When you’re searching for the best screenwriting books, it doesn’t take long to stumble upon the works of Syd Field, William Goldman and Robert McKee. While most would agree these gurus do a great job of teaching art within the rules, I would also like to suggest some less obvious resources.
The books I’m about to showcase are not often included in lists for best screenwring books. But this doesn’t mean they are not important.
Best Screenwriting Books
The following books are my personal picks for best screenwriting books. They taught me a great deal, helped me build confidence and continue to be an influence.
1. Making a Good Script Great – By Linda A Seger
Okay, so you’ve written a screenplay! Huzzah! You did it! One hundred and some odd pages of mastery, right? Well, not yet at least. There are bound to be flaws on your first and second draft. If you can’t find a writer’s group or a respected friend to give you advice, then read this book.
I like to equate screenwriting to fixing a car. Strengthen the chassis, remove the dents and dings, detail the interior and inflate the tires. Maybe I’m likening this to a car because I’m in the market for a new ride. Either way, it’s a metaphor that works.
Rebuild that hunk of metal and then take it for a ride. The ride here being (under this imposed metaphorical construct) contests, readers, agents, editors and producers.
If you’ve completed multiple rewrites, this book is still worth noting if for nothing else but the last chapter. It’s entitled On the Road to the Academy Award: A Case Study of the Rewrite of Witness.
The chapter details the journey of the story of Witness from book, to first draft, through the rewrites, and how the creative team worked together to “tighten and texture” the story as opposed to change it.
If you haven’t even typed your first slug line yet, this book is a great tool to help you start writing the first draft. Chapters help guide you through your gathering ideas, identify details that can be tossed and others that need to be bigger all to develop a solid story structure. It teaches you how to create and evaluate your characters and make them more dynamic, original, and real.
2. The First Time I Got Paid for It: Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches – Edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J Shapiro
Sometimes it is cool to be that person in your circle of friends who is a writer or an artist. However, to become a successful screenwriter, you need comrades to motivate, to encourage and to spell check.
This book is one of those friends. It gives advice, encourages, builds hope, and prepares you for the worst. Learn from others’ experiences. Read tales of the first time writers like Cameron Crowe, Steven Zaillian, Chuck Lorre (who’s essay is actually subtitled The First Time I Got Fired).
My favorite essay is by Audrey Wells. Wells’ best known work includes Under the Tuscan Sun and The Truth About Cats and Dogs. She begins her essay with the best advice she ever received as Alan Sharp’s assistant, “One day you will sell screenplay. And then your troubles will begin.”
She declares this advice not a prediction, but a curse. Before any major success, the first few times Audrey was paid included writing commercials for a local carpet company and directing Barbie commercials “Barbie loves her new outfit!”
However, she also reminds us that even these “lowly” Hollywood jobs are not always easy to come by. She also recounts how her passion project was purchased. It was bought by Paramount! Then fame and fortune, right?! No! She was fired! Yes, after contractual obligations to write a second draft were fulfilled, she got the ax.
After the new writers failed to deliver a decent script, they asked her to come back on board without pay and without credit! She refused. This is where Audrey learned how to say “no” and reminds us that sometimes that’s what we need to do when you’re cursed.
It’s easy to feel defeated. Sometimes you want to throw in the towel. This book is a great revitalizing booster shot of hope.
3. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – By Stephen King
Okay, okay, okay. Stephen King is not known as screenwriter. But enough of his books have been made into movies, so clearly he writes great stories (as if that was ever in question).
On Writing is part biography and part lecture from a college creative writing course.
If you’ve ever been fortunate to have a teacher push or aide to foster your creativity (I’ve been blessed to have two: Mrs. Shultz who slipped me Premier magazine after English class and discussed books and movies with me during study hall and Mrs. Hart who actually planted the seed that writing is a perfectly wonderful way to spend your free time).
If you haven’t had the privilege of learning from early mentors, then this book gives you a chance to feel guided, taught, admonished, and nudged along the way by someone who really cares.
Yes, the Stephen King who created a clown who feasts on children cares a great deal! He cares about writing. And he cares that you, as a writer, do your very best.
4. Screenplays – By Produced Writers
Seriously. Read lots and lots and lots of screenplays. And after you’ve read lots of them, read lots more!
Lately my favorite scripts have been by the brothers Cohen. I know Ladykillers wasn’t their finest work, but Joel and Ethan Cohen write a script that is hilarious to read. For example, a can of cat food is described as “cubed processed gizzard in a gelatinous medium not unlike the stuff that clings to gefilta fish.”
However, this script contains some rule-breakers. Like the notorious no-no of “we are looking down…” to describe the scene. As a screenwriting teacher, my biggest pet peeve is a student who doesn’t follow traditional structural screenwriting rules, incorporates terminology and the use of “we” simply because “that’s what they did in The Matrix script.”
There’s something to be said about auteurs. They can take liberties. As can legends. No one would ever tell Robert Altman or Coppola that they broke the rules. Important note, when looking for screenplays to read, try not to read shooting scripts. These can be confusing to new writers.
5. Writing for the Green Light – By Scott Kirkpatrick
In full disclosure, Jason Brubaker (who runs this site) is personal friends with Scott Kirkpatrick. Personal relationships aside, we were thankful that Writing For The Greenlight is actually a great resource!
It is important to note that Scott is not a screenwriter. He is a movie executive who has developed, produced and sold dozens of movies. As a result, Writing For The Greenlight will tell you noting about the actual craft of screenwriting.
This screenwriting book is more of an expose’ on how the Hollywood factory works. You write the script. Then you throw it into the machine. On the the other side, you have a movie. Follow the guide, and you might actually get paid for your work.
Hopefully our Filmmaking Stuff list of the best screenwriting books helps you add a few more to your overflowing collection! But at the end of the day, none of the best screenwriting books on earth will write your screenplay for you. For that to happen, you need to stop reading and start writing!