a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Screenwriting Books

So I finished a first, roughish draft of my new script last night, written somewhat oddly because I've been bringing chunks into my screenwriting group and rewriting as I went along.

It needs a rewrite, but hopefully not an enormous one. It also happily only came in at 91 pages, so I have room to play, though I'm more than willing to keep it in double-digits.

Anyhow, I'm going to toss it aside for at least 3 weeks, and let my brain forget all about it, while I ponder the high-concept comedy I think I'm going to tackle next.

One thing I like to do from time to time is read a screenwriting book. Like many people, I started out with Syd Field, and he's nice if you're a beginner, but I got tired of him pretty quickly.

About 12 years ago I actually attended one of what's-his-name's weekend seminars. Wow, I actually can't remember his name any more, but you know the guy. 30 hours, tears apart Casablanca, eventually wrote a book covering the same basic ideas.

It was a riveting 30 hours, and I took a ton of notes, and then never looked at them again.

In the last 10 years I've occasionally picked up a screenwriting book and read through it, though now I like to use them to get my brain churning on a particular project. Usually when I'm heading into a rewrite, just to get me to consider things from different angles.

Now I'm at an interesting place, because it's two projects. One a rewrite in which I'm about to tighten down the screws, but have room to build on an addition or change the decor I have to.

The comedy is something I made a couple of false starts at before, but I think I finally have a take on, yet I still have to work out the storyline.

I have no doubt that I could do both pretty well at this point -- but at the same time sometimes it's nice to have another perspective to feed into one's mental chopper.

So I guess the question is, what's your go-to book? If I walk into a bookstore looking to grab something to goose my brain, what should it be?



At 7:36 AM, Blogger Cezar said...

Crafty screenwriting by Alex Epstein.

It's practical and balances the art and commerce of the form.

At 8:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the guy you're thinking of is Dan Decker. He does a lot of analysis of Casablanca in his books and seminars. I think his stuff is called Anatomy of a Screenplay or something like that.

In terms of go-to screenwriting texts, I've heard a lot of good things about Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! books.

At 8:37 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

I just did some googling, because it was making me nuts.

It was Robert McKee.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger LHOOQtius ov Borg said...

I've read so many screenwriting books that I can't tell them apart anymore, and I don't really have a go-to book.

Save The Cat, like many of these books, smugly declares that either you follow a certain precise formula or fail. If that sort of thing ticks you off, it's not for you. At least its vernacular style and low page count makes it amusing and easy to read.

Screenplay: Writing the Picture by Russin and Downs is interesting in that it doesn't really promote a particular formula. I appreciated that, but I can't really say I go to it all that often.

Lew Hunter and Hal Ackerman of UCLA both have books, and as a dutiful UCLA student I've read both. If you've not been through UCLA classes, they're probably worth a read. I think Linda Seger's books are good, but thus far I don't find myself regularly referring to any screenwriting book as I write.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

I like Secrets of Screenplay Structure by Linda J. Cowgill.

I also think there's some value in Save the Cat, especially as you prepare for a second draft. There are ideas in his beat sheet that can inspire you.

At 9:16 AM, Blogger marcoguarda said...

I've got my personal collection of SW books, but I begin to think it is you who have to take "THE BIG CHILL" and dissect it to find it's made of four almost equal parts, that each part spans about 9':15'' and so and so.

It's you who have to find out that ACT I of an action movie is longer than an average ACT I comedy and so on and so on.

Grab the script which are similar in tone to the one you're writing, and tear them apart.

[Incidentally, this supposed knowledge has bring me nothing until now in terms of a sell, but I'm woking on it]

As many say, read a ton of SW books, then get rid of them all.

"You must unlearn what you have learned."

Joda, SW, episode V.


At 12:17 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I bought (but have yet to read) Rewrite impulsively one night when it popped up on Amazon, the price was right, the reviews looked good and I have a few projects I want to revamp.

I thought you were being facetious, but you really couldn't remember McKee, I guess.

At 12:57 PM, Blogger marcoguarda said...

Bother with un-editable blog posts!

ERRATA CORRIGE to previous post:

I've got my personal collection of SW books, but I begin to think it is you who have to take "THE BIG CHILL" and dissect it to find it's made of four almost equal parts, that each part is further divided in three complete sequences, any of which spans about 9':00'' and so and so.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger spartickes said...

I've found that I get most value out of Field's work towards the beginning of a project and then again towards the polish. Both are times when I benefit from thinking about structure and form. I recently got Snyder's "Save the Cat" and I think it will probably be a good tool in that same vein.

In the middle of rewrites though I like to go for more "inspirational" books rather than formulaic ones.
Soderbergh's book on sex, lies, and videotape has been my companion through the project I'm currently working on. I also like Stephen King's "On Writing" and I dip into "Hitchcock/Truffaut" to keep inspired.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger Grant said...

I have two shelves of writing books (teaching was a great excuse to accumulate books), but my go-to words are still Terry's colums on Word Play.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Grant said...

Columns, of course, damn it.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Yeah, the columns on Wordplayer are something I dig through anytime I'm stuck. Or procrastinating.

At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason to pick up Save the Cat! and read it is because Blake makes a point well that Terry Rossio (I think) made in a Wordplay column, and it's this --


If you don't have a great title, logline, hook and movie poster, then as a new spec screenwriter, you're DOA for anything except maybe winning a Nicholl Fellowship.

I know a former Nicholl Fellow who won it a few years back with a low-concept, character driven indie script. Guess where he works now? The Writer's Store.

At 5:52 PM, Blogger E.C. Henry said...

Congradulations on finishing your first draft, Scott. NICE accomplishment.

Bookwise, the one I read the most is "The Hollywood Standard: The Complete & Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style" by Christopher Riley.

#2) "Writing the Romantic Comedy" by Billy Mernit
#3) "Writing for Emotional Impact" by Karl Iglesias
#4) "Crafty Screenwriting" by Alex Epstein

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

At 3:03 AM, Blogger Piers said...

Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual, by Dwight Swain.

At 5:32 AM, Anonymous adam said...

I love William Goldman.

In Which Lie Did I Tell he writes an original screenplay and then sends it to a number of successful Hollywood writers (Tony Gilroy, Farrelly Bros, etc) for criticism. And they tear the script apart.

In another book he writes an adaptation of a short story he forgot he had written. Then he sends it to several successful hollywood people from different departments (a director, a DP, an editor, a production designer, etc) and they all tear the script apart.

And all of his books are peppered with great hollywood stories and his strong opinions about movies. Good stuff.

At 8:30 AM, Blogger Joshua James said...

My go-to book is 101 habits of highly successful screenwriters by Karl Inglius (sp) . . . lots of interviews with successful writers on differing aspects of the craft . . . you can open it at any point and find something interesting. I always like to hear what the pros have to say.

Other than that, when I need a recharge, I often reread ON WRITING by King . . . it always seems to work on me.

I also like the columns at Wordplayer, too.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Anonymous --

Absolutely. There's no question that it is easier to sell a script with an A idea and C- execution, than it is to sell a script with a B idea and A+ execution.

At the same time, once a writer does sell that first script, their career is going to depend on how well they can write.

I can't tell you how many scripts I've read by represented writers who once sold something because of one great idea (that was likely rewritten by others) and their follow-up scripts are just awful.

Ultimately, though A ideas are incredibly important (and one should definitely consider the sellability of anything you are writing with the intention of selling it) we should all strive to be A level writers as well.

Otherwise, what's the point?

At 11:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott - I totally agree with you. I too have read scripts by flash in the pans and it's not pretty. Nia Vardalos is one example, to name names, of someone who hasn't been able to maintain the momentum of her one hit. I suspect Diablo Cody, on the other hand, will be a prolific and dependable A list writer.

In that respect, I'd say read Blake's book is best for education about concept. I also have and have re-read Joshua James' pick - 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters. It's an invaluable peek into how pros approach their daily work.

As far as learning screenplay format, the best someone can do is get a good screenplay from Newmarket Press (I typically use Noah Baumbach scripts as guides because his scripts are uncluttered and well structured) and The Screenwriter's Bible by Trottier.

At 2:21 PM, Blogger unfiltered87 said...

3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley

It's not specifically a screenwriting book, but full of mini writing exercises that help with writer's block. It has helped give me story/path ideas numerous times even when not actually blocked.

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Matt Bird said...

I've read them all and dislike most of them. "Screenplay: Writing the Picture", by Russin and Downs, is the one I recommend to beginners. It's the most informative and least dogmatic. It's filled with great tips and tricks.

But I've long wanted a good book for people like you and me who already have several scripts. I finally found one I really like: "Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great" by William M Akers. A good book for writing BETTER.

At 8:54 AM, Anonymous LindaM said...

Got a lot, and agree with most everybody on here. I dip and sip, taking comments from a wide variety of viewpoints.

Another useful one is "Writing for Emotional Impact" by Karl Iglesias, who wrote "The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters." Good sections on dialogue and description.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous nilblogette said...

I like The Sequence Approach by Gulino. I do the exact same thing - flipping through the book once I've already written something for reminders about what I could be doing or forgot to think about. I like the Sequence Approach so much because it is just one idea - a script is made of sequences. I've got all the other books for nuances and to make me pull my hair out, like McKee and his idea, counter-idea, negation of the negation, which make feel confused and worthless. I read Sequence Approach to feel hopeful and in control, as opposed to desperate and overwhelmed, because there is only one idea and how it applies to a bunch of movies. It's really just about cohesive sequences, reversals and plot points.

At 4:38 AM, Blogger Eleanor said...

Philip Morton is my inspirational go-to guy ... and his blog is free! :)

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Anish said...

I'll second William Akers' "Your Screenplay Sucks!" It offers a great set of tools that are great for writing and re-writing.

For a foundtational book, though, Cynthia Whitcomb's The Writer's Guide to Writing Your Screenplay is a gem.

I compiled this guide on screenwriting books while procrastinating one day if anyone else wants to procrastinate by reading it.

At 7:06 PM, Blogger stu willis said...

Alternative Screenwriting:

To remind us that there have been plenty of great movies that haven't stuck to the third act, heroes journey formula.

The Art of Dramatic Writing:

More traditional but his analysis helps inspire scenes rather than fill out index cards.


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