Useful Books on Screenwriting and Story
I love reading books about writing, as you’re learning from someone else’s story and even if 90% of a book is useless to you, you’ll always find something that helps you solve problems in your characterisation, plotting or story.
I also believe that it’s good to know the rules so you know when to break them. The producer or agent you’re sending your story to will be analysing it through the prism of commercial structure so it’s handy to know the structures from a cynical perspective. The downside is that all the reading can make you second guess your story sometimes, so you have to be the one to recognise when to ignore things.
Below are some books I recommend you read.
This is my favourite screenwriting book. Karl Iglesias looks at the psychology of the reader and audience. We’re in the business of selling emotional experiences, and this book explores that. How to make every page carry us forward, deeper into story and engage us further with character. There are hundreds of dramatic techniques to improve your dramatic writing from character development, narrative and dialogue. There’s a great section on flaws as well.
This is a fun read if you’re a Stephen King fan, but still useful if you’re not. It’s part memoir and part educational but has some valuable lessons in storytelling from one of the best. One of the cool things is seeing where his own experiences have linked into some of his stories. This is a story in itself so makes it an entertaining education if you find the more academic texts a bit of a chore. He really hates passive verse…
This is excellent and I prefer it to Save the Cat (later in the list). Its main focus is on scripts and while it isn’t a ‘How to’ book it is more informative than most of those. It takes the three act structure and suggests the approach of five which is handy if like me you’re someone whose act 2 can be a bit of a struggle. This and Writing For Emotional Impact are my top two!
When I first read Syd Field's work I didn’t understand it, so make sure you have a basic understanding of creative writing before you get into it. It is excellent and favours the three-act structure and included throughout the text are Problem Sheets which are a great tool for improving your writing and helping you to identify problems in your own story.
This is a good educational tool as there are exercises at the end of each chapter. It’s not the most entertaining look at writing, but it’s an academic text so do be prepared to take a while to get through it.
As a fantasy writer, I love this book. Campbell outlines the hero's journey through the change and transformation that occurs within character, and the departure from the ordinary to the extraordinary world. There's a lot of depth to this book and it is a fun read.
When I first read this I loved it. It offers you a beat sheet, and breaks down good techniques for writing your draft of a screenplay. There are also some amazingly useful passages on character and distinctiveness and I'd pay close attention to the section on log lines. However, do not take this book as prescriptive, as in his third book he goes back slightly on the hard structure imposed here. It’s a great one to read because it’s easy to understand, but sadly this has become a bit of an industry go-to, and some producers will use the Save the Cat structure to critique a script without really understand screenwriting or the flexibility of the form.
I wouldn’t bother with Save the Cat Goes to the Movies as that’s just seeing the beat sheet in action, but in all honesty, you can crowbar stories into whatever structure suits your argument. Much like in politics, you can spin things to suit your argument and I feel Save the Cat Goes to the Movies does that.
Full disclosure, I'm an affiliate of the above books, meaning that if you buy one via clicking on the titles above, I'll get a small cut at no expense to you or the author. The below books I also love, but not enough to recommend them as heavily as those above.
The Seven Basic Plots — Christopher Booker
This is one of many books that look into how many stories are out there. There’s another book that says there are ten, and others that argue more and less. It’s worth reading this so you understand the stories, but again don’t take it as prescriptive. It is a mammoth of a book though and will take a while to read if you’re a slow reader like me! Bye bye 2018!
Let Me Tell You A Story — Fwah Storm
This book is great, quick and easy, and written in a far more engaging way than any academic text. It’ll get you doing exercises and I think is definitely a worthy accompaniment to any other book you’re reading on screenwriting.
The Art & Science Of Screenwriting — Phil Parker
This is excellent. A lot of theory and practical advice and good analysis of form depending on the medium you are writing for. I’d advise you to read this once you’ve written a couple of scripts so you can relate the text to your work.
Story — Robert McKee
This is definitely worth reading and a go-to book for most screenwriters. It explores basic principles and the importance of structure. Another handy part of the book is when it breaks down the beats within a script so you can truly understand them. McKee has a great way of simplifying ideas into concise sentences to then expand out once you’ve understood the basic principles.
Hope some of these are useful and help you on your journey.
Good luck, and if there is a book you love mention it in the comments and share this with anyone you think could use a guide.