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10 Best Screenwriting How-To Books

And when they're a waste of time

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screenwriting blog article

Screenwriting books. This might be a surprisingly controversial post.

Different writers navigate the learning curve differently. Some turn to the shelves and shelves (and entire stores) of screenwriting books available, looking for the one that will have the magic formula, the secret key that makes screenwriting easy.

And others think screenwriting how-to books are the root of all evil.

I’ve spent time in both camps. I’ve read maybe 90% of the screenwriting books on the market. Many of them felt like a waste of time. But not all of them. There are screenwriting books I still reference regularly.

SCREENWRITING HOW TO BOOKS

Last week I had two conversations that inspired me to gather all of my top picks into one place.

First, a producer friend asked me to recommend some screenwriting books for a writer he’s working with who’s transitioning from playwriting to screenwriting. That prompted me to think about which ones, if any, I’d be willing to stake my reputation on.

Then, in the Screenplay Lab Facebook group, someone new to screenwriting asked the group if she should bother reading screenwriting how-to books. Or if it’s better to avoid that potential rabbit hole and just learn by doing (and reading scripts).

A lot of people in the group told her not to bother, but… even after reading so many unhelpful ones, I still think there’s good to be gotten from reading some.

Benefits of reading screenwriting books:

+ New ideas. For me, at least, reading always sparks new ideas. There’s something about the act of reading itself that frees up my subconscious to grind away on whatever story I’m currently trying to work out.

+ Insight is valuable. Even though many of the screenwriting books say the same thing in different ways, one of those ways could make sense to you in a way that the others don’t.

+ Learn by example. More than all the theoretical stuff, I like reading specific case studies. I don’t have time to watch and study every movie, so if someone else has done some of that work for me – great. I accept.

Of course, there are drawbacks too. Not every screenwriting book is useful, so at the very least it can be a waste of your valuable writing time. A few other things to consider…

Drawbacks of reading screenwriting books:

Information overwhelm. There’s so much out there you could waste days just looking through the options, and never even get down to the actual studying, absorbing, and implementing.

Analysis paralysis. Too much studying and prepping to write can make you afraid to start.

Procrastination. Your subconscious is sneaky, and may just be looking for more stuff to do (like the easy task of reading) instead of writing.

In my opinion, the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks. But everything in moderation, right? Choose your resources carefully.

10 Best Screenwriting How-To Books
(and when to read them)

If you’re brand new and want to get a quick overview of what a screenplay is and what screenwriting entails:

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier

Once you have some familiarity with the lay of the land, these are my top picks out of all the comprehensive how-to books available to you:

The Coffee Break Screenwriter by Pilar Alessandra

The Three Stages of Screenwriting by Doug Eboch

Writing Movies from Gotham Writers’ Workshop, edited by Alexander Steele

Cut to the Chase from UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, edited by Linda Venis

Pick one or two of the above to help you work your way through your first couple of screenplays. Then, if you want to do some advanced study:

Dialogue by Robert McKee

A caveat: this one is dense and academic, to the point that it’s not going to be for everyone. I’m not a McKee acolyte or anything, and I wouldn’t recommend his first doorstop of a book, Story, but this one has enough helpful analysis that it’s worth reading if writing strong dialogue doesn’t come easily to you. Includes a useful section on shaping scenes, too.

Supporting Characters & Subplots by William C. Martell

I like all of Martell’s books, but this one in particular for its focus on topics that aren’t covered extensively elsewhere. Supporting characters are often overlooked by beginning screenwriters.

The 3rd Act by Drew Yanno

This one is deceptive. I read it a long time ago and thought – well, that was kind of obvious. Now, having just read it again, I think the breakdown of 3rd act elements is insightful in a way I didn’t appreciate when I didn’t know quite as much about how a screenplay is put together.

150 Screenwriting Challenges by Eric Heisserer

Full of great exercises to help you improve your skills. I don’t know where Eric Heisserer found the time to write this, what with all of the amazing movies he’s writing, but I’ll take it.

 

* Yes, these are affiliate links. All proceeds go to Wags & Walks animal rescue. I stand behind every recommendation.

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8 Comments
  1. Bolurin says:

    Hi Naomi,
    You’re lovely. Your write-ups are always insightful and discerning. They reflect good understanding of the wondering minds of aspiring writers. Thanks a lot.

    1. Naomi says:

      You’re making me blush! Thank you for the kind words, Bolurin.

  2. Steven Snell says:

    Great list Naomi. As a former playwright myself I found the transition to full-screenwriter extremely difficult. One book that helped greatly was “The Mini Movie Method” by Chris Soth. It breaks down the three act structure to more defined units, providing the writer with a more rigid path underfoot. I would also recommend two particular screenplays: “Michael Clayton” by Tony Gilroy (for its swift action descriptions); and “Nightcrawler” by his brother Dan (for the way it gets the reader’s eye flowing down the left-hand margin). I see you already host the latter. Good choice.

    1. Naomi says:

      Thanks, Steven! I haven’t read Chris Soth’s book, but I do often think of my stories in 8 “chunks,” similar to his Mini Movie Method. I’ll have to give his book a read. Good tip!

      And agreed — you can read pretty much anything by either Tony or Dan Gilroy and be completely entertained and awed by the writing. “Nightcrawler” is like screenwriting candy. “The Bourne Identity” is also a good read, if you’re looking for another.

  3. Petra says:

    Hello Naomi, that is an interesting list, I don’t know almost all of them, and I thought I had already read a lot. Bummer. I was wondering what you think of John Truby’s ‘Anatomy of story’?

    1. Naomi says:

      Hi Petra,
      It’s been a while since I read Truby’s book thoroughly, so take this opinion with a grain of salt. I think my general feeling was that his storytelling paradigm seemed overly restrictive. I think maybe his 22 points work especially well for Hero’s Journey type stories? But felt like wouldn’t work as well for any other type of story. Anyway, that’s just from what I remember — overall, I didn’t find it particularly enlightening or helpful. But I think different things speak to different writers, so if it helps you crack your story then go for it! 🙂

  4. Stephen says:

    Glad to see that I’m on the right track. I’ve got a few screenwriting books, The Screenwriter’s Bible among them. You give such useful advice!

  5. Naomi says:

    Thanks so much, Stephen! Yes, Trottier’s book is a solid go-to, and I love that he updates it frequently. Would love to hear which others you’ve read and thought were useful!

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