Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard the age-old advice, “If you want to be a better writer, read, read, and read some more.”
Great, now that we’re all sitting with our arms in the air…
It’s true. Reading can make you a better writer.
Aspiring television writers must study the great pilots. Hopeful fantasy sci-fi writers better be spending their evenings reading J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, and all the other initialed authors of the last century. And if you want to be a screenwriter, you should definitely crack open some screenplays (or, you know, double click to open the PDF you found online).
Soaking up a lot of the type of material you want to write will inevitably improve your writing, but there’s another type of reading you should be doing too — reading books about writing.
It sounds meta and backwards, but there’s a lot to be gained from reading books about the craft of writing itself. If screenwriting’s your game, there’s a treasure trove of resources about writing movies and television.
First off, you’ll learn more about the structure and format of screenwriting and storytelling.
Many people swear by Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, which breaks down the elements of a story into manageable moments. Maybe reading that your Theme Stated should happen in the first 10 pages will cause you to look at your own screenplay differently — learning about the different ways other screenwriters view structure and format can greatly impact how you see those things as well (even if you don’t agree with someone completely).
Each screenwriting book also tackles story differently.
Every author has a unique way of looking at the elements of story, what makes a story, and how you should create story. Exposing yourself to those varying perspectives will give you new ways to think about story, too. You can then apply those to whatever project you’re working on.
Maybe Robert McKee’s explanation of three-act structure will blow your mind. Or perhaps learning about the classic mythic journeys will give you a fresh way to organize your story. When reading books about writing, be cognizant of the way the author considers story itself, and then use that way of thinking to inform your own writing.
Screenwriting books also provide helpful tips and tricks about everything from character development to page margins.
Take a look at some of these short quotes from screenwriting books by Robert McKee and Syd Field:
- “You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information.” (McKee)
- “Action is character. What a person does is what he is, not what he says.” (Field)
- “Dialogue serves two basic functions in the scene: Either it moves the story forward or it reveals information about the character.” (Field)
- “Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.” (McKee)
These quotes may look innocent, but if you take each one and apply it to your writing, the benefits could be massive. Screenwriting books are full of tidbits of storytelling knowledge just like these.
Books about the craft of writing can also help you cultivate a writing process that works for you.
Some writers can bang out 10 pages while sitting in a coffee shop during the morning rush, while others would find that impossible.
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open,” says Stephen King.
The process of writing includes everything from researching and outlining, to opening that blank document and starting to type. Every writer is different, and every writer must find a process that works for them. Reading books about the process of writing can help you do just that.
Finally, by far one of the most interesting things screenwriting books have?
Examples. Examples are invaluable resources to writers. Good examples are great, but bad examples are better. It’s so helpful to be able to see a page from the screenplay of Casablanca or Chinatown and then have the author break it down or pick apart a particular line that’s working well. And the best part? All screenwriting books have examples.
If you want to improve your craft, I recommend heading to your local bookstore (or using a friend’s Amazon Prime account) and finding some screenwriting books. Your writing will thank you for it.
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
- Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
- Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
- The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
- The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.