The Great American Dream used to be the aspiration to write the Great American Novel, not the Great American Screenplay. A few novelists and playwrights wended their way to Hollywood to write screenplays, often with disastrous results and unhappy lives, feeling constrained by the form and the crass commercialism of Hollywood. Screenwriting was not something that was done by many and it was believed you couldn’t learn it. The conventional wisdom was: you either have talent and could do it, or could not. Famous writer William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything.” It was believed by some as a truism until that philosophy came into conflict with Syd Field.
Syd changed that and, by so doing, he changed the way screenwriters and other film professionals thought about art and craft. Maybe art couldn’t be taught, but it could be encouraged and inspired. And Syd showed that craft could be learned. Syd began to set the stage for a way to approach screenwriting and began to excite students about taking classes. Writers who had never taken a class in writing or drama or film began to realize there was something to learn which helped them down the mysterious and often murky path of screenwriting. Screenwriting classes and books may or may not make them the Great American Screenwriter, but they guided the way for students to get better at their craft.
Syd is known as one of the great writing teachers and one of the first to discuss and champion the paradigm of the Three-Act Structure as it relates to screenwriting. Syd began developing his theories when reading thousands of scripts in the 1970s and seeing what worked and what didn’t. He didn’t invent the Three-Act Structure (that has been around since the first caveman stories!) nor did he invent all the theories about screenwriting, but he made it easier for teachers who came after him to teach and write about screenwriting.
Some of the first generation of screenwriting teachers were developing their own theories in the 1970s as Syd was developing his and writing about them. I wrote my doctoral thesis in 1976 on the elements that make a great script. John Truby developed his theories of Story in the early 70s while studying the philosophy of literature and film. By the early to mid 1980s, the first generation of screenwriting teachers were proving there was something to learn. Robert McKee began doing his 2-3 day seminars in 1984. In 1985, John Truby began to teach his class, The Anatomy of Storytelling. Michael Hauge used his experiences working in development as the basis for his screenwriting seminars and his books. Lew Hunter and Richard Walter, both professors at UCLA, began expanding their work nationally and internationally. By the mid -1980s, Tom Schlesinger and Christopher Vogler were teaching “The Hero’s Journey” and Pamela Jaye Smith came slightly afterwards, applying mythology to film. Kathie Fong Yoneda discussed what makes a commercial script. Madeleine DiMaggio expanded into giving classes about television writing. Viki King and Carl Sautter began giving seminars in the mid-1980s and their books came out within a few months of my first book (1988.) Now, there are hundreds of screenwriting books, covering many different aspects of screenwriting.
As an author Syd was a pioneer, blazing a trail so that other screenwriting books that came after his had a better chance of being recognized and accepted. His theories were accessible and practical and clear. His first book, Screenplay, came out in 1978, and The Screenplay Workbook came out in 1980. When I wrote a proposal for Making a Good Script Great in 1986, the proposal was sent to Syd’s former editor who had moved to another publishing company. Since she knew how successful Syd’s book had been, she took my proposal far more seriously than her colleagues. She called Syd to ask if he knew who I was and he said, “Yes,” which cleared the way for the sale. As I prepared to write the book, I asked myself, “Why is Syd’s book so much more popular than any of the other books that came out during the 1980s?” (There actually were a few.) I looked carefully at Syd’s writing style and saw that it had short, readable sentences. It was entertaining. It was conversational. And I based my writing style partly on his stylistic approach.
All of us who taught during the 1980s encountered an attitude of resistance that started changing as a result of Syd’s teaching and his books and as a result of the first generation of screenwriting teachers. For those of us who started traveling abroad in the mid-to-late 1980s, the usual welcome from our host expressed doubt about how we would be received. The host often said, “The students coming to this class are not open to being taught screenwriting, especially by teachers from Hollywood, and we expect there’ll be problems. But maybe you’ll win them over.” By the 1990s and into the new millennium, that attitude, for the most part, had changed. Today, there all well over 20 screenwriting teachers from all over the world traveling internationally, sharing a new openness and excitement with students and professionals. All of us in one way or another are beholden to Syd for having begun this process.
Whether we agreed with his path or not, he made our paths easier because he had paved a way. Some of us saw ourselves as widening the path, looking at more subtleties about how that structure worked as well as beginning to focus on other aspects of screenwriting. Some took other paths. By the second generation of screenwriting teachers, some began to explore more fully all the different, divergent ways of moving off of the Three-Act Structure, such as Linda Aaronson’s contributions in the area of non-traditional structures which still had a basis in the Three-Act Structure.
Syd enhanced our ability to communicate with each other because he began to create a screenwriting language, not just for writers but for all film professionals. It’s not unusual anymore for a producer to tell a screenwriter that there are “third-act problems,” or for a director to want to strengthen a “plot point.” It’s taken for granted by most film professionals that movies have beginnings, middles, and ends and that we can actually assess and analyze these aspects of a script. But that was not always true. In the late 1970s, screenwriting was considered such a mysterious process that many thought, “We must not even try to understand it.”
During the 1980s, screenwriting teachers and authors were very competitive with each other. Seminar participants were sometimes asked to decide who was “the greatest screenwriting guru of them all.” Most of us (if not all of us) in one way or another, were affected by these attitudes. Carl Sautter called it the “Seminar Wars,” and he wanted to bring an end to it by having a party where we would all be forced to relate civilly to each other! He died before the party came to pass, but the attitude did begin to change by the late 1980s, as various teachers began talking to each other and even forming friendships. Syd was one of the best at this. He was welcoming and accessible to his colleagues. When I first met Syd in 1983, I had read his first two books and I called him to introduce myself. Syd invited me to a book signing and we had coffee afterwards. We talked about his vocabulary of “Plot Points” and mine of “Turning Points” and decided they were the same. I told him that I had started a business as a script consultant which intrigued him, and he said to me, “I’d like to be a script consultant, also” and I said, “Feel free–go for it!” Although Syd had been working on developing scripts and troubleshooting scripts with his students, I talked to him about script consulting as an independent, private entrepreneurial business. He told me later that it was shortly after that when he began his own private script consulting business.
In 2006, Syd and I, John Truby, and Michael Hauge, began teaching together as part of a new Screenwriting Summit created by Derek Christopher. In 2012, Christopher Vogler joined the Summit. The five of us taught together in Las Vegas in December 2012 and we were all looking forward to working together in London in 2013. We presented the London Screenwriting Summit the weekend of November 16th, knowing that Syd was very ill and that it was possible he would die that weekend. He died a few hours after completion of the Summit.
I often thought how big a person Syd was to say, “Yes,” to the idea of teaching with his colleagues, all of whom had come after him and all of whom he could easily have seen as competition. But Syd didn’t see it that way. He had a kind and open and generous and big heart and for six years we taught together in places such as Tel Aviv and Mexico City and Vancouver and Toronto and Los Angeles and New York and Las Vegas. He was a sweet and dear companion, a friend, and a sensitive colleague. He clearly had respect for us, as we respected him.
It’s important that Syd’s legacy not be forgotten. He has influenced millions of writers in a period of over 40 years and he has paved the way for all of us who move into the future and who continue to try to create great screenplays and great films.
Dr. Linda Seger is the author of 9 books on screenwriting, has taught in 34 countries around the world, and has consulted on over 2,000 scripts.