There are several hundred books out there purporting to teach you how to write screenplays, sell screenplays, pitch or in some way improve your skills as a professional screenwriter. I’ve got a few dozen on a shelf in my office. Some are good, a few are REALLY good and many are just taking up space. From time to time I ask the guys at Samuel French (a bookstore catering to entertainment industry types) what the hot screenwriting book is at that moment. I don’t have the time to read them all, but I like to stay abreast of what’s causing buzz.
I’m going to review a few of the classic screenwriting books today. I’ll post more reviews on occasion in the future. (Note: Some of my copies of these may be earlier editions.)
“Screenplay” by Syd Field
Syd Field is the guy who pretty much started it all with his analysis of three act structure and this book is the one that kicked off the flood of screenwriting books. He provides a good, clear guide to story structure, but I recommend not getting as rigid with it as he does. I don’t care for his character development approach…I don’t know many real writers who use it. But this would be a good starting point book for most screenwriters and is an industry standard.
“The Screenwriters Workbook” by Syd Field
(I’ve lost my copy of this so I’m reviewing from memory…admittedly a sketchy idea.) I actually prefer this one to “Screenplay.” It has a step-by-step process including assignments for the reader. If you do the assignments as you go along, by the end of the book you’ll have a screenplay. Which is pretty cool!
“Making a Good Script Great” by Linda Seger
This is the best overall book I know of. It covers all the major theories and topics of screenwriting in a way that fits with how I think most pro screenwriters work. It’s supposedly a rewriting book but it really deals as much with outlining and first draft concepts as rewriting. Because of its comprehensive nature it doesn’t really delve as deeply into some of the areas as might be desirable, but it’s a great first book to read on the topic.
“The Writers Journey” by Christopher Vogler
This book was a revelation to me. It’s based on the mythology studies of Joseph Campbell with some Carl Jung thrown in. It’s a completely different approach to structure centered on the hero’s journey. I like it because it builds the story from a character arc standpoint instead of focusing on page numbers. I merge this with three act structure when I work out my scripts. There are other hero’s journey books which include more “stages” of the journey, but I think Vogler selects the right amount to be most useful without turning the script into a paint-by-numbers affair. Also covers archetypal characters which can be useful as you develop your supporting players.
“The Tools of Screenwriting” by David Howard and Edward Mabley
Full disclosure: David Howard was a mentor of mine. As the title suggests, this book is a collection of screenwriting ideas. Chapters are titled things like: “Exposition” and “Plausibility.” It doesn’t have as strong an overview of story development as other books, but it deals with lots of important concepts which are frequently overlooked. Plus it has a large collection of analyses of well known films. An excellent book to pick up after you feel you’ve mastered the basics of structure.