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The Screenwriter's Problem Solver: How to Recognize, Identify, and Define Screenwriting Problems


All writing is rewriting. But what do you change, and how do you change it? All screenplays have problems. They happened to Die Hard: With a Vengeance and Broken Arrow-and didn't get fixed, leaving the films flawed. They nearly shelved Platoon-until Oliver Stone rewrote the first ten pages and created a classic. They happen to every screenwriter. But good writers see their problems as a springboard to creativity. Now bestselling author Syd Field, who works on over 1,000 screenplays a year, tells you step-by-step ...

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The Screenwriter's Problem Solver: How to Recognize, Identify, and Define Screenwriting Problems

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All writing is rewriting. But what do you change, and how do you change it? All screenplays have problems. They happened to Die Hard: With a Vengeance and Broken Arrow-and didn't get fixed, leaving the films flawed. They nearly shelved Platoon-until Oliver Stone rewrote the first ten pages and created a classic. They happen to every screenwriter. But good writers see their problems as a springboard to creativity. Now bestselling author Syd Field, who works on over 1,000 screenplays a year, tells you step-by-step how to identify and fix common screenwriting problems, providing the professional secrets that make movies brilliant-secrets that can make your screenplay one headed for success...or even Cannes. Learn how to:

•Understand what makes great stories work
•Make your screenplay work in the first ten pages, using Thelma & Louise and Dances With Wolves as models
•Use a "dream assignment" to let your creative self break free overnight
•Make action build character, the way Quentin Tarantino does
•Recover when you hit the "wall"-and overcome writer's block forever

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
With examples from Pulp Fiction, How to Make an American Quilt, The Shawshank Redemption, Crimson Tide, Broken Arrow...and more of Hollywood's biggest hits

"The most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world."—The Hollywood Reporter

"If I were writing screenplays...I would carry Syd Field around in my back pocket wherever I went."—Steven Bochco, writerproducerdirector, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue

"I based Like Water For Chocolate on what i learned in Syd's books. Before, I always felt structure imprisoned me, but what I learned was structure really freed me to focus on the story."—Laura Esquivel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780440504917
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/1998
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 272,811
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Syd Field is a screenwriter, producer, teacher, international lecturer, and author of the bestselling books Screenplay, The Screenwriter's Workbook, Selling a Screenplay, and Four Screenplays. Published in 1982, Screenplay has been translated into sixteen languages, and is used in more than 250 colleges and universities across the country. At present he is creative consultant to the governments of Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Austria, and South Africa, and has been a script consultant for Roland Jaffe's film production company, for Alfonso Arau and Laura Esquivel on Like Water for Chocolate, and for Tri-Star Pictures. He lives in Beverly Hills, California.

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Read an Excerpt

When I first started thinking about writing this book, I wanted to find some kind of tool that the screenwriter could use in order to recognize and define various problems of screenwriting.  But as I began writing, I became aware that I was really writing about the solutions to various problems, and not really identifying them.  It just didn't work.  So I began to rethink my approach.  To solve any kind of a problem means you have to be able to recognize it, identify it, and then define it; only in that way can any problem really be solved.

The more I began thinking about the "problem," the more it became clear that most screenwriters don't know exactly what the problem really is.  There's a vague and somewhat tenuous feeling somewhere that something is not working; either the plot is too thin or too thick; or the character is too strong or too  weak; or there's not enough action, or the character disappears off the page, or the story is told all in dialogue.

So I began analyzing the Problem-Solving process.  The only way I could  make this book work, I realized, was to recognize and define the various  symptoms of the problem, very much the way a medical doctor isolates the various symptoms of his patients before he can treat the disease.  When I approached the Problem-Solving process from this point  of view (and it is a process), I began to see that there's usually  not just one symptom, but many symptoms.  It soon became  clear that many of the problems in screenwriting share the same symptoms, but the problems themselves are different in kind; only when you analyze the context of the problem can a distinction be made, and it is those distinctions that lead us on the path of recognizing, defining, and solving.  For the truth is that you can't solve a problem until you know what it is.

With that in mind I began to understand that there are only three distinct categories of The Problem; when you're writing a screenplay, all problems spring either from Plot, Character, or Structure.

The art of Problem Solving is really the art of recognition.

You can look at any problem in two ways: the first is to accept the fact that a problem is something that doesn't work.  If that's the case,  you can avoid it, deny it, and pretend it doesn't exist.  That's the easy way.

But there's another way of approaching the problem, and that's to look at  any creative problem as a challenge, an opportunity for you to expand your screenwriting skills.

They are really both sides of the same coin.  How you look at it is up to you.

"The World is as you see it."  

The Art of Problem Solving

A few weeks ago, during one of my screenwriting workshops, a student turned in some pages from her screenplay with a somewhat worried and concerned expression on her face.  I didn't say anything, I simply took the pages and read them.

The scene she had written took place at the beginning of the Second Act, as the main character, a lawyer, is investigating the mysterious and unexpected death of her mother, who had died while recovering from a simple surgical procedure in the hospital.

Stunned and grieving, she is trying to find out why her mother had suddenly died, but no one has any answers, and no one is talking.  The doctors placate her, the nurses know nothing, and the hospital administrator is concerned and suggests she join a grieving group.  Her grief turns to anger, and she's determined to find out what happened.  Pursuing lead after lead, she manages to locate one of the nurses who had taken care of her mother right before she died.  The nurse had mysteriously quit the hospital a few days after the mother's death, had changed her address and literally disappeared.  But through her own persistence, and some lawyer friends, she manages to track the nurse down.  And now, she's going to talk to her.  This was the scene my student had just written.  As I read her pages, I began to get some insight into why she appeared to be concerned about it.  She had written the scene like an interrogation; the main character questions the nurse, who is reluctant to say anything about her mother's death.

This was an important scene, and it had to be handled in such a way that it both moved the story forward and revealed information about the main character.  She's tough, feisty, and smart, and she's not just going to accept what happened, but she's determined to find out why it happened.  And this scene is the first real clue the main character has which confirms her suspicion that some kind of cover-up is going on.  Somebody made a mistake here, and because of it, her mother is dead.

I waited until the people in the class had finished reading the pages, then I turned to the young woman who had written the scene, and asked, "What  do you think?"

She was very quick to answer.  "I think something's wrong," she said, "it just doesn't feel right."

She was right.  She had a problem.

Problems are common in screenwriting.  The old expression "Writing is  rewriting" is very true.  But in my experience there are two ways you can look at a problem:

The first is to say that a problem is something that doesn't work.  Very simple.

The second way is to say that a problem is an opportunity, a challenge that will allow you to ultimately improve your craft of screenwriting.  Two different points of view.  But any way you look at it is the same: a problem becomes the fuel of creativity.  You either view it as an  obstacle or an opportunity; either a problem is something that doesn't work, or an opportunity for you to move up to another level.

It's up to you.

For some people the simple knowledge that they have a problem in their script can create a panic attack; it's a horrible, much-to-be-dreaded experience.

I have traveled all over the world conducting screenwriting seminars and workshops, and I hear the same thing in country after country; screenwriters describe their scripts in terms of the problems they are encountering.  "Well," they say, "my problem is that my structure's not working," or "my character's weak," or "the dialogue's flat."

And I tell them there are no problems, there are only solutions.  They laugh at that, because they think I'm kidding.  But I'm not.

I think what scares most screenwriters, or anyone for that matter, is that most of the time they know there's a problem, they just don't know what it is.  They can't define or describe it.  It exists only as a vague sense of discomfort, an imprecise dissatisfaction, a knot in the gut or a lump in the throat.  My student knew, or felt, she had a problem with these pages, she just didn't know what it was.  The art of Problem Solving means being aware of those hazy and undefined feelings, and using them as some kind of a guide to lead you into an examination of the cause or source of the problem.  The art of problem solving is really the art of recognition.

In my student's case the main character, the lawyer, has knocked and entered, and she and the nurse have a dialogue scene.  The scene was smooth and well written, but the overall effect was really somewhat dull and boring.  Basically, talking heads.  That's not screenwriting.  That's playwriting.  There was no sense of threat, no tension.  And when I read pages that are slow and boring, the first thing I do is look for the source of conflict.  And in these pages there was hardly any conflict at all.

I wanted to find out what her feelings were about the scene, so I looked at her for a long moment, and then asked, "What do you think?"

"I think something's wrong," she replied, "something's just not working."

"Like what?" I said, wanting to get specific.

"Oh, I don't know.  It just feels like there's something wrong."

"So what do you think it is?" I persisted.

She thought about it for a moment, then said, "I think it's soft; it feels fuzzy."

Soft and fuzzy.  That's a pretty accurate description.  It lets you know that something's not working as well as you think it should.  And if you don't pay attention to that little "itch," that little "soft and fuzzy" feeling, the chances are it could evolve into a much larger problem later on.

Writing a screenplay is such a specific and demanding craft that when something doesn't work, whether a scene, or sequence, or character, it casts a long shadow across the page.  It becomes the seed that will erupt into a full-blown problem later on.  So it's important to catch and take note of these symptoms as they occur.

If you feel you have a problem, and can't articulate or define it, there's not much you can do to fix it.  That's just a natural law.  You can't fix something if you don't know what's wrong with it.

When you get down to it, the art of problem solving is the art of recognition.  And it is a definite skill that relies on the writer's sense of recognition and self-awareness.  If you feel there's a problem—maybe the script is too long, too talky, or the characters are too weak or too thin—what can you do to fix it?

Nothing.  At least not until you can accurately describe it.  Until you know what the problem is, all you can do is piddle around with it; you can't fix something until you know what's wrong with it.  There are many screenwriters who piddle around with a problem without fixing it, and it will probably remain as one of those scenes that never seem to work, no matter what you do.  And you just let it go and hope no one notices it.  It happens all the time.  The ostrich syndrome.

But if you know how to define and articulate the problem—maybe the main character is too passive and seemingly disappears from the action, or is too unsympathetic, or maybe the dialogue's too direct—you've got a handle on it and you can solve it to the best of your ability.

So, in this process of what we call problem solving, how do we go about fixing "soft and fuzzy"?

First, define the problem.  That means generally rethinking the material.  Go back into the material; analyze your intentions. What is the  purpose of the scene?  Why is it there?  What is the character's dramatic need—what does your main character want to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay?

It's usually something that can be described fairly simply; in Thelma & Louise (Callie Khouri) it is their need to escape safely to  Mexico.  In Dances With Wolves it is John Dunbar's dramatic need to go to the farthermost edge of the frontier and adapt to the ways of the land and the people.

So, what is your character's dramatic need?  Define it within the context  of the scene.  If you can illuminate this dramatic need—either through  action or dialogue—you gain more subtext and texture, and thus add more  dimension to the scene.

The first step in Problem Solving means to rethink the needs of a scene;  you must take it apart in order to isolate and define the emotional forces working on, and within, the dynamic of the scene.  The scene is the living cell, the hub of dramatic action, and serves two basic functions in the screenplay.  One, the scene moves the story forward; or, two, reveals information about the main character.  These two elements of story and character must be served in each and every scene, visually, if possible.  Look at any scene in any screenplay, study any movie, and see whether this is true or not.  It's very common to read the pages of a screenplay and find pages and pages of extraneous scenes devoted to incidents or encounters that have absolutely nothing to do with the story line.

By definition, a screenplay is a story told in pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure.  This is something I never get tired of repeating, because for some reason we always seem to forget it.  Each scene always has to move the narrative line forward, from beginning to end, beginning to end, even though it's not necessarily in that order, as illustrated by Pulp Fiction (Quentin  Tarantino), or Courage Under Fire (Patrick Shane Duncan), or The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, beautifully adapted from the book by Michael Ondaatje).

The scene my student wrote, which she could only describe as being "soft and fuzzy," is really a key scene that moves the story forward.  But the way she wrote it was not sharp enough; the dialogue was too nice, too direct; there was no tension, no subtext working, and it washed out.  There was not enough definition or dimension in it.  So I had her redefine the character's dramatic need.  In this particular scene the character's dramatic need is to find out any information she can about her mother's sudden and mysterious death.  Was there any wrongdoing?  A mistake of some kind?  Why did the nurse suddenly quit and leave the hospital?  Is there a cover-up going on?  What's happening here?

These are all important questions within the context of the scene.  And context, remember, is the space that holds something in place.  It is  the space inside the glass that holds the content—water, coffee, tea, milk, beer, soft drink, grapes, nuts or raisins, whatever—in place.  The space inside the glass does not change: it holds the content together.  It is the gravity of the scene; it is context.

I knew my student had to make the scene sharper, more defined, with more tension, and the only way to do that was by generating more conflict.  So I made some suggestions: maybe the nurse is not at home when the main character arrives.  Maybe the first thing she has to do is wait.  Maybe in her car.  Maybe a couple of hours.  This provides a back story to the scene.  It lets the character enter the scene with some built-in tension.

So let's add some more conflict.  The main character has had to wait a  couple of hours.  So what else can we do to create conflict in the scene?  What if the nurse has a boyfriend, and maybe the guy's not too bright and he lets the main character, the lawyer, into the apartment before the nurse arrives home.  He assumes they're friends.  So she could already be in the house when the nurse arrives home.  These elements would add a great deal of conflict to the scene.  The nurse arrives home, she's pissed at her boyfriend for letting a stranger, the lawyer, in, and we can see by her defiance and attitude that she's frightened.  For sure this woman knows what happened to the character's mother and does not want to say anything about it, for whatever reason.  Maybe she's even preparing to leave town.  But she's tough and doesn't want to give anything away.

What does that do to the scene?  Obviously, it sharpens the dramatic forces within it.  What had been soft now shows more potential for tension and conflict; there's an edge to it.

And there's a way to get even more out of the scene;  throughout this book I'm going to be referring to the value of writing short essays about your story and characters, defining and expanding events and relationships.  Even though the nurse

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Interviews & Essays

On March 11th, the Live Events Auditorium was excited to welcome screenwriter, producer, teacher, and international lecturer Syd Field, who has been hailed as "the most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world" The Hollywood Reporter, to chat about his latest book, THE SCREENWRITER'S PROBLEM SOLVER.

Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us to chat tonight, Syd Field. We are looking forward to picking your brain and perhaps gleaning some of your expertise. Any opening comments?

Syd Field: You can pick my brain as much as you want! I'm yours!!

S. Witherspoon from Nashville, Tennessee: I read that you "work on over 1,000 screenplays a year." What do you do? Are you a consultant? Teacher? How did you get involved in this?

Syd Field: Yes, I am a teacher, and I am a consultant. I'm hired by motion picture studios, by directors, producers, by governments of foreign countries, to read and evaluate their screenplays, and to find out how to make them better. And sometimes I'm even hired to cowrite the screenplay with the writer. In addition, I have private classes in Beverly Hills, and that's how I have evolved my consultant status. And that is the real source of my brand-new book, called THE SCREENWRITER'S PROBLEM SOLVER. So if you have any problems, this book tells you how to solve them. In theory.

Celosia from on Ottawa ground: What is the most significant difference in the intuitive process between writing as a screenwriter and writing as a novelist?

Syd Field: The form. Screenwriting is more a craft, and once you learn the craft, you can access your own intuition. In this way, the craft does not get in the way of your intuition. So when you are writing a novel, you can write in a free-form consciousness style, whereas in a screenplay, you're always concerned with making sure the pictures tell the story. And if you let the form get in the way, it really limits your intuition, so you have to learn the craft of the screenplay so it becomes second nature. And in that way you access your intuition and imagination.

Stuart Woods from Southern WV: I was in theater class today, and my professor started talking about playwriting. In his lecture, he mentioned neoclassicism. What are your views on neoclassicism and how do you use this in your plays today?

Syd Field: Let's just say that neoclassicism is a literary theory, and it was applicable during its heyday, back in the late 19th century. It does not seem to have too much relevance to the style of communicating plays or motion pictures today. Take a look at the new Oscar Wilde play about his trial, and you can see the difference -- it's not a very effective form in screenwriting today.

Jason Hackman from Arcata, CA: Scripts are generally not the most interesting literature to read. How would you suggest making one's script more readable and entertaining?

Syd Field: The form of the screenplay is constant in its very simplicity. And writing that form, you can do anything you want. If you read the screenplay for "Thelma and Louise," for example, it's very traditional, yet it's an exciting read because it is so contemporary in tone and feeling. And if you read a screenplay like "Jurassic Park," there the screenplay leaps to a new level, because you actually see the movie as you are reading the screenplay. And I have a short example of a very classic scene in "Jurassic Park" in my new book, THE PROBLEM SOLVER.

Jan Pena-Davis from Chicago, IL: Hi, Syd. I actually just finished reading your book and found it quite helpful. I'm actually looking forward to the rewrites. My question is, I'm sick of my screenplay. Is this a normal feeling? I've been working and reworking for over a year.

Syd Field: Dear Jan, I sympathize completely. While you're probably freezing in Chicago, we are enjoying the most beautiful sunshiny 80-degree weather in L.A. Sorry. Your feelings are very natural and normal. Sometimes we work so much on our screenplay, and we get so sick of it, we can't see it clearly at all, and in that case, you should just put it aside for two or three months and go work on something else. And when you go back to working on it after a break, always work in units of dramatic action. Rewrite act one, then rewrite the first half of act two, then do the second half of act two, and then act three. Always move from beginning to end, beginning to end. That's one way we keep everything fresh and new so you don't have to get sick and tired of it. So just put it aside, wait for a sunny day, and then read it from beginning to end without stopping, lock up all pens, papers, and pencils and just read it and let it simmer a little bit, and then go back to your rewrite. But wait two or three months before you do that. Get out of it, so to speak.

Floyd the Barber from Seattle, WA: What is your view on the new generations of the independent film revolution that is taking place today?

Syd Field: I think it's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, and wonderful. Because the Hollywood studios are doing their kind of movie: empty, big-budget, star-driven. The independent film has a real opportunity to do something meaningful and important, very much like "Good Will Hunting." So I love the independent movement -- it's really going to be doing wonderfully, and it's a great opportunity for young filmmakers.

C. Small from Chicago: Do you have any advice as to what should go into making an effective screenplay adaptation of a novel? Any personal secrets?

Syd Field: Yes. The first thing you do when you adapt the novel is to make it your own, and tell the story in pictures, not words. So use the novel as source material that is only based on the novel, but really it should be considered an original screenplay. It's the difference between apples and oranges. So when you adapt a novel, think of it as an original screenplay that is based on the source material. And a wonderful example is to look at the book of "The Silence of the Lambs" and the screenplay of "The Silence of the Lambs." It's a wonderful novel and a wonderful adaptation, and I talk about that at length in my FOUR SCREENPLAYS book.

Jeff from California: I seem to vacillate between mapping out scenes and feeling my way through the process. Is this a common problem for novices?

Syd Field: The answer is yes. Just know there is no right way or no wrong way to approach the scene. If you really go into the dynamics of each scene, there will be a natural point at which you can enter the scene, and a natural point at which you can leave the scene. We call that "enter late and get out early," and I have a whole section of my PROBLEM SOLVING book devoted to that very issue.

Nancy from Bellingham, WA: What is with all the hype around the screenplay for "Good Will Hunting"? Do you think that screenplay is deserving of all its high praise?

Syd Field: The answer is yes. If you take a look at the movies in 1997, most of the studio-driven movies were big-budget, special effects, no story, big stars, totally disappointing. The two guys who wrote "Good Will Hunting" wanted to tell a story about a particular person, and that worked. So if you measure a film like "Good Will Hunting" against a film like "Starship Troopers" or "Lost World" or "Men in Black," movies that were made in the '50s though literally not as good, you'll find that "Good Will Hunting" wants to get insights into a character, and that way it strikes a universal chord. So, yes, while the film may be flawed, it's still a major achievement considering the film market that exists today.

W. Gerard from Omaha: I enjoy watching films with multiple protagonists films such as "The Big Chill," various Robert Altman films, etc.. Writing these sorts of scripts must certainly have their pitfalls. The one that comes to mind most readily is that if you spread your screen time around a few characters, you lose some ability in getting in deeper with those characters. Are there ways around this writing problem, or am I incorrect in assuming the movies I mentioned do in fact contain multiple protagonists?

Syd Field: Well, number one, you're right in terms of those films containing multiple protagonists, and your observations are absolutely accurate: Because those films are so difficult to write, for exactly the reason you mentioned, you cannot get any clarity or depth of character in five or six characters, and they therefore become thin and one-dimensional. In order to make this work, you have to limit your main characters to no more than three or four. Three is the perfect number, as in "As Good as It Gets," and ideally you should have one or two main characters, as in "Titanic." When you have a group of characters, as in "The Full Monty," you have the ability to put them together, but they are going after the same situation, they have one goal, one dramatic need, and that is to make money, keep their integrity in tact, and strip. So you have to be very careful when you write many characters as your protagonists. I would suggest that you focus on one or two, possibly three -- max, and "As Good as It Gets" is a perfect example.

Twilla from Thiensville, WI: How much latitude do you have in changing a portion of a novel when you are scripting it?

Syd Field: As much as you want. As mentioned in one of the other questions, adapting a novel into a screenplay should be like an apple and an orange. Both are fruit, both grow on trees, both have skins, but they are distinctly different. For example, you want a good, strong opening for a screenplay, so you may have to search through the novel to find an appropriate scene that would make a good opening for the script. Then you may have to restructure scenes, create new characters, and make sure that you are telling a story with pictures and not words. So the art of adaptation is really singular, and needs to be approached in a very specific and individual manner. And you can do anything you want in that context.

G. Taylor from PA: Hi, Syd. Thanks for spending time with us. In your own work, do you use any particular kind of screenwriting software? If so, what and why? If not, why not?

Syd Field: Well, I use a software when I write screenplays called Scriptware -- it is a dedicated stand-alone screenplay formatting software. I am in the process, as we speak, of developing a screenwriting software that will take the user from the inception of the idea to the completion of the final screenplay. We're starting to develop it now -- it may not be available for a year, but it will be a unique screenwriting program. It lets you do all the work with your own story in your own way, but it also guides you through the process.

Marius from NYC: I have taken many fiction-writing workshops, and the primary lesson drilled into your head time after time is "show don't tell." In fiction you can do this by writing gestures and actions for characters. I assume that this goes for screenwriting, too, although dialogue is crucial for characters in films. What are my other options in screenwriting to "show" what a character is thinking or feeling? How much is too much to write in, while still allowing the actor feeling?

Syd Field: That's a wonderful question, and it's very tricky, because when you write a screenplay, we're focusing on the pictures, not so much the words. Film is behavior, so we have to find a situation that reveals behavior in the actions of your character. For example, in "Thelma and Louise," there is a scene of Louise and Thelma packing to go away on their two-day holiday, and here's the way Louise packs: They're going away for two days, so she packs two sweaters, two blouses, two pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear, and debates about adding an extra pair of socks. Her apartment is clean with one dirty glass on the sink. That's the way Louise packs her suitcase. Now take a look at the way Thelma packs: She stands in front of her closet, does not know what to take, so she takes everything. She grabs everything and throws it in the suitcase. She takes a lamp, flashlight, and then even drops in a gun, and that's the way she packs. Look at her kitchen: It's a mess. Her character starts out to be a ditsy housewife, and then she embarks on the journey to realization and self-fulfillment before she dies. So find the picture that reveals your character's behavior.

Nelson from Connecticut: I see that the next chat is with Ed Solomon, who wrote the screenplays for "Men in Black" and "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," which were both huge financial successes. I am curious to get your opinion of the screenwriting for both those movies. Thanks!

Syd Field: Well, number one, "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" was wonderful! "Men in Black" was a big-budget special effects film that in my opinion tried to be funny rather than being funny. So as a result, for me, it did not work effectively, whereas "Bill & Ted's" was a real funny film based on the situation. Sixty percent of "Men in Black" dealt with the special effects and not the story, and they played it for humor, not for the real situation, and that's why it didn't work so well for me. But Ed is certainly a wonderful writer, and I'm always looking forward to what he's doing next.

Chris Ryan from New Jersey: I'm writing an action-adventure and have my protagonist, his buddy, and the antagonist down clearly. My questions is, the buddy is one of a squad of detectives -- how much can I develop the other detectives without muddying up the story? They are good characters and reveal shades of the lead's character, so I neither want to overdo nor underdo them.

Syd Field: The main priority is the main character and the story line, which encompasses the buddy and the antagonist. The other guys in the squad you develop as needed. They're there for background, for character, for revealing information about the story moving it forward. You have to remember that each scene in the screenplay must serve one of two functions. Either A it moves the story forward, or B it reveals information about the main character. In THE PROBLEM SOLVER, I repeat this over and over and over again, because it is essential that you keep your focus on the story line and the characters. Otherwise you start rambling.

Jack from Boston: What up-and-coming young writers do you have your eye on? Who do you think are the ones to watch?

Syd Field: Hmmmm.... That's a difficult one. I would say the guys who did "Good Will Hunting." Unfortunately I was out of the country when Sundance was going on, so I don't know much about the new group of writers coming up, so I'm afraid I don't have much of an opinion about who the new young writers are. But they are there.

G. Taylor from PA: What's your feeling on the "need-to-live-in-L.A.-to-make-it-as-a-screenwriter" theory? Also, do you use any type of consistent standards when choosing character names?

Syd Field: The first part of the question is, Don't you believe it. Because you can write a screenplay anywhere in the U.S. Ted Talley, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "The Silence of the Lambs," lives in Pennsylvania. Barry Levinson, the writer/director, lives in San Francisco. You can write your screenplay anywhere, and if people are interested in it, they will fly you out to take meetings in Hollywood. So don't worry about being in Hollywood all the time.

The only standard I use regarding characters' names is letting the characters name themselves. I may arbitrarily choose a name like Harold for a character, and then as I'm writing that character, suddenly the name Jake will appear, and I know that's his real name. More important is trying to picture your character, so sometimes I use pictures of actors or I will use pictures of models, or I will use pictures of models just to get a feel of who the character is and what they look like. Any way works that works for you, and that's what you strive for.

Jeff Coley from Irvine: What screenplay is your favorite in terms of skill?

Syd Field: I go through several different screenplays according to where I'm at. So I've gone from "Chinatown" to "Witness" to "Crimson Tide," and now I think my favorite is "The Shawshank Redemption." I refer to it quite a bit in my PROBLEM SOLVING book. So find your own, and then follow it.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us online tonight, Mr. Field. This was an extremely interesting chat. Do you have any closing comments?

Syd Field: Just how wonderful it is to be here, and to thank everybody for taking the time to ask their questions, or for thinking about questions which you didn't get to ask, or just being part of the chat. So I thank you all.

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