There's Something About Syd

Part 6 of “The Language of Story”

We’re going to continue to talk about film story structure, but even if your interest is primarily in writing long-form fiction, please stick around. This post kicks off a longer discussion about expanding the basic neo-Aristotelian dramatic paradigm talked about last time, using feature film story and structure as a starting point. Even you don’t want to write film, I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen a few, and the innate understanding of film form we all share as a result of the death of literate society makes a good foundation for talking about the language of story.

Syd Field.

Syd, Syd, Syd, Syd, Syd.

I don’t know Syd Field. I’ve never met Syd Field. I certainly don’t hate Syd Field, if only because I make a point of not hating anyone that I don’t know and have never met. Syd Field is rich and famous, while I’m neither, and I’m led to believe that means he wins or something. One of his books (Four Screenplays: Studies in the American Screenplay) is damn good, so I owe him for that. I’ve given Syd Field money for a lot of his other books that were less good, so he arguably owes me as well.

But in much of what he says regarding the structure of screen story, Syd Field is wrong in a very big way. What’s even more annoying is that Syd Field almost got screen story structure perfectly right, and the way in which he failed to get it right continues to cause countless neophyte screenwriters to shoot themselves and their stories in the head.

Syd Field is the originator and chief proponent of “the Paradigm” for film story — the three-act structure. And I’ll be really honest, I don’t even know how seriously people take Syd Field anymore, because the ranks of Hollywood screenwriting gurus has expanded considerably since he defined that niche all by himself in his 1979 book Screenplay. But every guru who followed Syd Field started out by reading Syd Field, and so the pernicious foundations of “the Paradigm” and Fieldian three-act structure extend into virtually every corner of contemporary screenwriting theory.

Here’s a secret. Most feature films (by which we mean narrative films of ninety minutes to two-and-a-half hours or so) don’t have a three-act structure. Never have; never will.

Most feature films have a four-act or five-act structure. In Aristotle’s terms, most feature films have a beginning, and either two or three middles, and an end. The exceptions to this rule are films that are really long (your Quentin Tarantino/Peter Jackson epics, which might run to six or more acts) and features whose running times are between sixty and ninety minutes. Comedies that clock in right at the hour-and-a-half mark can be easily handled by a proper three-act structure (though not all do). A lot of the classic Disney animated features (with running times at 75 minutes or less) fall squarely into this category. So does the standard 22-minute sitcom format. If you think about those shorter films and ultra-short TV shows (hearken back to the exercise from a couple of installments ago), coming up with an honest-to-goodness, workable three-part act structure is dead easy.

Where Syd Field screwed up is that he defines his three act-structure as follows: an Act 1 that’s approximately 30 minutes, an Act 3 that’s approximately 30 minutes; and an Act 2 that’s approximately 60 minutes with a break in the middle. Now, maybe it’s just me, but that breakdown sounds an awful lot like four acts of 30 minutes each. But, as said, Syd Field: rich, famous; me, not so much, so what do I know?

Oh, wait — I remember what I know. Syd Field is wrong.

Syd Field almost figured out that many feature films have a four-act structure, but even that’s not quite there. Most feature films have a three-act to five-act structure, with four acts or five acts more common for dramas; three acts or four acts more common for comedies. But here’s what’s especially important about understanding how Syd Field and his three-act minions missed out when they decided that three was as high as they wanted to count:

A variable scale of three to five dramatic beats is an optimally manageable amount of story.

(As promised from last time, here’s where I confuse things by introducing one of the secondary definitions of “beat.” We talked about the “story beat” being the smallest, indivisible unit of drama that underlies each individual scene in a story. Here, “dramatic beat” refers instead to the general rhythms of storytelling. When we summarize a story in three to five sentences, we’re creating an act structure for that story in three to five dramatic beats. When we break down each of those acts to three to five sequences, we’re once again creating a structure of three to five beats. To keep things clear, even as I use “beat” to talk about these general dramatic beats, I’ll always use “story beat” to refer to those indivisible moments of decision and action from which scenes are built.)

What Syd Field almost got but didn’t quite connect with is that three to five beats is the perfect amount of story.

Three to five beats is a universal pattern of narrative that the rigid-three-act structuralists have missed out on. And as a result, way too many screenwriters have missed out on it as well.

Here’s something that everyone knows intuitively, and that many writers know by the name of the rule of three. When you’re telling a joke, creating a threefold progression is consistently the funniest way to present information. Do all great jokes obey the rule of three? Obviously not. Are there great jokes that don’t use the rule of three? Sure. But it’s a universally observed and expected rule that if you toss out two pieces of straight information followed by a third piece of absurdism, it provokes a humorous response. Beyond comedy, the rule of three is a powerful tool of speechmaking and oratory. There’s simply something in the human psyche that responds to that specific pattern of words.

Likewise, there’s something very basic in the human psyche that responds to a flexible pattern of three to five beats used to tell some part of a story. Anything less, and the story seems thin. It seems incomplete. Anything more, and the story begins to lose its focus.

EXERCISE — Based on a True Story!

Writing from your own life experience, think about a significant event that’s happened to you. It doesn’t have to be overly serious, but it should be relatively complex. Think about being in a position where you have to answer someone else who asks you: “What happened?”

Answer the question by describing the event in two sentences. Then answer the question by describing the event in three to five sentences. Then in six or seven sentences.

Don’t worry too much about which description is the most accurate. Accuracy isn’t always the goal in storytelling. Most of us are painfully aware that some of the most dramatic and compelling things that have happened to us make for lousy tales when we talk about them. What we’re shooting for instead here is the feel of a compelling story.

Focus instead on the rhythm of the story as it’s told in two beats. Then in three to five beats. Then in six or seven beats. Think about which structure feels the most compelling. Think about which one holds your interest more.

You can think about this in the form of the exercise from a couple of installments back. When attempting to craft an ultrashort summary for feature film, most people find it most effective to do so in three to five sentences. Two sentences often doesn’t feel like enough; six or more feels like too much story. However, it’s easy to argue that this is just a simple function of running time. Maybe feature films do break down most effectively into three to five act beats — but that’s just a function of the arbitrary 90- to 120-minute length of feature films, as determined by studios, cultural convention, and distributors wanting to maximize the number of showings in theaters.

But if you have the same experience with the exercise above as most writers who’ve done it with me, you know that there’s more to it than that.

A friend comes up to you, visibly shaken and emotionally distraught, and says, “You would not believe what just happened to me,” and then proceeds to tell you.

“First, this happened. Then, something else happened.”

Tell the story in two beats and it almost always seems like something’s missing. The story feels compressed. Two beats often seems to come with a built-in sense of “Wait… is that all?”


“First, this happened. Then, something else happened. Then, another thing happened. Then some other thing happened. Then another different thing happened. Then something else happened.”

Six beats this time. And even within the complete artificiality of this generic presentation, you can feel for the rhythm of the story being told. Much of the time, six beats feels too long. The central thread of the narrative is somehow lost.

“First, this happened. Then, something else happened. Then, another thing happened. Then some other thing happened.”

Though it’s a small change in terms of content, four beats feels different than two beats. Five beats feels different than six beats. Three to five beats feels more complete; more cohesive. Three to five beats is the optimal delivery system for compelling story.

Three to five beats is the universal pattern on which the language of story is built.

NEXT: It’s Complicated