Teachers tend to know their students. They’re usually physical bodies lined up in rows of classroom desks or auditorium seats. Students listen to the teacher, trying to absorb required knowledge forced on them by curriculum choices made by other people. But it’s not always that way. Sometimes the teacher is a book and the student chooses to learn from it for reasons of his or her own. If the student is very fortunate, the book of choice was written by the rare person who is not only very knowledgeable, but also has the skills to impart that knowledge in a way that it can truly be learned.

For me, the book was Screenplay, written by Syd Field.

Once I realized I wanted to expand my writing beyond long and short fiction, I decided to learn to write screenplays. Unless they are some kind of savant with a preternatural ability to withstand brain torturing learning curves with ease, most people who make that decision at some point fear that they have, to borrow an age old phrase, bitten off more than they can chew. Other thoughts that may cross a baby screenwriter’s mind include the horror-filled realization that they may, in fact, not be very bright after all, and perhaps at some point even the most perseverance fortified souls may at least briefly consider giving up.

If they’re strong willed and really, really want to be a screenwriter, they keep learning until their brain explodes or they have a finished first draft in their trembling hands. If they’re lucky, somewhere along the way they discover Syd Field and his book Screenplay. (And in my case, someone like my friend Lisa, who patiently answered desperate question riddled emails in the middle of the night.) A skill so complicated demands an instructor with the ability to explain it in a learnable way. Fortunately, the screenwriting world had Syd Field for a long time.

Without the teacher I never met, I might not have finished my first screenplay. That accomplishment was followed by three more completed spec scripts and one in progress. I fell victim to the addictive nature of screenwriting competitions, and eventually learned that writing movie scripts is not like the write, proof, mail, repeat fiction process. Scripts go more like think, try to write, pull your hair out as you struggle to finish a first draft, think more, write more, pull the rest of your hair out, finish the thing…proofread, rewrite, polish, grind your teeth because you’ve already pulled all your hair out working on the first draft, finish the second draft…and repeat until you’re sure you might be finished. 

Here’s the thing. I didn’t understand how crucial rewriting screenplays is until I’d been writing first drafts and thinking they were THE draft for some time. Even a book like Screenplay can’t teach everybody everything. Learning from experience is pretty much universal to some extent. So I sent out first drafts…even to the Nicholls. One of them made the top 10%, the other the top 15%. They advanced in other competitions, well before I figured out not so long ago how to rewrite and polish so that all of them have been rising above a lot of entries in other competitions.

What’s the moral of this story?

It’s certainly not to believe first drafts are THE drafts. I think it’s to realize that a love of storytelling is crucial, ability is vital, and finding the right teacher is serendipity. When I read online today that Syd Field has died, it made me very sad. I’m also grateful that Screenplay was there to teach me how to turn a story into a potential movie. I’m sure I’ll continue learning, but I got the groundwork from one of the best teachers the screenwriting world has known.

LA Times Article About Syd Field’s Death

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