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Idea IS the format

The occasional downtime of Daniel W. E. Light

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Tuesday, 25 December 2007


A while back I posted an opening sequence for a short film idea I'm playing around with, with a view to getting some feedback from a few friends of mine.

I was particularly interested in the question of whether short films need to follow a scaled down version of the Basic Film Paradigm, a model advocated by Syd Field in his book Screenplay as being the essential basis of any film script. The feedback tended towards the affirmative, in accordance with my own natural inclination.

As such, I've since spent what little time I've had to focus on the project remodelling my script to bring it into line with the paradigm. Before I go into that, I'm going to define what I understand as being the key tenets of Field's model.

A standard length for a feature length screenplay is 128 pages. This equates to roughly two hours and eight minutes, since a page - of dialogue or action - should equate to a single minute of film.

A screenplay breaks down into three main phases - the SET-UP, lasting approximately 30 minutes; the CONFRONTATION, lasting approximately 60 pages; and the RESOLUTION, lasting a further 30 pages.

These parts are delineated by two plot points, marking the transition from one phase to another. The first plot point is the point at which a dramatic need of one or more protagonists becomes clearly discernible. The second plot point is the point at a major corner is turned in the fulfilment of that need.

The ending is the first thing you need to know before you start writing. Your storyline must have direction, following a path of development along which the ending lies. Furthermore, the ending comes out of the beginning; someone, or something, initiates an action, and how that action is resolved becomes the storyline of the film.

The inciting incident is that which sets the story in motion. The key incident is a dramatic visualisation of what the story is about (and is often plot point one). These two incidents provide the foundation of the storyline.

A SCENE is where something specific happens. It is a particular unit of dramatic action - the place in which you tell your story action. A scene must move the story forward and/or reveal more information about a character. A SEQUENCE is a series of scenes connected by one single idea with a definite beginning, middle and end. It is a unit of dramatic action unified by one single idea.

These are the main elements Field establishes before he starts to write about how to build your storyline. He richly illustrates each point with examples, but I guess the real value for me has been taking on board the extent to which screenwriting is a literary and creative discipline of its own.

With reference to my script, it has helped me in the following ways;
I'm now using a technique Field described to work with the storyline, before I try and write again. This involves writing my ideas for each scene or sequence, along with a few brief words of description, on a series of 3 x 5 cards - by his reckoning fourteen cards equates to about thirty minutes of screenplay.

By arranging and rearranging the cards, you can use them to play around with your storyline, and view it from different angles. I was doing precisely that this morning whilst lying in a lovely hot bath, and switched two of the cards into a deliberately unintelligible configuration. A couple of possibilities occurred to me, and rippled through the rest of the cards, until I found myself looking at a significantly new arrangement. I feel certain I'm going to follow the new structure.

I guess I can see where Field is coming from with this. A basic framework exists for any workable screenplay, but within that, you are master of all you survey. Invent problems, then find solutions. Conjure up the unintelligible, then redraw reality to make sense of it. Doing so causes you to examine the questions of 'why?' and 'how?' - questions that need to be addressed before you can even begin to embroider your story with language and imagery.


posted by Dan Light  # 04:32
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