Syd Fields, Dan Harmon, and Blake Snyder

potted plant near a sofa

I haven’t posted anything here in a while, and most of the posts I have made were short updates. This was going to be another of those posts, but I changed my mind as soon as I started typing the header. I’m still going to give you an update, but I’m going to dive a bit deeper with the content than I have been lately. I hope you enjoy.

What have I been up to?

What a great question, I’m glad I asked. For the past three months I’ve been reading about story telling, writing new stories, and learning a new aspect of the writing craft – screenwriting. If you recognize the three names at the top of this post, you may even know why I have fallen silent for a while. Each of these writers approach writing for the screen from different perspectives, but they are all creating a similar finished product.

I started with Syd Field and his updated how to manual, Screenplay the Foundations of Screenwriting. Syd taught lots of people how to write for Hollywood. The format was similar to the three act novel structure, and that made following his book easy. There are a lot of functional differences between novels, short stories, and screenwriting. Syd slides those lessons in as I read, so I never felt overwhelmed by Hollywood jargon. If anything, I felt like a fan granted a tour of the writers room that I didn’t even know existed.

I learned something else after finishing his book. My next writing project felt easier to write, because the principles I learned for screenwriting worked just as well for short stories. Three acts are the same, the turns between acts land in the same places, and building characters and settings that grab your readers is as universal for every story I’ve ever read as it is for any movie or TV show I’ve ever watched.

I had never heard of story circles.

I’d watched quite a bit of Dan Harmon’s work without ever realizing it. Community has provided me with meme material for years, and I have enjoyed every Rick and Morty episode I’ve watched. But I’d never looked behind the scenes at the writer until I started studying screenwriting in earnest. The story circle makes so much sense to me. I spent a solid month working through permutations of Dan’s eight point method, and loved how easily it fit stories I’ve already written, and projects I still have in mind.

Of course, I’m never satisfied with learning one or two new ideas. I have to experiment with new things, and try to mix them together. So the venerable three act structure had to collide with story circles on my desk. I have been having so much fun, I almost feel guilty. Well, maybe not guilty, but I do feel like I would have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d learned these things sooner. No MFA in college is definitely haunting me as a writer now.

What about Blake?

Again, I’m asking all the right questions. Syd and Dan have some terrific insight into writing and specifically screenwriting, but Blake has perhaps the best practical advice for screenwriting I’ve come across yet. I’m not all the way through Save the Cat, and I won’t spoil it for anyone who has yet to read it. Blake pays homage to Syd in his introduction, so I knew I was on the right track from the very beginning. I’m loving what I’ve read so far, and once I’m done I plan to play theoretical collider all over again. A unified screenwriting technique is on my horizon.

If not for the screenwriting program I am trying to get into, I never would have considered writing for the screen. My attention was focused on novels and short stories. The visual storytelling that Hollywood is famous for would never have occurred to me, and I would have missed out on so much good advice. Even if I don’t make it into the Veterans Writing Project this year, I have put in the work to improve my craft and write better stories. Not a bad way to spend the dark weeks at the end of winter, in my humble opinion.

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