Syd Field’s Screenwriting Masterclass, Day 1

Photo from TJ Dimacali

Photo from TJ Dimacali

“How many of you have written at least one screenplay?” Syd Field asked the room of 100 or so students.

A good number of hands went up. “How many of you are _thinking_ of writing a screenplay?”  he continued. More hands.

“How many of you are affiliated with filmmaking – actors, directors, producers?” Another set of hands.

I couldn’t raise my hand in ANY of those questions 😛

Sure, I’ve done short films before – but none were long enough to need an actual formatted screenplay (save for my thesis, which doesn’t count). And while I have always, always been interested in screenwriting and filmmaking (it’s my first love), I’ve never considered making it a career, and have no aspirations of writing a full-length feature. And while I owe Syd Field’s book Screenplay for getting me interested in visual storytelling in the first place, I couldn’t help feeling out of place today – there I was, in a room full of filmmakers, and I was the only game developer there.

And so begins a strange day at Syd Field’s Screenwriting Masterclass, wherein I struggled to make sense of it all from a game writing perspective. 

In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard. Today, Field covered the basics: What is a story? What is drama? What is character? Of course, he talked about his famous paradigm – three acts, two plot points, one mid point, and the number of screen minutes in between. Then he showed numerous clips from films to illustrate his points – Casablanca, Little Miss Sunshine, The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption, etc. Once in a while, he’d allow questions from the audience, but for the most part it was him on stage talking about what he knew.

Much of what he said still applies to game writing, but only if you look at a game’s story by itself – SEPARATE from the game. Half of my notes from today weren’t actually from Field’s lecture, but were ideas for the game I’m writing now. I tried to look at the narrative of the game (What is the beginning? Middle? End?), and identify the plot points that moved the story forward. I tried to separate this from the player’s story (what the player was trying to accomplish, which was really all technology and medium if you think about it, independent of content) and focus only on the fiction of it all (game events, cutscenes, and character reveals). Surprisingly, it was harder than I thought. Maybe I’ve been too neck-deep in gameplay design to tell the difference, and I’d never stepped back and thought of the story as its own fiction, its own little film.

And then I started to question the point of what I was doing, changing my game story based on what I was hearing in class. What is a game story, anyway, except a motivation for the player character to move forward? An excuse to shoot bad guys or slay aliens or collect treasure? What is a game story except a background for game mechanics? Shouldn’t that make it just like any other story in film? Or is it more than that – is it intertwined with gameplay itself, such that a normal three-act structure could no longer cover it?  Should we even bother following the rules of screenwriting, or just create our own paradigm for interactive storytelling?

By the end of the day, I was like, “Screw it – I’ll write down story improvements if I get any, but I’m not gonna force-stuff my game into this paradigm until it fits.”

(I wonder what Field would say about all this – considering how he kept reiterating that structure is everything, that while you can deviate from his paradigm, it is, at the end of the day, his paradigm that succeeds.  If it makes him feel any better, I did write down a good number of story improvements based on his class today, and will pitch them to my boss in a bit.)

I ran into someone today who couldn’t understand WHY I was at the seminar – even after I explained what game writing was. Maybe the point of all of this is simple: story is story. And as a writer, you can never stop learning about story. Or about writing. Ever.

Tomorrow, we start talking about the process of creating a screenplay, from beginning to end – I wonder what I’ll learn (or mess up) this time 😉


2 thoughts on “Syd Field’s Screenwriting Masterclass, Day 1

  1. slob says:

    Nail on the head – story is story. That is why we love books, comics, film, etc. and even music. We just want to be told good stories 🙂

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