I went to Barnes and Noble yesterday to buy Jenga (because I’m such a huge fan of games marketed to six year old children), and in a classic case of getting distracted I bought a book. That book was Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting, and in a beautiful display of not studying for my history test I immediately began to read it. Field is considered an authority on screenwriting, and his students include Anna Hamilton Phelan (Mask), Randi Mayem Singer (Mrs. Doubtfire), and Kevin Williamson (Scream, Scream 2, and Scream 3).
In his book, Field makes it shockingly easy to understand how screenplays work. It isn’t cluttered with jargon or vague notions. Instead, it breaks screenwriting into its time-proven form: Beginning, Middle, and End (not necessarily in that order) with the addition of two plot points that work as transitions.
[SPOILER ALERT] The next portion of this blog discusses the movie Chaos Theory. It’s not exactly well-known, but it is streaming on Netflix and I encourage everyone to watch it. I would recommend against watching the trailer because I feel the trailer gives too much of the story away, and it is much more enjoyable to go into the film blind. I will however give you the description that Netflix offers:
Thanks to a strict regimen of timetables, to-do lists and index cards, efficiency expert Frank Allen (Ryan Reynolds) lives his life exactly how he wants it. That is, until his well-meaning wife (Emily Mortimer) decides to set the clock back a mere 10 minutes.
Act I functions as the introduction to the main characters and the initial problem. In Chaos Theory, the first twelve minutes is spent introducing you to Frank, his charming wife and seven year old daughter, and Frank’s obsessive behavior. He must write everything down on index cards, and his day must be planned from literally the minute he wakes up to the minute he falls asleep. When he gets up one morning to prepare for a speech on time efficiency, his wife tries to give her husband extra time by setting the clock back ten minutes. This sets in motion a series of bizzarre incidents that ultimately lead Frank’s wife to believe that he has had a baby with another woman. In her fury, she kicks Frank out of their house and refuses to hear his side of the story. In order to prove himself innocent, Frank gets a paternity test. When the results come back, Frank not only confirms that the child is not his, but he also discovers that he is infertile.
This is plot point number 1. Learning that he is not the biological father to his daughter, Frank is left to ponder why the system he based his life around failed him, and how to deal with it. The first plot point is to pull the character into the “real” conflict which is explored in Act II the main portion of the film. Frank feels that he has no choice but to disregard his old system and live the rest of his life based on chance. Frank now writes three things he wants to do, and then randomly chooses one. It’s similar to Harvey Dent’s revelation in The Dark Knight albeit not nearly as cryptic. Frank’s love for his wife overcomes his feeling of betrayal and, he eventually finds his way back to his home only to discover that his daughter’s real father is his best friend and lawyer, Buddy. Frank almost immediately reverts back to his old index card system. He now has a simple to do list:
1) Buy gun
2) Kill Buddy
3) Return gun
This revelation is our 2nd plot point and leads us into Act III and the eventual ending. For those of you unwilling to watch the movie I will let you know that Frank forgives Buddy and everyone leaves happily ever after.
Field’s break down of a “good” screenplay is evident in nearly every movie worth remembering, and is illustrated in several movies below.
Act I: Introduction to Neo and the Matrix
PP1: Neo chooses the red pill and leaves the Matrix
Act II: Neo trains and learns of his supposed “purpose”
PP2: Neo accepts that he is The One
Act III: Neo defeats Agent Smith
Children of Men
Act I: Introduction to Theo and the dystopian Britian
PP1: Theo discovers that Kee is pregnant
Act II: Theo and Kee fight their way towards the Human Project
PP2: The baby is born
Act III: Theo successfully gets Kee and her baby to the Human Project
Act I: Introduction to Jack’s and Rose’s character
PP1: Jack and Rose meet
Act II: Jack and Rose pursue their relationship
PP2: The ship is hit by an iceberg
Act III: Jack sacrifices himself to save Rose
Act I: Introduction to the main characters
PP1: The group cannot find Doug
Act II: The group retraces their steps to find Doug
PP2: They discover Doug has not been kidnapped
Act III: Doug gets married
Act I: boring
PP1: That incredibly awkward first encounter with Edward
Act 2: Does Edward think I’m pretty?
PP2: who cares?
Act III: I don’t know, I fell asleep
Many important things happen in between these plot points. Neo and Trinity’s relationship, Stu confronting his abusive girlfriend, Jack’s and Rose’s success at breaking class barriers, but the story revolves around these plot points. The plot points are responsible for the story’s progression.
It is easy to mistake screenplay form for formula, but there is a crucial distinction. You can think of the form as a structure that holds the story together, and a formula as a process that produces the same output every time. Yes, all good screenplays follow this form but there is huge variation between movies, but some movies do play off a formula. Take horror movies for example, Scream follows the same form as A Nightmare on Elm Street, but they are completely different. However, after watching three Final Destinations you can pretty easily figure out what is going to happen and when.
So next time you watch a movie look out for the crucial plot points. Once you start noticing them it is much easier to analyze the plot, character motivations, and a whole host of other things. So, my last recommendation is if you ever been interested in screenplays (or even writing one yourself) check on Field’s book. Oh, and make sure you watch Chaos Theory. And buy Jenga. It’s a fun game.