Like most crafts, when it comes to writing the key is practice. Write to become a better storyteller. Write to encounter problems and flaws in your story that you learn to solve, and keep trying to improve. When you’re starting out and you see a problem in the way a character behaves, or a flimsy story beat you might think, ‘it’s fine, nobody will pick up on that tiny thing.’ They will. And the only reason you don’t deal with it at the time is you’re not sure how and you’re not confident enough to think you’ll be able to. You can with practice and learning more about your discipline.
There are people who think you are born a story teller and you can’t teach it. Consider these people morons.
I got accepted onto a Creative Writing masters years ago and a friend said to me, ‘You don’t need that, it’s for people who don’t know how to do it.’ That friend is an idiot and will admit as much, but I listened to him and then four years later realised I should have gone so I did after wasting more time. It was the best year of my writing life. I got to write, meet other writers, and learn theory, which at the time I thought was nonsense but has been incredible. I would recommend a writing course to anyone wanting to write, but they cost a lot. If you don’t have parents sitting on cash or a job you can leave, you can always read books on writing. It’s not as good as being in that environment, but they help.
I love reading books on 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. You can never stop learning. Below are some books I recommend you check out:
Writing For Emotional Impact – Karl Iglesias
This is my favourite screenwriting book. It looks at the psychology of the reader and audience. As it states, we’re in the business of selling emotional experiences. It explains how to improve so you can make every page carry us forward, deeper into story and engage us further with character. There are hundreds of dramatic techniques to improve your writing from character development, narrative and dialogue. There’s a great section on flaws as well.
On Writing – Stephen King
This is a fun read if you’re a 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. This is a story in itself so makes it an entertaining education if you find the more academic texts a bit of a chore.
The Definitive Guide To Screenwriting – Syd Field
When I first read this I didn’t understand it, so make sure you have a basic understanding of creative writing before you get into it. There are diagrams and at the time I wasn't ready for that. It is excellent and favours the three-act structure, while 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.
The Creative Writing Coursebook – Julia Bell and Paul Magnus
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.
Save The Cat! – Blake Snyder
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. However, this book can be dangerous if you aren’t better informed. Do not take it as prescriptive, as in his third book he goes back 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 understanding screenwriting.
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. Save The Cat Strikes Back is good as well.
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 don’t take it as prescriptive.
Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them – John Yorke
This is excellent and I prefer it to Save the Cat. Its main focus is on scripts and while it isn’t a ‘How to’ book it is more informative than most of those. It suggests a five act structure rather than 3, which is handy if like me you struggle with act 2.
Let Me Tell You A Story – Fwah Storm
This book is great, quick and easy, and written 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 principle.
If there are others recommend them in the comments!