So you want to improve your screenwriting skill set as quickly as possible, right? You’ve watched Youtube clips of all your favourite writers talking about their process, but oddly, when you sit down in the front of the blank page the words still aren’t flowing. You’re ready to enter phase two: reading books!
There are thousands of books on screenwriting, and every writer will of course eventually find the books that are best for them. I’m going to share the ones that I found particularly useful, and specifically why I found them useful.
Story by Robert McKee
McKee’s story is arguably the leading text on screenwriting today. Here you’ll find explanations for many of the terms we often hear thrown around in the story trade: inciting incident, crisis, climax, and resolution, antagonism, character development. This is a practical and accessible guide, which also functions as a paean to story itself. McKee demonstrates how structure has operated in stories from the Ancient Greek all the way up to contemporary film. This is definitely the place to start.
Once you’ve read Story, and you’re armed with all the technical jargon, and appreciation for the rich tradition of story telling, Campbell’s tomes will take you deeper into the mystical and mythical nature of it all. This seminal text, with great reverence for the beauty of human nature and mythmaking, probes into the stories behind the stories. What does a dragon really represent? Campbell’s central thesis is that underlying many of the great stories of world culture there is a common thread, a hero on a particular journey, with recurring characters. You’ll never read Lord of the Rings or watch Star Wars in the same way again. George Lucas has spoken extensively about the debt that Star Wars owes to these books.
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
Campbell’s work can at times be a little too mystical and reverent, perhaps even obscure and esoteric for the time-poor screenwriter in search of immediate help. Vogler’s work will demystify some of the theories in Campbell’s books, and lead you on a clear and concise journey that is written specifically for screenwriters. If Campbell is more of a story philosopher, Vogler is your veteran Hollywood script consultant. Just flicking through this work again right now … I think I’ll have another read. It’s clearly laid out, and won’t confuse or confound, in the way Campbell’s work might.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
So now you’ve read McKee, Campbell, and Vogler: you’re going to parties and talking confidently about denouements and character arcs. But when you sit down to write, it’s still not clear what you need to do. And all those books seemed so … highfalutin. Perhaps you’re trying to tell a small scale intimate domestic drama, not some epic three part mystical juggernaut. This is where texts like Save The Cat come into play. There are many handy little guides like this one that position themselves as offering unique tips and tricks to help you solve the problems that really plague screenwriters. The title of this work takes its name from one of its central theses: have your character do something good when we meet them i.e. save a cat. Then we like them! Now that’s practical advice. If you’re looking for formula, or simply a template from which to begin, you won’t go too far wrong with Snyder.
Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
This is a personal account of the legendary writer’s experiences in Hollywood. You may remember Goldman from such films as The Princess Bride. This entry stands out particularly because what we have here is a legendary screenwriter offering advice. That’s got to be worth something! Now you’ve got theory coming out your ears. You’re beginning to wonder if anyone knows as much about screenwriting as you. You’ve come up with a few notions of your own and can’t wait to test them out on the page (this is where you want to be – when a blank page is an exciting challenge). But now you’re curious about the trade! You’ve spoken to some other screenwriters, and everyone’s a little mystified about how you actually sell a screenplay. Should you be writing short films? Do you need an agent? Someone told you to write the novel version of your screenplay and then when that gets published hand them the screenplay itself. Do you have to write a novel now? Let Goldman lead you on an informative and hilarious journey through his experiences in Hollywood.
Cheeky Monkey by Tim Ferguson
I’ve added this one in because it’s an example, for me, of seeking out the advice of writers you particularly like. Ferguson has been one of the front-men of an Aussie comedy team called ‘The Doug Anthony All Stars’ for a very long time, and has written and directed films like Spin Out. If there’s a writer you like, look them up, seek them out. See if they are offering courses or have written a book. I attended one of Tim’s classes that he regularly offers online, and he alerted us to the existence of this book which contains all his hard won wisdom from decades of working in comedy! Sometimes finding little gems off the beaten track may help you to refine your non-canonical notions of what makes good writing: this could give you an original flavour!