significantly more than books to produce , and production companies can’t afford to bet on a loser. (Especially in these days of movie piracy…they can’t even bet on making some of their investment back on DVD sales anymore.) He says, “Last year, more than 75,000 screenplays were registered at the Writers Guild of America, West and East. Do you know how many movies the studios and independent production companies made last year? Not that many: between 400 and 500.”
Still, I think it’s an exciting writing form and I’m going to try my hand at it—you know, a 10 minute short to start. Maybe I’ll convert the same story to a stage play just to compare the two genres.
As a writer, I need to remember why I do what I do. Do I write simply because I like doing it? Because I want to grow as a writer? Because I love the satisfaction of conquering those blank pages staring back at me, and carrying a project to completion?
These reasons must be my primary reward. If I’m writing for any other reason (like money or success or the approval of my peers), I’ll want to give up every time I get a rejection letter. And believe me, I often do.
So, this morning I got up and asked myself, “Am I a writer, or aren’t I?”
And then I got to work.