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”

“Never open a book with weather”

"In the Rain", Sascha Kohlmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“In the Rain”, Sascha Kohlmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lore is superstition for a modern world that thinks it’s shaken off superstition.

Of all the different kinds of lore out there—office equipment lore, marijuana lore, etc.—writing lore is some of the worst. Inevitably a bit writing lore is expressed as an indisputable maxim and attached to the name of a well-known, perhaps legendary, author. The august name only burnishes the lore’s authority.

These chestnuts of supposed wisdom that all writers must adhere to thrive and breed unchallenged. Why? Why are we as writers beholden to this set of arbitrary do’s and do not’s?

Modern lore is a shortcut. It replaces thought. Writing lore absolves the author of responsibility. Writing is a process of decisions and careful consideration. Lore is a handy beanbag to fall backwards onto and put one’s cares aside. Should you do this or that in your story? Well, this quote says you shouldn’t, so you don’t.

Hence my peevishness when the Guardian printed a collection of writers’ “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” starting with Elmore Leonard’s famed list. (The Guardian cribbed his list from The New York Times, incidentally.) Not everything on these lists is lore—plenty of it is hard-learned personal wisdom—but I have a bone to pick with Leonard’s first rule:

“Never open a book with weather.”

Elmore Leonard isn’t so stupid as to pronounce this absolutism and move on. He offers a justification (“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long”) and an exception (“If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want”). When you contemplate both provisos, suddenly that “never” in “never open a book with weather” melts away like the warming Kilimanjaro snow.

Speaking of, this is what Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos:

Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.

Hemingway managed to open “A Very Short Story” with a mention of the weather:

One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.

Here’s his rule-breaking opening to “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

Papa again, in “Cross-Country Snow”:

The funicular car bucked once more and then stopped. It could not go farther, the snow drifted solidly across the track. The gale scouring the exposed surface of the mountain had swept the snow surface into a wind-board crust.

I could go on.

In fact, if you think of a story’s title as its true opening, Hemingway is even more guilty: “The Snows of Kilamanjaro”, “Cat in the Rain”, “After the Storm”, even perhaps The Sun Also Rises.

You might object that these openings are reflected in Leonard’s provisos and exceptions. Strange how the circulated lore of “never open a book with weather” usually fails to mention those exceptions, though. What’s more likely is someone bringing into a workshop a story that opens with rain drizzling across a window pane and someone else pouncing on the faux pas.

Worse, the lore of “never open a story with weather” is often misattributed to Hemingway, which is crazy. The man made an unstoppable reputation writing about the outdoors. For Hemingway to respect “never open a story with the weather” is like a mystery writer admonishing “never open a story with a murder.”

The prohibition against opening with weather is one more bit of lore designed to mystify and codify the craft. It bedazzles young writers who believe it a key to publication. It offers easy ammunition to every hack who’s entered a workshop ready to shred the story up for review. It’s time to set this tired chestnut aside.