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10 Best Screenwriting How-To Books

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by Naomi Write + Co. in entertainment industry, screenwriting
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 a complete waste of time.

More likely, a particular book might be helpful when read at one point in time, but useless when you revisit it later on. Or you might not be ready to hear what a book has to offer the first time you read it, but the next time, it feels revelatory. It all depends on where your are in your learning curve and what you’re working on at that moment

SCREENWRITING HOW TO BOOKS

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. Specific case studies can be particularly useful, since you may not have endless free time to watch and study every movie and, even if you do, you may want to compare your analyses with another source.

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.

When a producer friend asked me to recommend some screenwriting books for a writer he’s working with who’s transitioning from playwriting to screenwriting, it prompted me to think about which books, if any, I’d be willing to stake my reputation on. Here are the books that I think are worth your time.

10 Best Screenwriting How-To Books
(in no particular order)

Save the Cat!

by Blake Snyder

I always recommend Save the Cat! to people who are curious about screenwriting or at the beginning of their learning curve. It’s become fairly divisive, but it’s truly one of the most accessible screenwriting books out there. Writers should continue their education beyond STC, but it’s a great place to start.

The Screenwriter’s Bible

by David Trottier

Dave has been updating this book for 25 years, and it’s a great overview of the whole process, from developing and writing your screenplay, formatting it properly, and even how to market it.

The Coffee Break Screenwriter

by Pilar Alessandra

I love Pilar’s 10-minutes-at-a-time approach. It takes something that can feel very daunting, and breaks it down into manageable steps and practical exercises.

Writing Movies

from Gotham Writers’ Workshop, edited by Alexander Steele

The chapters of Writing Movies are each written by a different screenwriter, and it’s a great way to be exposed to individual writers’ perspectives on the various sub-topics of screenwriting.

The Secrets of Story

by Matt Bird

At this point I very rarely read a screenwriting book that feels like it’s saying something new, but this one does it. Matt has solid, practical advice and tips to offer on pretty much every aspect of screenwriting.

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 Third Act

by Drew Yanno

This one is deceptive. I read it a long time ago and thought – well, that was kind of obvious. On second reading, I realized 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

I’ve found that screenwriters often only “practice” their writing skills when they’re working on an actual screenplay project they hope to finish, polish, and submit. But that means you’re juggling a million skill sets at once. Eric Heisserer’s book essentially offers a way to run drills before you’re faced with the game itself.

The Science of Storytelling

by Will Storr

Not strictly about screenwriting, Will Storr’s book is still one of my favorites. His deep dive into why and how stories work on our brains really speaks to me.

Writing Screenplays That Sell

by Michael Hauge

The title makes a lofty promise but this book is a classic for a reason. Michael’s book is one that was most useful in helping me really grasp story structure.


And finally…

I can’t in good conscience name my own books as “the best,” so I’ll just remind you that they are available in case you need them:

The Screenplay Outline Workbook: A step-by-step guide to brainstorm ideas, structure your story, and prepare to write your best screenplay

I truly believe The Screenplay Outline Workbook is an all-in-one manual that will help you develop your story idea and plan to write your best screenplay yet.

Story Structure Made Easy: A screenwriter’s guide to the six essential movie plot points and where to find them in 25 favorite movies

Whether it’s during a consult or in response to my screenwriting articles, writers are always asking for more examples! So I put together this pocket guide to the major plot points and breakdowns of 25 movies spanning from the 1990’s to today.

Logline Shortcuts: Unlock your story and pitch your screenplay in one simple sentence

One of the topics I get asked about most often is loglines, so I put together this short, free e-book containing explanations, definitions, a process for writing great loglines, and plenty of examples. When you work out a logline you’re actually working out the basics of your story, so this book is secretly a concise primer on how to start writing your screenplay.

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11 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!

  6. Rashi says:

    Hey! My friend is getting in to screenwriting and I wanted to gift him a book can you suggest me any one? I am very confused

    1. Naomi says:

      Hey there! If your friend is brand new to screenwriting, I’d suggest Save the Cat. It’s a really good, accessible introduction to story structure and screenwriting basics. Writing Movies by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop is a little meatier, and might be good if your friend has already done some reading and/or is really ready to dive into learning. Hope that helps!

  7. George says:

    I would add https://www.TheStorySolution.com to this list. Eric Edson breaks down every component of a screenplay into sections so that writers can conceptualize their own vision before bringing it to life in print. This is done using simple language, and not complex industry lingo, enabling the reader to understand a challenging task in a conversational tone.

    Eric puts forth “23 actions that all great heroes must take” There is a formula for screenwriting, and you have to fill in every variable to complete a project successfully. This is not negotiable.

    Dialogue is an important component in the 23 steps and the bulk of every screenplay. Edson teaches how to do this in a way that makes it seem simple. You still need to write it yourself, but he brings techniques to the table that make the critical component of dialogue a little easier to swallow.

    Throughout the process, readers are shown examples and comparisons to current popular films to bring his points to life. It’s not necessary to have seen the films that he uses, because he provides a brief summary of the movie when he is making his point. Eric shows you which films work from a screenwriting perspective, and which don’t.

    Of all the screenwriting books I’ve bought, this one is my favorite. It’s the one I keep coming back to, because the writing techniques are so universal and easy to follow.

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WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe