By Lee Hamilton.
When anyone first starts their screenwriting journey, one of the first things they’ll do is buy a few books on the subject. There’s only so much information you can get from a YouTube video or an interview clip, after all, and there’s a certain appeal to the idea that you’re gathering a collection of resources that are going to be by your side along the way. Plus having a physical guide that you can pick up off the shelf and refer to feels almost like having your own personal mentor during those early days of doubt and discovery.
Screenwriting has been around for over a century now, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that everything about the subject has already been written, but you’ll still find new books being published every year offering up different techniques, different structures, and different viewpoints on how to tell a story, meaning that screenwriting is a fluid format that’s always developing.
That said, many of the fundamentals have stayed the same, and a good screenwriting book that teaches you more about them is worth its weight in gold.
There are always a certain few of these books that are consistently recommended and this list comes from my own personal experience. I’ve been reading screenplays professionally for nearly a decade, and have amassed a small library of books about screenwriting, but there are some that I still go back and refer to again and again.
1. Teach Yourself Screenwriting by Ray Frensham.
This is the first book I ever read on the subject and it remains one of the most comprehensive, especially for beginner writers. It covers literally everything, from generating ideas right up to breaking into the industry. Even though some of the advice may be a little dated by now, the writing advice is solid, easily digestible, and full of examples. This is by far my go-to book on screenwriting.
2. The Coffee Break Screenwriter by Pilar Alessandra.
Don’t be fooled by the title of this book. The author offers up a technique that teaches you how to write a script 10 minutes at a time and does a wonderful job of breaking down the entire writing process into bite-sized manageable steps that will help you get to grips with the fundamentals that even some seasoned writers often forget. There are lots of short exercises that will actually help you plot out your story rather than take your time away from your project, making it a must-have book for outliners and those tackling their first draft.
3. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.
While it’s not quite ‘the only book on screenwriting you’ll ever need’ as it claims, it’s definitely up there. Snyder did a great job of simplifying stories into recognizable and marketable categories, and his beat sheet method is widely referred to when plotting out those all-important turning points that keep the plot moving forward. It’s also a fun read, with Snyder’s personality making it very enjoyable. Just remember, his take on story structure is one of many, so use it as a guide, rather than something that’s set in stone.
4. Your Screenplay Sucks! by William M. Akers.
If you want to understand screenplays from the perspective of the reader, this is the book for you. When writing your script, it’s all too easy to forget that someone else is going to read it, and if you want to sell it, getting it past the reader is the first step. If you’ve been submitting your script and keep getting rejections, this book is the ultimate guide to help you understand why. It’s also a great place for any wannabe reader to learn about writing script coverage too.
5. Crafty TV Writing by Alex Epstein.
Don’t assume that this book is only useful if you are interested in writing for TV. This book can help all screenwriters develop their writing careers. There’s tons of practical advice about both writing and the business from someone’s who’s been there and done it, plus it’s written in an entertaining and humorous way too. This is one of the best insights into TV writing I’ve read, and Epstein also writes a blog where you’ll find a wealth of information for free.
While these are my absolute go-to books, there’s one last thing to note. Once you think you’ve got a good handle on the craft of screenwriting, you can often stop reading books on the subject, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other, possibly better, and enlightening books out there. If there are any new books you think should be on my list and want to recommend them, head over to our Facebook Post and let me know in the Comments.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.