By Syd Field
Though the focus of The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver by Syd Field is to find and fix problems in scripts, much of it can be adapted for novels. It’s also geared toward the story as a whole. That doesn’t mean you can’t make use of this if you’re currently on chapter 3 of your WIP--problems are best fixed as quickly as possible after all—but sometimes you can’t see the problem until the first draft is finished.
Because this book is written for screenwriters (and you’re reminded of that on virtually every page) you need to keep in mind that you (the novelist) are not the intended audience. That means you have to be flexible with the advice bestowed in this book.
The Introduction (the first 48 pages) is the most general. Here, Field talks about how to identify the problem, which is admittedly the first step in solving any problem. The purpose of this section isn’t so much about problem solving as it is about ensuring that you understand the framework your story should fit into. This is where Field talks in general about story structure, the plot points and pinch points, and why this is important. That’s usually what I read screenwriting How-To’s for, though this is really more of an overview.
Whether you find this valuable will depend where you are on the novel writing learning curve.
One of the things I found evocative was that in the review of the three story acts (defined as setup, confrontation, & resolution) was the statement that The Plot Point at the end of Act I is always the true beginning of your story. Everything before that is setup. This of course relates to story structure which is the area that screenwriters have the most to teach us novelists. This book isn’t the only place this wisdom exists, but this is a nice succinct reminder that there’s more to act one of a story than starting en media res. It’s also helpful for me personally because the first plot point is something I sometimes struggle to recognize. (Hey, every little bit helps.)
The next four sections address Common Problems, Problems of Plot, Problems of Character, Problems of Structure. These sections are further broken down by related problem types.
For example, Problems of Plot includes four sections. Each of these subsections immediately lists typical symptoms of the problem.
The symptoms for Too Much, Too Soon are:
- The story is told in words, not pictures
- The action does not move the story forward
- The dramatic premise is not clear
- Who is the main character?
- Characters are too expository
- Main character is too passive and reactive
- There are too many characters
- Everything has to be explained
- The first act is too long
- The story line is too choppy and disjointed
- Too much happens too fast
It’s noted that these symptoms usually show up in the early pages.
Field also makes a point that these symptoms are not exclusive to just one list because multiple things may cause these problems. Not surprisingly, “main characters being too passive” also shows up in Problems of Character. This makes sense because, as Field explains, the elements of plot, character, and structure are tightly woven. Correcting certain symptoms might be most easily corrected, however, by approaching a problem through plot. Or character. Or structure. Depending why the symptom exists.
Now that the symptoms have been identified, the book starts to examine the causes. In the case of Too Much Too Soon, it may be that the author doesn’t have enough depth or insight into the character or that there’s not enough conflict or drama because the author failed to do proper preparation before starting to write and doesn’t knowing the character well enough, which spawns info dumping because the exploration the writer should have done before starting now appears in the story’s opening chapters.
The solution is what you would expect: to go back and do that preparation that you should have done before. Field doesn’t desert you now however. The method he recommends is to sit down and right a free-association stream-of-consciousness type of essay. He even provides prompts with suggestions and questions to guide you. In the case of Too Much, Too Soon, because this is most common in the early pages, the suggestions tend to center around what the character was doing before the opening scene and what his/her state of mind was coming into that scene.
This idea of writing about your character outside the story setting isn’t new. A number of writers I’ve talked with “interview” their characters before they start writing. I was even a member once of an online writers group that had a virtual tavern where they encouraged authors to stop in and have a drink with their characters. (Lord knows what they revealed after they’d had a few. If nothing else, it’s an interesting concept.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that openings are where I’m weakest, and I gobbled this idea up and plan to apply it to each of my finished manuscripts to see how it might lead me to revise my openings. I’m hoping for good things.
That free flowing essay is the most common recommendation throughout the book, though the focus changes depending on the problem identified. I already use a modified version of this method which I found in David Morell’s book Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing (which will get reviewed here) and I’m a huge fan. It may not work for everyone, but I suggest giving it a try. If it works for you, it might not only help you figure out how to do it better, it may just fire you up about the project that’s been giving you grief.
The Section on Problems with Structure surprised me. Having recently reread Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! series, I expected this to be about the structure of the story as a whole, such as the sequence of events, but the introduction has more about that than you’ll find here. Here, the problems Field focuses on are primarily scene related. Things such as starting and ending scenes in the right place, the use of subtext, how to write action scenes (which, not surprisingly, is similar to what novelists are told,) and how to find the right ending for the story.
So how useful is all this? That’s going to depend on what you struggle with. I can think of a number of published authors who I’d like to send this to with Fields wisdom about endings highlighted with flashing neon arrows pointing at the words “You want to be true to your story line and not have to resort to any tricks, gimmicks, or contrived elements to make it work.” I’d like to send a second copy to the editors who let this kind of thing get passed them.
Mostly, I think the wisdom in this book is available in a number of other books, however, I believe that finding a mentor who thinks the same way you do can finally make that light go on over your head, so this book may be what you need. If you’re visually oriented person and if movie examples help you see why certain things work and why they don’t, this could be a wonderful book for you because Field uses a number of movie examples and he digs into them pretty thoroughly.
Another asset of the book is the questions Field throws out to help you explore various aspects of your story. For example in the section Problems with Characters, he addresses the problem of when dialog isn’t working with these instructions:
- Divine the purpose of the scene.
- What is the dramatic need of the main character?
- What does he or she want during the scene; what is he or she doing there?
- Where did the character come from before the scene began?
- Where is he or she going after the scene is over?
The answers aren’t meant for you to add to the scene, but you need to know it to help solve the problem.
I can see that working for some people.
Or if you know you have a specific problem with your stories, something you can identify as a symptom, such as your stories tend to drag in certain places, and you don’t know why, which of course means you don’t know how to fix it, this book may be just what you need.
For me, it won’t bump my Save the Cat! books out of their place of high reverence, but Syd Field's The Screenwriter's Problem Solver s a worthy addition to the shelf below.
If you'd like to see reviews of other writing sources, go here.