The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver: How to Recognise, Identify, and Define Screenwriting Problems” by Syd Field.
Bantam Dell. New York, NY 2006.
363 pages. ISBN-13: 978-440-50491-7 Amazon Price: US $11.56
Syd Field is one of the most popular screenwriting gurus in the film industry. He tells us that when he started screenwriting, “there were no books or anything about it, and the only thing I had at my disposal was Lajos Egri’s great book ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ written in the forties about the craft of playwriting”. He began reading screenplays of filmmakers he admired, particularly Jean Renoir and Sam Peckinpah.
The only thing I had at my disposal was Lajos Egri’s great book ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’.
Today Amazon lists 1,248 books on screenwriting, six of which are works by Syd Field. He was one of the first to write a book devoted to the craft. When ‘Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting’ first appeared in 1979 it was an immediate best seller. It discussed the principals of dramatic structure, was the first to use examples from modern movies and established Field’s reputation as a first class teacher, writer and script consultant.
If you created the problem you can solve it.
‘The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver’ uses the principles and examples from Field’s other works and applies them to particular problems. “I firmly believe,” he writes, “that if you created the problem you can solve it. Therefore you have to look inside yourself for the answers.” Thankfully this piece of pop psychology (which if followed would render his book redundant) disappears after Chapter Two, and with the naval gazing over Field launches into the types of difficulties a screenwriter might encounter.
If you’ve located the problem in the first ten pages, you may need to rethink and redesign this ten-page unit of dramatic action.
PLOT, CHARACTER, STRUCTURE
There are only three types of problems – problems of plot, problems of character and problems of structure. To locate the problem Field suggests the writing of three essays entitled “What was it that originally attracted me to the screenplay?”, “What kind of story did I end up writing?” and “What have I to do to change what I did into what I wanted to do?” Most readers would have presumed that Essay Three was precisely what this book was going to tell them.
In Chapter 4 he tells us, “If you’ve located the problem in the first ten pages, you may need to rethink and redesign this ten-page unit of dramatic action.” Thank God for screenwriting gurus. How could a mere mortal have thought of that?
When Field provides examples of solutions he has suggested for his students, his brilliance as a script doctor shines through. He discusses a problem a student encountered in a scene where a daughter investigates her mother’s death. Her mother died in hospital, no one can tell her why and one of the nurses left her job immediately following the death. The student wrote a scene where the daughter, having tracked down the nurse, interrogates her. The scene was flat, boring and in the student’s words, felt “soft and fuzzy”. Field suggested forcing the protagonist to wait a couple of hours for the nurse, then adding another character – the nurse’s boyfriend – to step up the conflict. This increased dramatic tension, gave the scene real depth and ripped “soft and fuzzy” right out of the sequence.
THE TROUBLESHOOTER’S GUIDE
The types of problems a screenwriter might encounter are neatly summarised in Chapter 22, ‘The Troubleshooter’s Guide’. The solutions to 37 possible problems with the plot are cross referenced to the chapters of the book, as are the 38 possible problems with character and the 45 possible problems with structure. This cross reference system is mostly good. A screenwriter can run through the list, identify the weakness in the script he or she is working on, look up the appropriate chapter and find a solution.
However, not all problems are matched with clear solutions. Like many other screenwriting gurus, Field is weak on dialogue. Go to Chapter 10, the Troubleshooter’s Guide tells us, if your “Dialogue is too talky, too direct”. But Chapter 10 has only half a sentence devoted to dialogue. “…if your feel your characters are talking too much, or they all sound alike…go back over the material and determine whether you have spent enough time setting up the conflict in the story”. In other words, more time spent setting up conflict will magically change the dialogue.
POOR ON DIALOGUE
Chapter 13 is supposed to offer the solution to stilted and awkward dialogue, but all we are told is dialogue is a function of character. If you can’t write good dialogue you are told to get to know your characters better – hardly a solution likely to turn you into a Woody Allen, David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin.
The book would be stronger if it included clear subheadings – ie “Problem”, “Solution” and “Example”. Instead each chapter offers a bit of advice, followed by a number of examples that show Field’s favourite screenplays, such as ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Thelma and Louise’, ‘Witness’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’. In many cases they do not fully illustrate Field’s point, but they do provide an opportunity to read the masters.
The book is packed with a lot of good advice, but in many cases you have to read between the lines to find the solution to your problem. I do not believe that all problems are only a matter of plot, character or structure. What if the story itself is not film-worthy? “Brideshead Revisited” made great television, but with its multiple themes, long time periods and diverse characters, did not make a great film. “Pearl Harbour” should have been a story centred on the dramatic events surrounding the attack on Hawaii. Instead it wandered all over the place, distracting us with sequences that included the Battle of Britain and the Doolittle Raid. “Australia” tried to cram too many themes and ideas into one movie. All three films failed the “is it film-worthy?” test, and this test should be found in Chapter One of any book entitled “The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver”.
Some writers have a better ear for writing dialogue than others. They are just born with a natural talent and ability.
Dialogue should be given a separate category. A film with a strong plot, great characters and classic structure will fail if the dialogue is weak. But Field seems to gloss over this problem. “It’s true that some writers have a better ear for writing dialogue than others,” he says. “They are just born with a natural talent and ability, and its really a gift.” In other words you have either got it or you haven’t got it. Don’t ask Field how to improve your dialogue. Just find new parents.
His final piece of advice on dialogue is a recipe for movie disaster. “The dialogue may not be that great, but it will still work.”
This book does offer practical solutions to many screenwriting problems, but the reader has to search for these solutions. It is not the last word, or even the first word in screenplay problem solving, but a useful adjunct. Hopefully it will lead readers to a number of great screenplays that illustrate how professional writers so often find elegant solutions to common screenwriting problems.
– Jack Brislee
He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.