I think I am the type of person who needs to do something thoroughly and properly, otherwise I risk giving up halfway through. It’s why I have dozens of notebooks with only the first five pages filled in, because I decided my handwriting wasn’t neat enough, and suddenly that notebook isn’t good enough to write in anymore (oh dear). It’s why I take great care when choosing a pen from a stationer, and why it’s very important that my desk is tidy, otherwise I won’t sit at it (just realised why I haven’t sat at my desk for about two months).
A couple of months ago I got a spark of an idea for a novel, and after writing everything down in a vague semblance of chapter plans and character profiles, I realised I had no idea where to start. I knew I needed to begin it properly, otherwise I wouldn’t get anywhere. So I got in touch with a writerly friend of mine and asked if he had any recommendations for books about structuring and planning a novel. The next time I saw him, he handed me a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. I was a little bit perplexed, and it sat on my desk (which, yes, was messy) for a long time, until I realised that I would have to return the book before I move to Edinburgh, and I was spurred into action.
The book is great. Field breaks down the process of writing a screenplay into manageable chunks. He quantifies everything (suggesting how many pages of character biography to write, etc), which works for me as perspective like that helps me understand and stops me getting demotivated.
You’re encouraged to describe your screenplay in one sentence (“A PERSON, in a PLACE, doing a THING”) before you begin writing or planning, and then you slowly build the foundations of your idea until your main character has a context and a history, and a mapped trajectory of character development through your screenplay. Unlike Stephen King in On Writing, Field suggests you must know your ending before you even plan your beginning. He repeats the important messages (“Action is character”) until you’re a little bored, but that’s the way those messages will stick in your head.
Yes, it is a book about writing a screenplay, and some of the guidance isn’t entirely relevant to a novel. Field presents the structure of a screenplay as completely formulaic, with Act One taking place from pages 1-30, Act 2 pages 31-90, and so on, but if you’re using this book as a basis from which to plot a novel, that formula could offer a valuable guide which may point you in the right direction, but which shouldn’t constrain you to a great extent.
It’s important to remember that film and novels are different mediums, so the rules will never be entirely applicable across the board, but I did really enjoy this book and I think it offers bottom-up ideas and foundations which can be applied to many forms of writing. I would recommend it.