Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Syd Field or Robert McKee?

I spoke to a group of aspiring screenwriters at the Toronto Film School today and as I was leaving, one of them asked me, "Syd Field or Robert McKee?" I replied, "Aristotle."

Whatever Syd Field, McKee or all the other cats making a fortune writing how to write a screenplay books have to say was said 2500 years ago by Aristotle.

What I told the screenwriting student was that it would be better to read 100 screenplays than Syd Field. Or at least read a few screenplays BEFORE reading Syd Field. The problem, and this is based on reading scripts for the Toronto Public Library for 2 months as part of my screenwriter-in-residence gig there, is that people ONLY read Syd Field and think that's all there is to screenwriting. (I'm not saying Syd Field or any of the other gurus even make this claim, but it's probably easier to read one copy of Screenplay than 100 screenplays.) Then these aspiring writers start writing fill-in-the-blanks scripts. Look, isn't it obvious that writing a good screenplay this way is like trying to paint the Mona Lisa using a paint by numbers kit? (It's sort of like da Vinci, but I doubt it's worth much.)

It's really hard to write a good screenplay. Accept it. Embrace this truth. Recognize you are aspiring to winning the creative lottery.

If it was easy, then everyone would do it and successful screenwriters would be a dime a dozen. How many do you know? See? It ain't easy! And even if it is--say you're massively talented and can't help writing award-winning scripts unlike the rest of us mere mortals--you still have to have SOMETHING TO SAY.

Maybe this is self-evident, but after reading a few of the Toronto Public LIbrary's submissions, I think it bears repeating: without a point of view, a personal perspective, something that you need to get across to the world about the human condition or whatever you're passionate about, no matter what you write will be a waste of pages.

If you do have something to say, if the passion burns off those pages, then you can pretty much break any rule Syd Field et al ever came up with, (though not Aristotle, I daresay.) And your script will still be readable and generate interest from someone. They're not going to toss it out because you haven't had a first act turning point by page 28. That kind of stuff can be adjusted, if necessary. But what no one can do for you is give you something to say.

Read screenplays, live an interesting life, be introspective about that life and maybe, just maybe, you might have something to say that is best said in a screenplay. (Remember, they were writing great scripts long before Robert McKee started making a fortune selling books and seminars.) It's worth doing, but don't expect this to be an easy thing to do. If you read 100 screenplays you probably won't have to read Syd Field at that point. (And since you can read 100 scripts for free off various internet screenplay sites, you'll save some money for your post-draft steak dinner--my personal reward to myself.)


matthias said...

Hey Sugith Varughese,
interesting in this respect is the film by Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Aristotle's Plot (Le complot d'Aristote), 1996 (JBA-productions): A 101th screenplay to read.

Anonymous said...

You show me a good point of view for writting's skills and all those "how to" books that i have to read for learn something about wirtting, but i'm confuse about something: You clearlly have Mckees's books as your favorite, even if Aristotle is "the one" you like to hear. So all that a read is just a critic to Syd Field's method, and its really nice to se you encouranging students to read screenplays, but its just dificult to "buy" that idea when you dont even know how to defent a point of view. As you as a teacher, thats not even acceptable... And as a blogger, i rather read that answer for you title: do you prefer "Syd Field or Robert Mckee?"

Sorry for my english.

Sugith Varughese said...

The point of the post is that neither McKee nor Field is saying anything that Aristotle didn't 2500 years ago.

My preference is to read screenplays and Aristotle as the best teacher over both McKee and Field.

Consider how many copies of their books both McKee and Field have sold, yet how few great screenplays have been written by the purchasers?

Great screenplays were being written long before Field and McKee ever came along. I think you can learn more from reading great screenplays than from reading Field or McKee.

Hope that helps clarify my post. I'm sorry you find my view unacceptable, which seems pretty harsh.

Stephen said...

Hi Sugith,

I just found your blog posting (long after you wrote it) by typing "Syd Fields vs Robert McKee". I've had an opportunity to read at least a few chapters of both their books and was trying to decide if one was better than the other.

You make the same points I would (albeit somewhat more eloquently) that writing a good screenplay is having something passionate to say about the human condition - a story that grabs you, makes you care about the characters and leaves you with something to think about.

Before I started their books, I read numerous scripts of movies I loved (Unforgiven, Braveheart, Midnight in Paris, etc.) and found I understood more about what I needed to write a decent script than I was getting from any book.

I thoroughly enjoyed your post and wanted to thank you for taking the time to put it so eloquently for us amateurs.

Take Care,

Professional Accountant & Amateur Scriptwriter

Sugith Varughese said...

Thanks for your comment, Stephen. While many screenwriting books--and I have read most of them--are useful, nothing beats reading great screenplays. As a character says in my stage play Entitlement, which is about screenwriting, "If you want to build a table, you'd have to know what a table is, wouldn't you?"

jaycee said...

I've read Aristotle and I've just read Egri and McKee: Egri did have major new ideas - the use of a sustaining moral premise and Hegellian dialectic as a model for character and plot. McKee does seem to have absorbed some of these innovations and passed them on... but his book is diluted with so padding that they're hard to notice. His "negation of the negative" is interesting too.