Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Books for a young aspiring screenwriter

I got a Twitter question from @JulianRamos_

Any books or novels you would recommend a high school senior / aspiring screenwriter to read?

Boy, did you come to the right place. Thanks to membership at several very well-stocked libraries, I pretty much read every screenwriting book published by the time I was in my early-to-mid twenties. After reading dozens of those books, I came away with the feeling that many of the books were saying exactly the same thing. That theory was somewhat proven by my friend J.J. Patrow in this blog post. He compares the storytelling philosophies of Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Peter Dunne, Drew Yanno and then visually demonstrates the similarities via chart. So know that while there are probably hundreds of screenwriting books out there, a lot of them are going to tread on the same ground.

First, formatting is something you want to have drilled into you early on so you don't screw it up. For that reason, I'd make The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by David Trottier one of your first reads.

From there, I'd say that it helps to get a sense of three-act structure and what that means in terms of breaking and developing your story. There are at least a hundred books that'll cover this in some form - I recommend Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. He's taken some flack for the way he somewhat rigidly adheres to a formula, but I think it helps to give beginners some structure. His 15-point beat sheet is a good way to get the hang of writing a film. It also can be of use in helping you dissect films that you like, making it a stepping stone to getting inside the story and understanding why some screenplays work and some don't.

After that, I'd suggest immersing yourself in some more personal memoirs from working writers. It's always good to balance the nuts and bolts education with straight talk about what it's really like not just to develop screenplays, but also work in the industry. There's more to being a screenwriter than just writing scripts, if you know what I mean. To that end, these are among what I'd consider required reading:

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek by Jeffrey Stepakoff
Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories

Go to your local library and find where those books are. I can almost guarantee that you'll probably find a dozen other worthwhile books in a similar vein right next to those on the shelves.

Also, for extra credit, read Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon. It's not a screenwriting book. You'll find it in True Crime. Then, go watch the first season of Homicide: Life on the Street, the NBC series inspired by the book. There are a great many storylines and characters that are adapted quite closely from the book, but you'll also notice at least as many differences in character and plot. Some characters are merged, others are invented out of whole cloth. Make yourself aware of what changes have been made and ask yourself why those changes were necessary.

Hopefully, that'll give you some insight into how even the most interesting real-life stories often need to be restructured and re-conceived when adapted as drama. A lot of first-time writers try to adapt things from their lives without understanding that real life is boring and often without the construction that makes drama interesting.

That and Homicide's just an awesome show. David Simon wrote the book when he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, but when it became a series, he wrote a few episodes and this started his career as a TV writer/producer. He's since gone on to create The Wire and Treme.

That should be enough to get you started. Be warned that the more screenwriting books you find, the more tempting it is to say, "Well, I'll write my script after I read one or two more of these, just so I'm REALLY prepared." Don't allow reading these books to become an exercise in procrastination.

Does anyone else have what they'd consider essential reading?


  1. I keep 3 books on my desk:

    "21st century screenplay" by Linda Aronson is imho the best book out there on structure, and the various kinds of narrative.

    "Your screenplay sucks" by Will Akers is essential reading for anyone who wants to make their writing tight.

    "The anatomy of story" by John Truby. nuff said.

    I'd also give an honorable mention to Garant & Lennon's "Writing movies for profit" just because it has the best coverage out there on how to write an outline. I read it, and transformed the way I write outlines in an afternoon.

    ps. it should be noted that there are *3* save the cat books, and all of them are useful.

  2. There are literally thousands out there and for better or worse they all contribute something. My favourites include Bill Martell's 'Secrets of Action Screenwriting' - worth it's weight in gold if you can find a copy. Also, for a beginner, My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schecter and The Sequence Approach by Paul Gulino are both worth a read as is The Anatomy of Story by John Truby and Your Screenplay Sucks! by William M. Akers. Any of these will get you started, you can get deeper once you've written a few.

  3. I love the Screenwriter's Bible that you mentioned. How Not to Write a Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Make was pretty good if I remember correctly. Also, be on the lookout for books for your specific medium (let's say you want to go the television route). Write to TV by Martie Cook is one of the more interesting books on the subject.

  4. "The Screenwriters Workbook," by Syd Field breaks down the mechanics of screenwriter. Good for people with experience in other forms of writing.

    "Your Screenplay Sucks," is good, but Akers' "7 Deadly Sins of Writing," is MONEY and available free at

  5. The first screenwriting book I ever read - because it was the first one I stumbled upon - was Michael Hague's Writing Screenplays That Sell. I still recommend it as a basic writing manual.

    Recently read Schecter's My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, already mentioned, and found it really helpful. Good stuff on character and expressing theme. And Alex Epstein's Crafty Screenwriting, lots of good tips for when you've mastered the basic stuff.

  6. I agree that books can be immensely helpful, but I think you have to be careful that reading books doesn't become a form of procrastination. When you start out, there's this feeling that these books will solve your problems but, of course, they won't, because what a lot of these books are about is that with time comes skill and understanding.

    That really pisses me off I can't just read a book and not write a rubbish script, but it's something I've recently come to terms with. I reckon there's a quota of three to five that will really stick with you, but the rest is just reassuring you that you're on the right path. Apart from the obvious Goldman/McKee/Field/Vogler books, I'd agree with the David Simon stuff (man is amazing) and add Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell to that list.

    Sorry, I've written loads – my dad, with whom I have a rather disfunctional relationship, owns a bookshop and sends me screenwriting books every birthday and Christmas. He doesn't know what else to send me. So I have more than my fair share!

  7. Amy,
    the real issue, is that a lot of the initial process is about discovering a system that works for you, and that requires investing a significant amount of time, up front, both in reading these books, and in the trial and error of writing those early learning scripts.

    Hate to say it, but what you're learning to do, at the early stage, is closer to engineering than art. It's still creative btw, but having that mental framework is invaluable.

    I once worked with a manager for a while (I was writing with a partner she represents) who was *less* than helpful, offering vague advice like read more scripts, etc.. instead of the concrete help I was asking for.

    What did it for me, and I like to think put me in the category that Zuul calls "almost good", was a combination of reading Akers, Aronson and a bunch of the others like Linda Seger's & Blake Snyder's books; reading scripts while either watching the movie/tv-show or with a book in hand, doing the analysis by hand; and most importantly entering competitions, at first, the 10/15 pager contests, and then submitting full screenplays.

    I made sure to have for myself, a clear process and evidence of stepwise, incremental improvement, that I could almost measure, so I knew when to move up to the next level.

    The only other technical books I'd recommend for screenwriters are organizational books, like those on mind maps by Tony Buzan and others. I use these techniques and the associated tools ( in my day job, and for writing, and they're essential, imho, in organizing all the thoughts and issues that get generated during a project.

  8. A brilliant one: Soul of Screenwriting by Keith Cunningham

  9. I've always found Paul Lucey's STORY SENSE to be incredibly helpful.

  10. I've read a lot of books, but the reality is I've gotten almost as much if not more from blogs ... I've posted a list of the ones I read every day:

    I have the Trottier book but hate it ... I keep it just to refresh what's expected on format, but everything else he writes about screenwriting is, in my opinion, wrong ... no offense, just what I think.

  11. Far more important than reading screenwriting books is reading actual screenplays. It's alarming how many people immerse themselves in the how-to books but don't read scripts.

  12. Emily, the problem with real screenplays, if you're a novice, is the lack of context. Often, successful writers indulge in ways an initiate can't afford. Or worse, a good movie could have a screenplay that's bad. If you have no frame of reference, no one to walk you through, then this can instill bad habits and harm more than help.

    Once you have a foundation and know what a screenplay should and should not be in a general sense, then you can move on and appreciate the execution, or learn from the mistakes, of real screenplays. These are the books that helped me with that foundation...

    How Not to Write a Screenplay - Concentrated nuts and bolts wisdom on the medium of screenplays. It's an easy read and it'll answer all your basic questions in a straight-forward way as well get you thinking about good screenwriting habits. Includes copious examples from real scripts. Absorb it before you even sit down to write.

    Story - This book condenses Robert McKee's famous lecture series into a single volume. It's thoughtful, insightful, and ultimately inspiring. When you get past the "how do I write it" technical stage and into the "what should I write" artistic stage, this is where you should turn. He stresses mastery, not of formula but form, and explains the difference. It's a longer book but it's all gold. Read every page and then keep it on your desk.

    Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds - A book, not on writing the screenplay, but telling others about it. Pitching well is hard for anyone but especially folks who like to sit alone in their bedrooms and write. This will give you a roadmap and help you to make your screenplay sound as good as (or maybe better than) it really is.

    I've read many others, but these are the ones I find myself coming back to again and again while I write and re-write. That seems to be the real test.

  13. Good thoughts, all. I've tried to stay out of this comment thread because I've enjoyed seeing how everyone is naming different favorites. (It's also somewhat surprising how I've read most of those!) How NOT to Write a Screenplay is one that probably deserves to be on my list too.

    It's important not to get caught up in reading ALL of these before you start writing. You learn a lot from just diving in and writing, so after you study a few of the basic books, try your hand at a short or a full feature. Then, once you've had the experience of writing a script, maybe pick up another book or two that you haven't read and see if some of the advice speaks to you in a different way.

    Just don't let these books become an excuse for procrastination.