When I say “screenwriting books you MUST own”, I’ll be honest: the MUST is for effect.
You don’t have to do anything, particularly buying screenwriting books in such volume that the Amazon driver knows you by name.
But you’re a writer, you already know that.
A more accurate title for this article might be: “Books THIS Screenwriter Owns And Which HE Has Found Useful And Which YOU Might Too”, but that title would use up a lot of Twitter characters.
The two tricks to becoming a better writer are, as everyone knows:
- to write a lot and
- to read a lot.
Write screenplays, yes.
But also write in other forms, write novels, write poems, write training films (as I do), write shopping lists, write blogs if you must.
And read screenplays, yes.
But also read other forms.
Read novels, read poems, probably don’t read training film scripts or shopping lists, maybe read some carefully selected blogs (#likethisone), but certainly read books in, on or around screenwriting.
My bookshelf and, lately, my Kindle, both groan with film-industry-related books that I have collected, read and osmotically absorbed over the past twenty years.
Or indeed how impossibly high the bar remains if you aspire to producing anything that genuinely qualifies as GOOD.
I am aware that the screenwriting books below are creatively and culturally skewed towards the white, English-speaking, male, commercial end of the spectrum, but I am all of those things and I can’t apologise for that.
These are my recommendations, and I would of course be interested to hear yours, particularly if they sit at the other end…
Tom’s 26 Must-Own Screenwriting Books
SCREENWRITING BOOKS ON CRAFT
On Writing – by Stephen King
This is my go-to tome whenever I need something complicated explained to me with brilliant, brutal simplicity. Part memoir, part how-to, I probably learned more from this book than all the others put together. Two nuggets stand out. Write your first draft with your office door closed, the second with it open. And have your desk in the corner of the room, not the middle: art is a support system for life, not the other way around. This book is also the source of my dearly beloved writing-as-paleontology metaphor.
The Hero with A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
The book that launched a thousand three-act structures is surprisingly readable for all that it is a 430 page, small of print, high of brow treatise from 1949. If you’re ever going to write something original, you need to know where it all began. It began with the Greeks, with myth, with folk tales and with the collective subconscious. Campbell is as good a guide as any to help you pick your way through all that.
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
In this Joseph Campbell Cliff Notes for Dummies (and screenwriters), Vogler takes many of Campbell’s ideas – particularly of the Hero’s Journey and the Archetypes he meets on the way – and applies them to the classical Hollywood model. While some of his set rules and stock roles are proscriptive and can lead to formulaic screenplays, Vogler’s book and the legendary memo on which it is based are holy texts for many a Hollywood development executive, and the basis by which many a script is judged. So know your enemy – even if it isn’t really an enemy.
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
I took this doorstop of a book with me on my honeymoon, and didn’t chat to my wife much. It is an exhaustive, often exhausting, trawl through much of the ground covered by Campbell and Vogler, but expanding across all art, drama, fiction and out into human history (I remember his “five act tragic nightmare of Nazi Germany”, for example). His argument for there being only seven archetypal themes is subjective and open to debate, but many of the thoughts in this book have stayed with me, and I feel them informing my writing day by day.
On Directing Film by David Mamet
Juicy truths leech out from this book even from the introduction. “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut.” “Write the story, take out all the good lines, and see if it still works.” “What does the hero want? What hinders him from getting it? What happens if he does not get it?” Mamet is a better writer than a director, a better stage writer than a screenwriter, and there are probably better books of his to read, like this or this. But this is the one I happen to have on my shelf.
On Film-making by Alexander MacKendrick
This beautifully written work takes you back to a golden era of craft, class and pride in a job well done. As in the Mamet book, MacKendrick gives the writer a better understanding of the way film works as a visual medium, by tracing the development of the form from the silent era to the heyday of Ealing Studios. Screenwriting isn’t about writing dialogue. It’s about creating moments.
SCREENWRITING BOOKS ON THE BUSINESS
How to Make Money Scriptwriting by Julian Friedmann
Does what it says on the tin, which is a good thing since making money is, you know, kind of an important consideration for us screenwriters. Friedmann is a British agent of considerable experience and it’s all in this useful book, from the art of the pitch to coping with criticism to contract negotiations. Invaluable.
The Screenplay Business by Peter Bloore
Declaration: I feature in this book, in a minor capacity as an interview subject. Bloore is an expert at exploring and unpicking the mechanics and dynamics of the creative process. This book examines the very particular beast that is feature film screenplay development from many different perspectives (writer, producer, financier etc). Primarily British in viewpoint, it nevertheless reveals which tools and techniques we might transplant from the mass-production model in Hollywood – and which we should leave well alone.
SCREENWRITING BOOKS – TALES FROM THE TRENCHES
Picture by Lillian Ross
A pioneering piece of long-form journalism from the 1950s, this book tracks the development, production and ill-fated release of John Huston’s 1951 MGM Picture The Red Badge Of Courage (which I still haven’t seen). It brilliantly demonstrates how even the greatest writer / director can stumble when faced with a tricky book adaptation, ill-advised casting, budget restrictions, studio interference and his own quickly-diminishing interest in the project.
Adventures In The Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood by William Goldman
This has to be in here, as much for Goldman’s effortlessly wise, warm and entertaining style as for his famous Nobody Knows Anything aphorism. It is a personal romp through Goldman’s glory years of the late 60s and 70s, from Butch Cassidy through All The President’s Men and Marathon Man to A Bridge Too Far, (not even getting to The Princess Bride or Misery, damn the man can write). It touches on his novel writing and his experiences with the stars and directors he met along the way. He is as honest about what went wrong with his failures (like The Great Waldo Pepper and The Stepford Wives) as he is about the levels of serendipity and luck involved in his successes. Perhaps the most fascinating section is Part Three, where he takes the reader on a case study of him adapting his own short story Da Vinci into an (unproduced) screenplay. The opportunity to glimpse the mind of a master at work is one not to be missed.
My Indecision is Final: The Rise and Fall of Goldcrest Films by Jake Eberts
A seminal text on the British film industry, Eberts’ book charts the spectacular rise (Gandhi, Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields) and equally speedy fall of the powerhouse financing and production company in the 1980s. (And Jake Eberts should know, he ran the company for most of this time.) As much a financial primer as a cautionary tale of egos run amok, this book was hugely informative when I started out as a development executive, and remains salient as I develop my career as a screenwriter. It’s a volatile business, and you have to keep your wits about you.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind
A trashy companion piece to the more forensic Eberts offering, this classic trawl through 1970s Hollywood offers an origins story on Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and American independent cinema as a movement. But you’ve probably read this one already, so maybe try:
Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind
This less scandalous therefore marginally less interesting book brings the reader up to date (if that date is 2005, when it was published), giving Tarantino, Soderbergh and Harvey Weinstein their deserved time under the microscope. You can’t really expect to work – or have a conversation with anyone who works – in Hollywood without having read one or both of these books.
The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Hollywood Life by Robert Evans
We’re into a deliciously bitchy and self-serving corner of the list now. I don’t actually own this book but I remember listening to it on audiotape (that’s right, audiotape) on my first ever visit to Hollywood in 1997. Lugubriously narrated by the big man himself, this is a Beginner’s Guide To Running A Studio, how to strike it lucky (take lots of cocaine, produce The Godfather, marry Ali MacGraw) and then how to fuck it up (take lots more cocaine, produce The Conversation, let Ali MacGraw run off with Steve McQueen, get arrested for cocaine dealing). Marvellous stuff.
You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again by Julia Phillips
Coming from the same Biskind / Evans era of creative exhilaration and personal excess, this ultimately tragic memoir nevertheless includes some fascinating script-to-screen takes on Phillips’ famous titles as a producer, from The Sting to Taxi Driver to Close Encounters. Less respectful of Hollywood’s new wave than Biskind (she calls them “a rogues’ gallery of nerds”) and bitterly resentful of her downfall at the hands of the Hollywood boys’ club, this is a wounded, take-no-prisoners diatribe that has to be read to be believed.
Conversations with My Agent by Rob Long
A short read, which more directly relates to the writer’s experience in the film business, I can’t remember much about this one, other than that I laughed a lot while I read it and have never looked at my agent the same way since. Long had a career high-point with Cheers, over twenty years ago, and has struggled to replicate that success since. Still, he can always write another chirpy memoir (if his agent hasn’t fired him by now).
Not directly related to the film business, this is nevertheless a beautifully written set of essays by the late, great Ephron. What she didn’t know about romantic comedies wasn’t worth writing, and what she didn’t know about living, working, mixing living with working and coping with illness, isn’t worth reading. This, by extension, is.
BOOKS TO REMIND YOU NO-ONE IS BORN GREAT
A selection of profiles of, interviews with or works by Properly Great Writers, to remind you that you aren’t, yet. Invaluable for figuring out how to write a screenplay. Interestingly, most of the authors are also writers or performers of note themselves, so you’re really getting a two for one deal here.
Orson Welles, Vol I: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow
A meticulously researched book charting the young Welles’ unbelievable levels of creative productivity and precocity (Citizen Kane at 26? I’m sorry but that’s just absurd). Comes complete with…
Orson Welles: Vol 2: Hello Americans by Simon Callow
This is on my shelf but I confess I haven’t read yet. It charts Welles’ later years, of which you would think the less said the better, but in Callow’s confident hands that is unlikely to be the case. If ever you’re feeling lazy or uninspired (or, for instance, can’t get around to reading a great biography that you’ve had on your shelf for a few years now), think of Orson Welles, and then you’ll feel really shit.
Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut
A thundering, plate-shifting work pitting two heavyweights – the master and the ingénu – against each other in a series of conversations from 1967. Everything you could ever want to know about the great man’s work is discussed in huge detail here, and the fact that the man asking the questions wants to learn for himself makes it all the more compelling. If you don’t want to read it all, apparently you can hear the conversations themselves here.
Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe
A delightful counterpoint to the previous entry. Back when he was still making movies that I liked, Cameron Crowe interviews Billy Wilder, who made pretty much every movie I have ever loved. Creative bliss on every page.
Kubrick, Stanley (Masters of cinema series) by Bill Krohn
This ‘Masters of Cinema’ series is well worth digging out, as a collection of short and well-priced books on great film-makers (I also have the book on the Coen Brothers). Kubrick was a genius whose art sometimes out-reached his craft (my view is that his films are ‘interesting’ rather than ‘fun to watch’) but his opinions are always worth hearing. I was going to include my University Dissertation ‘Snap, Crackle, Pop: a consideration of the dialectic theory at play within the films of Stanley Kubrick’, but then thought you would prefer a book that was still in print (or, indeed, had ever been in print).
Minghella on Minghella by Anthony Minghella
Before his untimely death, Minghella had time to reflect on his career and his process in a quite wonderfully illuminating book. He had his creative mis-steps, but when you have written and directed the sublime trio of Truly, Madly, Deeply, The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, you are allowed to take a few chances. Such a shame he wasn’t allowed more.
The Western Lit Survival Kit: How to Read the Classics Without Fear by Sandra Newman
A combination of bluffer’s guide, educational hole-filler, and holy-sh*t-people-have-been-writing-for-a-super-long-time-so-if-I’m-going-to-presume-to-contribute-I’d-better-make-it-as-good-as-I-can kick up the a*se. A smart but wonderfully accessible read, this book takes you through the entire Western literary canon, munching its way through drama, epic, prose, poetry and beyond. It also makes you sound like you have a flashy Oxbridge education, without the bother of having to actually get one.
William Goldman: Four Screenplays by William Goldman
The movie scripts for Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride and Misery by the masterful Goldman (see above). Do yourself a favour and read them. And don’t worry about the non-standard formatting. He doesn’t.
- Tales from the Script (“hardcore war stories from screenwriters who’ve been there, done it, and got the T-shirt many times over”)
- 101 Habits of Successful Screenwriters (“similar to Tales from the Script, just with more tips and tricks to succeed again, from those who’ve done it”)
- Story by Robert McKee (“a world-class, seminal, essential, must-revisit text regardless of your view on the man himself”), and
- Two books from the late Blake Snyder’s mini-Save the Cat!-canon (“in one, he establishes his theories, in the other, he conclusively proves them – must-owns for anyone interested in mainstream filmmaking”).
So there you have it.
A combination of my 26 screenwriting books – and 5 of IS’ – that you really have to own if you’re even vaguely serious about getting anywhere in this crazy biz du show.
What do you think of the list?
Did I/we miss any screenwriting books you’d consider must-owns?
Let me know in the message box below, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Tom Williams was a development executive for Fine Line Features and is now a full-time professional screenwriter (Chalet Girl, BASE, Kajaki). He is represented by United Agents. He can’t read your script, Industrial Scripts already do that and do it well. You can follow Tom on Twitter, check out his website and IMDb profile, read old posts on his blog and tell him where to go in the comments box below…