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Does Syd Field's Paradigm help or hinder screenwriters in the creation of original work?
Throughout the entire history of cinematography, the screenwriters accomplished delivering captivating, challenging and successful stories. At the beginning, screenwriters, unwillingly, created stories and clear narrative structure by using three acts or five-act structures that could be found in the Shakespearean plays. In 1979, the idea of a conventional three-act structure was officially created by Syd Field when he described it in his book The Foundation of Screenwriting. The Syd Field Paradigm was popular raised in Hollywood and it became the foundation of screenwriting for almost every film. His structure became a reliable pillar of fundamental knowledge when it comes to write a screenplay, and by doing so, through this book he encouraged many writers to follow it.
“The craft of screenwriting is a creative process that can be learned. To tell a story, you have to set up your characters, introduce the dramatic premise (what the story is about) and the dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action), create obstacles for your characters to confront and overcome, then resolve the story. You know, boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. All stories, from Aristotle through all the constellations of civilization, embody the same dramatic principle.”
According to Syd Field, the structure of the paradigm is developed through three big acts and two subplots. Perhaps, the most common criticism of three-act structure is that it leads to formulate stories. In that case, will all the films be the same if they follow this three-act structure paradigm? Quality wise, it misses the point of what makes a good story or bad. To use an analogy, the majority of popular songs are using a verse-chorus structure, but we all enjoy our pop songs just because they are structured verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus. The same goes for the screenwriting. The structure helps you to organize the story, but it is not a short-cut to quality. Most of the films are following this basic three-act structure, especially the Marvel movies.
“Look, there’s a very large talent pool of people who…don’t feel there’s much of them in terms of sustenance of working for Marvel. And I think that if we can make a playground for them that is thoughtful, adult, interesting, complex, challenging…there’s a chance at something that isn’t lassoed and hogtied by three acts.”
Even though this paradigm is considered one of the best structure to be followed in order to obtain a proper screenplay, the second act seems a bit vague. It leaves a lot of space for interpretation in comparison with act one and three, where the set-up and resolution are very clearly structured. Thus, this leads towards taking in consideration the structure of an alternative to three-act structure provided by Syd Field.
A suitable candidate that follows the Syd Field paradigm is The Avengers. In this film, at the beginning, the first half of the act one shows Loki’s arrival and reveals his evil plan. The second act half the act one is all about S.H.I.E.L.D recruiting its best heroes to join the fight against Loki and raising concerns about bringing them together. That is setting up the story. At the end of act one comes the first plot point, during which the protagonist makes a difficult choice and enters into a new world. Because there are so many characters in The Avengers, this moment plays a bit differently than most scripts. Iron Man commits off screen and Thor joins up later. Nonetheless, this is the moment when we see Captain America and Bruce Banner decide to help S.H.I.E.L.D. That is the point where the story enters into the act two, exactly 25 percent of the way through the film’s run time. Going from an act to another often is, but not always, accompanied by a change in location. The middle 50 percent of the script forms the second act, where the protagonist is struggling to achieve their new goal. Since 1979, this section somewhat has somewhat evolved. Now, it is common to include a mid-point; a big turn that comes exactly half way through the screenplay. This mid-point splits the script into half, often referred as 2A and 2B. In The Avengers, the first half of act two was all about our heroes trying to stop Loki’s plan while struggling to trust each other. At the mid-point, almost exactly half way through the film, our heroes discovered that S.H.I.E.L.D was keeping secrets from them. During this apex attention, Loki has been attacked and the momentum swings in a new direction. The second half of act two is about our heroes failing to stop Loki, taking lose and ending up scattered. This leads to the second plot point; a moment of crisis. Which forces the protagonist to make another hard choice. Our heroes realize what’s at stake, putting aside the differences and coming with a plan to stop Loki once and for all. They gear up and fly off into the act three. Here, the protagonist knows what they need to do and they must overcome their weakness to do so, and learning to work together and by defeating Loki, our heroes become the Avengers. The rest of the act three is about resolution and tying up the loose ends. This is the three-act model that has formed a foundation of what consider a proper screenplay structure for almost 40 years. When David Fincher said that the Marvel universe in “lassoed and hogtied by three acts” he wasn’t talking about the literary number of acts, he was implying that most of Marvel movies, essentially, have to be the same. Thus, they need to be widely accessible, so they can draw attention from all over the world. In order to do so, they need to follow specific narrative conventions. The first convention is about following through the entire film a single, clear protagonist, like: Thor, Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, there was a single, clear protagonist leading the plot forward. Obviously, the supporting actors exist, but they take a back seat. Second, usually, the subplots are resolved just before the climax or immediately after. This, usually, helps to tide up everything nicely and all the loose to come together. And the third convention is that most of the time, the Marvel films follow Syd Field’s paradigm structure.
Taking a step back from this classical screenplay structure, and take a look from a different perspective, we can see that Syd Field paradigm does not satisfy the whole modern films. Thus, it leads us to take in consideration another structure that can fill all the gaps in a film. The most commonly discussed model, famously found in the Shakespearean plays is the five-act structure. In the 1863, German novelist, Gustav Freytag, published his book called The Technique of the Drama and introduced the Freytag’s pyramid. He had analyzed classical Elizabethan drama and declared there are five stages in any tragedy. Surprisingly, this five-act structure fits quite well with the modern film. John Yorke, in his book, described that the five-act structure is not really different from the classic Hollywood three-act structure. In addition to that structure, Freytag’s Pyramid has two further acts inserted in the second act of Syd Field paradigm. Apart from that, John Yorke said that the first and the last act remains the same in both structures. So, using a classic five-act structure satisfies the demands of the three-act paradigm structure and also provides a more detailed take on the middle section of the story. But if we compare these two structures as we just applied them to The Avengers, we see that they do not fit exactly as John Yorke described. The fourth stage where the Avengers reunite does not occur during the paradigm second act, but rather the third. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a very interesting film from many perspectives, especially structural perspective. “There was really no way to take what Larsson had written and get it into three acts. And so, we sort of had to make our peace with the idea of a five-act structure.” Despite having that structure, the film does not fit perfectly to that model. Thus, the film is full of abnormalities, where the subplot is the focus of much of the film and at times it feels like it swaps protagonists. In comparison with Marvel’s movies, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo subverts the conventional film structure. This film is a clear example of how a film can follow the rules and break them in the same time, creating a unique perspective on screenwriting. By distorting those three-act conventions, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can tell a really intricate story and its complexity can lead towards multiple plot threads. Thus, it lets us get to know a main character besides the protagonist itself in a much deeper way. When you analyze the film from that perspective, sometimes you may ask yourself if the film follows a certain structure or not. Despite distorting the three-act paradigm, the screenwriter makes sure that each act of the film contains the essential elements of story. John Yorke described in his book that every film or screenplay has to have the crucial elements of a storytelling, and those elements are: protagonist, antagonist, desire/journey, inciting incident, climax, and in some cases resolution. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has all of these elements and in a very interesting way, every element has its unique role. Each act of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo serves a unique function in an overall story. And some acts cannot be found in a conventional film. But, it makes sure that each act has its own elements. And it makes sure that it is not just a film that shows a series of events happening, but rather telling a story.
Even though the Syd Field's Paradigm and Freytag’s Pyramid are considered the classic and the best structures to be followed in Hollywood films, there are, unfortunately, only few films that dare to take the risk of bending these conventions. In my opinion, it is possible to create an original and successful screenplay even though it has to follow a specific structure. All these structures that form a film are vital for this industry. It helps you to create the bone structure of the film, a foundation. In terms of structure, most of the film will continue to follow the same classic Syd Field's Paradigm or Freytag’s Pyramid. But when it comes to originality and quality, you can create unique stories and plots by just bending a bit the rules, getting out of the anonymity. In order to create a successful screenplay that will one day get out of the anonymity, you need to know, understand and define first, what an act is. By doing so, you will be able to understand the rules and to test your limits and, eventually, break them. Of course, it is very important to know the basic structure of a screenplay, thus your foundation will be stable and safe. As John Yorke described in his book, that we should think of an act as a dramatic question which is introduced to the story and needs to be answered. The character has to pursuit his actions and desires whether it will lead him towards success or not. Thus, the character will be send in a completely new direction. Unfortunately, we live in an era where we value the films that remain on the same path, without taking any risks whatsoever. Thus, the films that break the classic Hollywood conventions and which are not “lassoed and hogtied by three acts,” are often seen as an experimental film. As an audience we have become so programmed to expect a three-act structure and a tidy resolution that we often get uncomfortable when a story breaks that formula. When a story is not beholden to narrative conventions and we are willing to be uncomfortable, we get to have new experiences. Over the last decade, that experimentation become less and less in film and became more popular in television. And as long as the fun, safe films dominate the box office that would continue to be the case. My personal take away of all this is that regardless of the medium you work in, it is important to learn the essential elements of story so your script is always compelling. It is important to learn the narrative conventions so you can anticipate with the audience is expect. And it is important to learn all the rules so you know the best ways to break them.