Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure: The paradigm

Syd Field

Syd Field

(See my “Continuing Series” page for a listing of all posts about using Syd Field’s paradigm to write fiction.)

As mentioned in my first post of this series, Syd Field calls his structure “the paradigm”:

The paradigm is a dramatic structure. It is a tool, a guide, a map through the screenwriting process. As defined in Screenplay, a paradigm is a “model, an example, a conceptual scheme.” … A screenplay is an open system.

That last bit is important. A screenplay—and a novel, and a short story—is an open system. Compare this to an observation made by Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the C++ programming language:

…software development is an iterative and incremental process. Each stage of the process is revisited repeatedly during the development, and each visit refines the end product of that stage. In general, the process has no beginning and no end.

(Emphasis mine.) Although Stroustrup is describing how software is written, I believe his observation applies to writing fiction too, and most creative endeavors.

Think of a story you’re working on right now. Do you really know where your inspiration for it started? Can you enumerate every influence leading up to it? Now think of your last completed story. Are you really finished with it? I’ve discovered recurring themes in my own work that make me wonder if I’m still “writing” older work.

Writing is an iterative and incremental process of inspiration, evaluation, and revision. Each iteration shapes and smooths and revises. Nothing in a story is sacred. Everything in it deserves questioning and challenging.


Field’s paradigm asks you to think of a story as three interconnected acts. Each act is unit of drama. It may be a scene or a series of scenes, but in fiction, those scenes are not necessarily “in the moment” of the narration. (For example, Heart of Darkness is entirely narrated by Marlow in England, but the acts of the story are the events along the river in Africa.)

The three acts are not vacuum-sealed. Events in Act One have ramifications that carry into Act Two and even Act Three. Questions posed on the first page may not be answered until the last.

At its simplest, the three-act structure goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics:

Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is a whole and complete in itself…a thing is a whole if it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In some ways, that’s all the three acts are: the beginning, middle, and end of your story.

Each act is not the same length. Remember, in movies and theater, time is everything. (In both genres, one manuscript page is considered to be approximately one minute of stage or projection time.) Most films are 90 to 120 minutes long. Theater tends to run closer to three hours, but there’s been a recent trend for ten-minute plays.

As far as page count, fiction is all over the map. What’s more, fiction writers don’t tend to obsess over how long it takes for a reader to read the story. For my interpretation of Field’s paradigm and applying it to fiction, I don’t worry about the length of each act in terms of page count. What’s important is their proportions:

  • Act 1: 25%
  • Act 2: 50%
  • Act 2: 25%

So the middle section of the story is roughly twice as long as the opening and concluding acts—roughly.

If you think about it, that’s not terribly revolutionary news to a fiction writer. We’re taught to watch out for long openings. Exposition, introduction, summary, prologue, and/or excess scene-setting merely serve to delay the start of the narrative. Likewise, we’re told to watch out for ending exposition, long-winded conclusions, and so forth. We’re supposed to be eagle-eyed for when the story “really” starts (in medias res is the phrase usually mentioned here) and when the story “really” ends (think of Gordon Lish cutting the final pages of a Raymond Carver story).

In a nutshell, that’s what Syd Field encapsulates with his observation about act lengths. Trim the opening down, wrap up the ending as concisely as possible, and save the meat of the story for the middle. I would push harder on those numbers—20% / 60% / 20%—but there’s more to Act One and Act Three than the introduction and conclusion of a story. (More on that later.)

Three—no, four—acts

One problem with Field’s original three-act structure in Screenplay was the long haul from the end of Act One to the start of Act Three. Act Two is fifty percent of the story, 60 pages of screenplay manuscript. Since Field’s paradigm was intended to act as a guide or a map, how could he advise how to write a screenplay when half of his map was blank white nothing?

In his later Screenwriter’s Workbook, Field explains a discovery he made after Screenplay‘s publication. In many movies he found there’s a midpoint event that cleaves the second act into two smaller units of drama. This gives the screenwriter a target to shoot for when starting Act Two:

Knowing the midpoint is a tool; with it you have a way of focusing your story line into a specific line of action. You have a direction, a line of development.

(Playwriting defines “action” as a character’s desires and motivations, not shooting guns and car chases. Although Field doesn’t define the word, I believe he uses “action” to mean the results of a character attempting to fulfill those wants—in other words, we see the character trying to get what they want and experiencing the consequences. Aristotle said story “is not an imitation of men but of actions and life.” His use of the term could apply to both definitions.)

Between reading Field’s description of the midpoint, thinking of some examples in film and fiction, and my own experience, I see the midpoint as a Janus point in the story, a moment of looking backward and forward. Even if the storyline has wandered a bit (due to character development or a digression—any reason, really), the midpoint is a stitch connecting the beginning to the end.

With his discovery of the midpoint, Field’s three-act structure looks more like a four-act structure, but the basics are the same. I’ve labeled them with Field’s names, adding my own label for 2A:

  • Act 1: Setup (25%)
  • Act 2A: Complication (25%)
  • Act 2B: Confrontation (25%)
  • Act 3: Resolution (25%)

The labels are to offer the thrust of each act’s purpose. There’s no requirement that every sentence in Setup be setting up your story, or that every scene in Confrontation be confrontational. It’s just a general idea of the direction of that act.

The percentages may look daunting or restrictive, but understand that they’re to indicate rough proportions and not page counts. If your novel’s Act One is only ten percent of the pages, that may be just fine, or even great. But if your Act One is fifty percent of the pages, Field’s paradigm suggests you need to rethink your Setup. I suspect your readers would too.

Part three: the treatment


Photos from Write Club SF

I meant to link to these pictures from my reading at Write Club SF back in February and it slipped my mind. The photographer is Brian Troutwine, who does a fine job capturing light and shadow with his camera:




Plenty more classy shots at Brian’s album of the event. Check out his entire photostream for more great photography.

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure

Syd Field

Syd Field

If you’re a writer, consider if this sounds familiar:

An idea snaps into your head—a character, a situation, a setup, a name—and you dive in, pumping out a promising first chapter in no time at all. You clean it up and bring it in to a workshop or writing group. You get some input and take away some praise and criticism. Back at home you move on to the second chapter, and the third, and then…kaput. You’re out of gas. You make a couple of aborted attempts to keep at it, but it’s just not in you.

Months later you pick up the manuscript, tinker with it, and slide it back in the drawer. And that’s the end of your novel.

The frustration goes beyond hard work being “wasted.” (I don’t think any writing is a waste, it’s merely practice for the next round of writing.) No, the frustration is the hollow feeling that, with just a little more inspiration or skill, you could’ve pushed on and completed that novel. The frustration is the suspicion that, with just a little more planning, you would have a clear path forward.

I’ve not outlined or plotted every story I’ve written. I’ve completed a few stories without any serious planning at all that I would say I’m proud of. I might even say they’re “successful.” But I also know how many failed and false starts I’ve accumulated, a frustrating pile of corpses that simply didn’t pan out. I started thinking about how to outline a story and realized I didn’t have a definite idea of how to do it. I had a couple of notions, but nothing concrete.

Some time ago, when I was first coming to grips with how to write fiction—especially longer forms—I grew interested in the three-act structure screenwriters use. It’s a form Hollywood follows slavishly. Books on screenplay writing are almost entirely devoted to the structure, going deep into the mechanics and timing (that is, the page count) of each act. They detail what questions must be posed in each act and when those question should be answered, even breaking down each act into smaller subunits. It’s much more rigorous than anything I’ve seen in the world of fiction or poetry (which has an encyclopedia’s worth of its own forms).

My experience has been that fiction writers disdain the three-act screenplay structure. Actually, most disdain any manner of plotting or outlining, usually while murmuring something about “plot-driven fiction.” For them, the three-act structure isn’t a revelation, it’s the reason for all the pandering crap Hollywood churns out year after year. Others seem to have the attitude that outlining a novel is somehow “cheating.”

I’ve taken a fair number of playwriting classes and workshops. In them I was struck how theater, just like filmmaking, emphasizes structure over any other craft element. We found structure laced through plays as diverse as A Raisin in the Sun, Glengarry Glen Ross, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Noises Off, Cloud 9, and Fences—brilliant work, all of it, and nothing I would call “pandering crap.” But it’s right there on the page: structure, structure, and more structure.

The Headlight Method

Between all the fiction classes, workshops, writing groups, and how-to books I’ve read, it’s rare to find anything approaching screenwriting’s or theater’s level of emphasis on narrative structure. When I have, it’s usually a method for writing thrillers or “guaranteed” bestsellers, something to the effect of putting the character into deeper and deeper holes and forcing him or her to make harder and harder choices. Oh, and be sure to end each chapter with a cliffhanger. In the case of romance novels, structure is defined in terms of the types of motivations and the types of problems the characters will face. Others argue that most (or all) proper stories follow the Hero’s Journey, although I find that dubious, especially looking back on the literature of the last one hundred years. These are not the kinds of narrative structures I’m talking about.

Freytag's PyramidThe only vanilla structure I’ve seen consistently taught in fiction is the classic rising and falling action cliff ledge (also known as Freytag’s Pyramid). There’s tons of criticism of the pyramid out there. For my purposes, I ask if rising/falling action is an organizing principle or an observation. There’s a difference between a cake recipe and a photo of a finished cake sliced in half. In my mind, the cliff ledge is that photo.

Inevitably when discussing fiction and structure or outlining, E. L. Doctorow’s maxim makes an entrance:

Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.

Like opening a story with weather, this quote has become another scrap of writing lore, that body of accepted thought on the shall’s and shall-not’s of writing fiction. But reread that quote. Doctorow isn’t advocating structureless fiction or railing against the idea of outlining a story. All he’s saying is, you’re not going to know every little detail about a book before you start writing it. Even if you can only see as far as the headlight beams, there’s nothing wrong with having a map handy before you set out on your trip.

Last year I got serious about understanding how screenwriters craft a three-act movie script. In the process of researching the topic I molded the three-act screenplay structure into a form geared for fiction (novels and short stories) rather than movies. This process produces a rough guide for your story, disposable, and nothing more. I’ve applied it on a number of projects and found myself surprised at the results. And, yes, my writing has improved for it.

Syd Field

There’s countless guides, how-to’s, manuals, videos, and seminars on successful screenwriting. Syd Field’s Screenplay is, as I understand it, the Bible on the subject. First published in 1979, Field articulated his three-act structure (he calls it “the paradigm”) as a framework for telling a visual story via a series of scenes. Like literary theorists from Aristotle onward, Field recognized that most stories are built from roughly similar narrative architectures, no matter their subject or setting. In Screenplay he set out to diagram that architecture and explain how it applied to film.

Although Screenplay is the Genesis document, I recommend his Screenwriter’s Workbook (1984). It picks up where Screenplay left off, detailing discoveries and new thinking on his three-act structure. Syd Field made a lifetime career out of teaching people how to write movies; these two books are where he started.

Not everything Field discusses directly corresponds to fiction. Film is a different medium, after all. What I’ve tried to do is pare down and re-shape his three-act structure into something more appropriate for writing novels and, to a lesser degree, short stories. I’ve used this modified paradigm to write a four-page story (“The Last Man in San Francisco”), to revise a long novel that I thought was dead and lost (Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People), and now a new novel (tentatively titled Bridge Daughter).

Let me be clear: this is not a robotic recipe for writing fiction. Syd Field did not lay out a formula for writing blockbuster movies, nor am I laying out a formula for fiction, bestselling or otherwise. This isn’t telling you how to write, it’s suggesting a creative process to engage with before you write. Basketball players take practice shots before a game; artists rough out ideas in their sketchpad before approaching the canvas; musicians practice their set before going into the recording studio. What I’m suggesting is for you to get some basic ideas about your story out of your head and on paper before you start writing.

Part two: “The paradigm”


Interview with NextSpace: “Looking Ahead: Tips for Successful Career Transitions”

Earlier today Charity Yoro of NextSpace coworking posted an interview with me. On a pleasant afternoon a couple of weeks ago, sitting in Old Mint Plaza drinking New Orleans iced coffee (it was a rough slog), we talked about work, writing, and finding a balance between the two:

Capitalizing on the e-book revolution, Jim found that it was pretty easy to self-publish, as long as you could manage independently promoting your product. So last July, long before the announcement of the end of his company, Jim built a website. He published and sold his e-books on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Nobles, and iTunes.

“You have to approach your craft with the same seriousness and intention as full-time work,” says Jim. “In terms of writing, it doesn’t just happen; it’s a different process.”

Read the whole interview. The photo is me doing my best to look authorly.