Get your nose in these excellent (and essential) books on screenwriting!
I will preface this list by saying that the best way to learn about screenwriting is to watch films or TV shows and to read their scripts. There is no substitute for that. And I should also clarify that some of the books on it are slight “cheats”, in that they are about writing or cinema or even life in general, rather than screenwriting specifically. However, I believe that the lessons they teach are absolutely applicable to screenwriting.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997), by Robert McKee
Robert McKee is the most famous screenwriting guru, having written three best-selling books about screenwriting, but the best is still the first, Story, which has been the basis for McKee’s phenomenally popular story-telling seminars for nearly 25 years now.
McKee has been criticized for not having had any of his own screenplays made into films, the sole exception being an underwhelming 1994 TV movie, Abraham. However, as Arrigo Sacchi, the great Italian football coach who was never a successful player, famously put it: “You don’t need to have been a horse to be a jockey!” And if only one of McKee’s screenplays has ever been filmed, almost all of them have been sold, which of course is itself a form of success for a screenwriter.
Finally, a succinct lesson from McKee: “Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes”. And it is telling a story that shows visually how and why lives change that is the fundamental task for the screenwriter.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998), by Peter Biskind
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a book about the Second Golden Age of Hollywood (the late 1960s and 1970s, following on from the Original Golden Age of the late 1930s to the 1950s) that explains how and why so many of the great films from that period – including The Godfather (Parts I and II) and Chinatown – were first written and then filmed.
Biskind shows how “Movie Brats” like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who were the first generation of filmmakers to go to film school and then make films influenced by the films they loved, achieved both artistic and commercial success. Essentially, they did so by writing films about their own lives but somehow projecting them onto an epic canvas.
David Lean, by Kevin Brownlow (1996)
David Lean is arguably the greatest ever British film director, responsible for such epics as Lawrence of Arabia (1962). However, Lean began his career as a film editor, which is perhaps why he was always so fascinated with screenwriting because so much of screenwriting is really “screen-editing”, or at least editing on the page.
In his magisterial biography of Lean, Kevin Brownlow, who is himself a renowned filmmaker, recounts how Lean worked with a succession of great writers, both living (Robert Bolt and Pierre Boulle) and dead (Charles Dickens and Boris Pasternak). At every point, Lean stripped away the descriptive writing that makes up so much of the source novels and instead focused on the images created by that descriptive writing, and of course the dialogue, which he also had a particularly fine ear for.
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1979), by Syd Field
Syd Field was the original Robert McKee, another phenomenally successful screenwriting guru who never saw any of his own screenplays filmed, or at least not in English and not successfully: one of his scripts was the basis for an indifferent Argentinian film called Los Banditos. However, it was for his screenwriting books, particularly Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, that he finally found fame and enormous fortune.
Field is often credited with first identifying the three-act screenplay model, although such a model has effectively existed since Aristotle’s identification of the three dramatic unities of action, place, and time. However, Field applied it specifically to screenwriting.
Such a model can seem simplistic. Nevertheless, the classic three-act structure is an incredibly useful starting point for screenwriters and Syd Field deserves recognition for having related it so precisely to screenwriting.
Blink (2005), by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is not a book about writing nor even a book about cinema or TV in general. Nevertheless, it is an invaluable companion for writers of all kinds, including screenwriters. That is because of its subject matter, which is summarized in its subtitle: “The power of thinking without thinking”.
Blink is a hymn to the power of intuition, or more accurately the power of informed intuition – that is, intuition that is literally informed by the previous acquisition of specialist knowledge. Gladwell cites numerous examples of such intuition, including the experienced fire chief who could tell exactly when a burning building would collapse.
Blink is a must-read for any screenwriter because such informed intuition is one of the most important skills that any screenwriter can have.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), by Stephen King
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King, is probably the greatest book on writing written by a great writer. Many other writers have tried to explain in theory what they intuitively understood in practice. Ernest Hemingway, for example, wrote an identically entitled book that was only published after his death. However, it is Stephen King’s On Writing that is the most practically useful and artistically imaginative of the two.
King’s book is divided into three parts. The first is a memoir of how he became a successful writer, in which he explains just how awful his first attempts at writing were (which is reassuring for the rest of us). Secondly, he discusses the actual mechanics of writing, and I for one can vouch that I learned more about grammar from this part of King’s book than I ever learned in more than 20 years of formal education. Finally, there is the ultimate Stephen King “horror story”, which is his account of how he was hit by a drunk driver and nearly killed.
Leonard Cohen famously said that the greatest artists “meet all your needs” and Stephen King is a classic example of that.
Writing Screenplays That Sell (1991), by Michael Hague
Rare is the book on screenwriting that is reprinted, such is its success, but one example is Michael Hague’s Writing Screenplays That Sell, first published in 1991 and then reprinted 20 years later. It continues to be regarded as one of the classic books on screenwriting, especially for its emphasis on (as the title spells out) writing commercially successful screenplays.
Perhaps Hague’s most important lesson for screenwriters is to concentrate on the two journeys that a protagonist makes: the external journey, which can be summarized as the action, or events, that they go through; but also the internal journey, as they process (consciously or otherwise) what they go through, before ultimately changing (or not changing) as a result. Both journeys are equally important and that is certainly worth remembering in TV and cinema, where so often the external action – i.e. the actual action – is over-emphasized, to the complete exclusion of the internal journey.
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002), by Michael Ondaatje
The Conversations of the title are between Michael Ondaatje, one of the greatest English-language novelists of the late 20th century (he deserves that accolade for The English Patient alone), and Walter Murch, arguably the finest editor in the history of cinema and certainly one of the finest theorists on editing, cinema and indeed life itself.
Among Murch’s most important ideas is that in order to be happy as an adult you should do what made you most happy as an 11 or 12-year-old, the age at which you begin to emerge as an individual (and before the eternal distraction of sexual attraction). But there are many more. And rather like David Lean, who was also an editor initially, Murch continually reminds writers that so much of writing is not writing at all, but editing or, as it is more commonly known, rewriting.
The War of Art (2002), by Steven Pressfield
There is nothing like the practitioners in a particular field, such as screenwriting, praising a book as being fundamental to their development. Such was the case with The War of Art, which I noticed was continually being referred to by screenwriters. Consequently, I read it and, like so many people who have read it, I can truthfully say that if it didn’t change my life it certainly changed my writing.
The title is an inversion of Sun Tzu’s classic Chinese military text The Art of War. It is deliberate, as Pressfield convincingly argues that the ultimate battle that any artist, including any writer or screenwriter, faces is with themselves. As the subtitle puts it, Winning The Inner Creative Battle is – thankfully – the most important battle that most of us will ever fight.
The War of Art is basically the no-bullshit book, the one that tells you that it is ultimately pointless reading books about writing (even one as good as The War of Art) because you will only ever become a writer by writing. Any excuse that you have ever thought of in order not to write, Pressfield has already thought of and dismissed.
Adventures In The Screen Trade (1983), by William Goldman
And finally The Bible of screenwriting. Ultimately, that is because Goldman is the only great screenwriter to have written a great book about screenwriting.
There is practical advice, such as the chapter in which he writes a screenplay about a phenomenally gifted hairdresser before realizing that the subject matter is essentially literary rather than cinematic; insider gossip about almost everyone he ever worked with; and of course the two famous lines that almost anyone involved in film has heard, or at least heard of, without even reading the book.
The first is, “Nobody knows anything”. Goldman applied it to cinema, to explain why it was impossible to predict which films would do well commercially. The second was his mantra for screenwriters, namely that no screenwriter should ever be just a screenwriter because otherwise they will almost certainly be crushed by the frustrations of being just a screenwriter.
For one of the most successful screenwriters and screenwriting gurus ever to say that says a lot about screenwriting.
A screenwriter can read any screenwriting book that they want, but ultimately the single sagest piece of advice is that of William Goldman. So, by all means, write screenplays and read books about how to write them, but for your own sanity and self-preservation, be sure to write something else as well.
BONUS: Vomit Your Screenplay
We know, we’re biased with this one, which is why this is just a bonus add. Vomit your Screenplay is simply a “write-fast-now, rewrite-later” method and it works for three reasons:
- It’s so important to finish your screenplay. Each finished script makes you a better writer, builds your portfolio of writing samples, and helps you learn what you like to write about (and what you don’t).
- Writing fast forces you to ignore that voice of doubt in your head and makes you kick writer’s block in the teeth.
- When you’re a professional writer you’re expected to write fast (a TV script in just 1 week or a feature script rewrite for shooting tomorrow morning).
Give it a shot and let us know what you think.
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