Screenwriting books are a lot like self-help books. Once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. But a lot of screenwriters are like people who read self-help books; always looking for “the one”.
They didn’t learn anything substantial from the last five, but this one, is the one to solve all their problems. And when it isn’t, well, there’s always a brand new one about to come out.
Indeed, it is possible to be so deep into studying the works on the art of the screenplay that there is no time to actually write.
So, am I saying not to read any of these books? No. Well, sort of.
Once you’ve learnt the basics, then your time is better spent writing. But we’ve all got to start somewhere, so below are three books which cover all the important points, and will give you a firm understanding of screenwriting, story, and the realities of the movie business more generally.
1. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting – Syd Field
Described by the New York Times as “the definitive work on writing screenplays”, this book is a must-have for any burgeoning screenwriter. First published in 1979, it has been translated into over a dozen languages and sold millions of copies.
Whilst many new screenwriters will blanch at the idea of a screenplay template, it is very valuable to understand the basics of the screenplay, the three act structure and plot points. After all, how can you break the rules if you don’t know them?
2. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers – Christopher Vogler
Whereas the last book focused on screenplay structure, this focuses on story structure and character archetypes. Based on Joseph Campbell’s seminal 1949 work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, this book clearly and concisely breaks down Campbell’s ideas and applies them to screenwriting.
The first section focuses on the eight main character archetypes, identifying and analysing each of the various incarnations they can take. The second section breaks down the hero’s journey into twelve stages.
3. Making Movies – Sidney Lumet
Written by legendary director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network, Dog Day Afternoon), this is part-memoir, part instruction manual for making movies. Looking back over his very successful career, he breaks down the practicalities of making a movie (and getting a movie made) from screenplays, to working with actors, to camera lenses.
Informative and entertaining, there is surely no better introduction to the world of movie making than this.
Whilst there are, of course, many other books that cover the same topics as above, you certainly can’t go wrong with these three as your foundation in screenwriting, story structure, and the actual business of making movies.
But obviously, reading about screenwriting is no substitute for actually writing screenplays. So what are you waiting for? Get reading and get writing!