When it comes to writing a screenplay, everyone’s an expert – or so it seems. Search online for screenwriting resources and you’ll find plenty to choose from. But how do you know which will offer you valuable advice and guidance? Our latest lesson outlines a few books we think are especially useful for the new (or not so new) writer…
The first thing we want to stress is that the following represents a wide sample of what’s out there – from Hollywood-style ‘how to’ guides through to more weighty tomes about narrative theory. As such, this list represents a starting point for you to explore the types of resources that are most useful for you.
1. Story by Robert McKee: A perennial favourite written by possibly the ultimate screenwriting guru. McKee delves into the true meaning of ‘story’ and dramatic structure; eschewing the ‘how to write a screenplay’ formula in favour in more weighty concepts designed to help writers of all types (novelist and playwrights included) produce dramatically literate and socially relevant work. The book outlines some very interesting theories and illustrates them with plenty of examples.
2. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: This delves into the screenwriting process on a deeper level than the traditional ‘three-act structure’. It takes you by the hand and leads you through every stage of the process, forcing you to think about your story on a philosophical level but in a highly readable way. The best way to use this book is in stages, dipping into it as you work through the process of planning, drafting and revising your script.
3. The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri: This one gets all serious. It’s not an easy read but it is a valuable resource for people who want to really get to grips with narrative structure. First published in 1946, it focuses mostly on plays, but there’s plenty for the screenwriter here too. Despite getting a little bogged down in places, it is worth persevering with as it touches on lots of relevant areas, including conflict and character.
4. Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder: From one extreme to the other. This is fun, informative and inspiring classic provides a blueprint for writing satisfying and saleable scripts that Hollywood wants to buy. This is a wonderfully readable book on screenwriting by a Hollywood screenwriter that offers plenty of insights into the movie business, along with practical advice on the writing process. If you enjoy this one, there’s a companion book too (Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies) which outlines every possible story type (turns out there aren’t that many!).
5. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler: This one might be the most polarising on the list, as its mythology theme will either inspire or confuse. Volger takes myth-inspired storytelling to posit a ‘hero’s journey’ – i.e. the steps your protagonist takes to get from page one of the script to the end of the story. Rather than a simple three-act structure, we’re talking an eight-stage process here. This is a highly thought-of and influential tome written by a respected story consultant that’s well worth checking out. Maybe you’ll love it; maybe you won’t…
6. Screenplay by Sid Field: In the years since its publication, this book has come in for some criticism by ‘gurus’ who think the three-act structure it advocates is too dramatically limiting and simplistic. However, this is still an essential read as it sets out the screenwriting process in clear terms, with plenty of examples; making screenwriting accessible for all. There is also a chapter on adaptation. The highly-respected Field wrote a number of related titles you might also like to check out, including The Screenwriter’s Workbook and The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver.
7. The Art of Adaptation: Turning Fact and Fiction into Film by Linda Seger: For the fact-based film writer, this is an essential read. It covers every aspect of transforming material into a screenplay – not just true life stories, but also literature and plays. It’s a very readable and accessible book that clearly lays out the specific problems of adaptation and show you how to solve them, with lots of examples. There are sections on adapting seemingly un-adaptable material, selecting suitable material to adapt, and how you go about condensing or expanding your material to make it work as a screen story. The book is a few years old now, so you may want to double-check the legal advice it offers.
8. The Technique of Screen and Television Writing by Eugene Vale: This is straightforward and very readable book that sets out the problems facing you, the screenwriter, and helps you solve those problems effectively. It focusses on what makes a good screen story and how the writer can best create the essential elements of drama. There are also chapters on choosing material, characterisation and story content. Don’t be put off by the academic-sounding title or the age of the book – it’s well worth tracking down a copy.
9. Poetics by Aristotle: You know, the fella who wrote Dude, Where’s My Car?! Of course, we’re talking about the Greek philosopher and scientist who lived from 384 to 322 BC. I know you’re wondering what old ‘Ari’ has to say about writing a movie, but this publication is first treatise to focus on literary theory. You’ll also find it popping up in many screenwriting discussions and resources. As such, it’s worth checking out; not least so you can show off in conversations about writing!
10. Every screenplay ever written: We finish with a sneaky reminder that the best resources available are those written by the screenwriters who have come before you. Get in the habit of reading screenplays – from all eras and across all genres. The point is not to copy, but to learn. See how other writers have tackled different types of story and start to evaluate how successful the results are. By all means, watch films too, but if you want to write screenplays, the best way to learn is from your peers.
Hopefully we’ve given you a start in building your essential screenwriting library. Check out the online resources connected with these books and writers too. You can also head over to our dedicated resources section for more, and don’t forget that you can find lots of screenplays online to read and legally download for free.
Next lesson is all about loglines!
Issue 11 of RSL is out on 26 October.