There’s no shortage of resources out there for
writers and screenwriters. Foundational to any aspiring storyteller’s education,
though, is the simple act of reading what you hope to write: read the
screenplays, read the novels, read the short stories and novellas and
graphic novels. Read whatever it is that turns you on and read the ones you don’t
think you’re into as well. Read, read, read. See how the writers who came
before you did what they did. Read the classics, read the latest best sellers,
read the potboilers and romances and the science fiction and mystery and the introspective
And when it comes to movies and television?
Watch it all.
The catch, though, is not to consume your entertainment mindlessly. Pay attention to what
you see. When something surprises you, when you find yourself holding your
breath, if you’re aroused in any way—mentally, emotionally, sexually—go back
and take a closer look. Figure out how the writer did that to you. Try to understand
what’s happening in your own head. Learn from the experience, make a note of
the trick that’s been played on your brain, and see if you can turn it into a tool
for your own writing. Go ahead and steal
like an artist since there’s nothing new under the sun. Shakespeare did it and so can you.
And if you still want some help?
Well, there are plenty of people out there willing
to sell you a book.
I’ve always been a bit skeptical of screenwriting books,
but I’ve still managed to put quite a few on my shelves over the years. I’m not sure that
I’ve managed to read any of them all the way through, but there’s generally at least a
useful tidbit or two that can be pulled from any of them—and there’s also usually
something that I strongly disagree with. It’s almost impossible for me to read
any of the better known screenwriting gurus without thinking fondly of
William Goldman’s famous quote:
Nobody knows anything.
Still, here we are, well into an introduction to a list of books
intended to tell you how to tell a story. This is not a comprehensive collection.
It’s just what I happened to find on my shelves. I’m sure I’ve lost and forgotten
plenty. Some of them I like, some of them
not so much. Many of these are affiliate links, so I earn a small commission if
you make a purchase after clicking. That’s always appreciated.
Screenplay by Syd Field —
This is a pretty good place to start if you’re just starting out, and it can be a
nice refresher if you’re stuck.
Story by Robert McKee —
I really don’t like this book. Also, I’ve only read a little bit of it, so
my opinion here shouldn’t count for much. I came at this one rather late and what little
bit I did read seemed like pretty basic information. That combined with
McKee’s superior attitude turned me off. But hey, without McKee we wouldn’t have
Brian Cox playing McKee, so there’s that. BUY
Writing Screenplays that Sell by Michael Hauge —
This is one of the first screenwriting books I read many years ago, and I remember
I found it helpful at the time. The screenplay I was working on then ended up
taking a silver medal in the Page competition. I’m not sure what happened to my
copy of this book, so I can’t look at it again to see what I think of it now.
The Masks of God, Vol. 4: Creative Mythology by Joseph Campbell —
After college I spent a year living in and traveling around Europe. I bought this book
in London and read it as I hiked and hitchhiked through Greece, Italy, and Ireland.
When I finished it, all I wanted to do was rush home and write a book. It
turned out to be a pretty mediocre book (mine, not Joseph Campbell’s).
On Writing by Stephen King — Another confession: not only
have I not read this book, but I’ve never read anything by Stephen King.
I’ve never been all that into horror, and I’ve sometimes been a little snobby
in my literary taste. But you can’t argue with the man’s success and I’ve only
heard great things about this book.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders —
This is a fantastic book. Highly recommended. It’s like sitting in on
George Saunders’ seminar class where he analyzes all these classic Russian stories
to figure out what makes them tick. Even if you’re not into the Russians (Chekhov, Turgenov, Tolstoy, and Gogol
are all included here) you’ll learn a lot about writing and storytelling from this book.
Story Circle Notebooks —
I’ve published a few blank journals featuring story circle templates alternating with
dot grid pages that can be used for notes or storyboarding—whatever you like. Three
editions are available: 30-page paperback, 100-page paperback, and 150-page hardback (in case
you expect your story notes to be housed in the Academy museum someday, maybe). Or if you just want a downloadable
story circle template pdf, sign up for my mailing list and I’ll send you a link.
If you’re serious about screenwriting, then it doesn’t hurt to have
a decent understanding of what goes into making a film beyond the pages
of your script. And honestly, these days, if you’re serious about screenwriting
then you might be better off writing something that you can direct
Film Directing Fundamentals by Nicholas T. Proferes —
If you’re not planning to make your own movies, then either this book
or the next will give you a nice introduction to the director’s point of
view, which will be helpful in your work as a screenwriter. But always remember that
you’re the writer, not the director, so don’t try to take over both jobs
in your screenplay!
On Directing Film by David Mamet —
A slim, easy read based on a series of lectures David Mamet gave around the
time he moved from working as a screenwriter into directing as well.
It’s possibly still valuable if you can get past his recent enthusiastic
embrace of the political dark side.
Good in a Room by Stephanie Palmer —
This is a really helpful general life and business book by a former MGM
development exec. It’s a great resource for learning how to pitch your ideas—and
yourself—to people who have the power to say yes but are expert at
Copywriting and Advertising Books
This section might seem a little out of left field when it comes to
the type of storytelling we’ve been talking about, but trust me. Advertising
pros know how to tell stories that stick. They play with your emotions. They manipulate
you into feeling a certain way, into doing a certain thing, into buying their
altered reality. If you
can do all that, then you’re well on your way to writing a successful story—or
maybe even selling one.
Influence by Robert Caldini —
All about the psychology of getting people to agree to something. Use it to get to what
you want as a screenwriting professional, use it to develop characters in your stories,
or maybe use it for both.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely —
A look at how seemingly irrational behaviors are actually sytematic and predictable,
which makes this another potentially great resource for character development.
The Wizard of Ads by Roy Hollister Williams —
A collection of very short essays explaining principles of advertising and persuasion.
The principles discussed here are entertaining and informative, and they’re presented
in a way that they could also be a source of entertaining story ideas.
Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene M. Schwartz —
Highly sought after and out of print, this book is available used on Amazon for ... let me check ...
only $466.96. If that’s more than you want to spend, try Googling around for a pdf.
If you still can’t find it, hit me up through my
contact form on this site and I’ll email you a copy.
Getting the Work Done Books
I’ve mentioned before on this site that the one thing all successful writers
have in common is that they finish the work. That’s easier said than done
when distraction is part of the job description. Story research inevitably
involves countless hours lost in Internet rabbit holes. But eventually we have
to bear down and write. Here are a couple of books I definitely recommend
for organizing your work and life and maintaining focus:
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport —
Deep Work is going to tell you to get rid of your social media accounts. That
can be hard to do for an aspiring creative, where social media is often part of the
job. But even if you hold onto those accounts, this is a great asset
for taking control of lost hours and redirecting focus towards
hitting your goals.
What movie should I write about next? I have a few ideas, but I‘m open to suggestions:
Before Sunrise Cats Donnie Darko Grosse Point Blank Hell or High Water La Dolce Vita La Notte Miller’s Crossing Never Let Me Go Pan’s Labyrinth Pulp Fiction Punch Drunk Love Star Wars The Big Lebowski or something else
Vote Results for Upcoming Posts
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Pan’s Labyrinth (16%) Pulp Fiction (13%) Punch Drunk Love (11%) Hell or High Water (11%) Before Sunrise (9%) Grosse Point Blank (9%) Miller’s Crossing (7%) The Big Lebowski (6%) Never Let Me Go (5%) Donnie Darko (5%) Other
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