There’s a slew of books and lists of books about how to write screenplays, and they’re all fine, but let me tell you, it’s the weird and unexpected books that really added to my writing chops. Read on for a list of books you need on your shelves to up your writing game, and your life!
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1. The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook – Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (amazon link)
If you’re my age or older you may remember when this book, (along with a handful of offshoots and sequel books), came out. I bought my copy from the now-defunct Border’s to give you an idea of the time period (ah the early to mid-aughts. What a time to be alive).
This may not seem like the kind of book that would help with writing at all, but it is in fact a gold mine of plots, solutions, and tips for living in a dangerous world. If you’re writing an action movie, this is your bible! Not only does it outline what to do in weird, worst-case, situations (which actually eases my anxiety a lot) but it’s a trove of inspiration. Put your characters in these predicaments and see how they react. The best part, your characters probably don’t know the ‘right’ way to react in the situations in the book; these worst-case scenarios can get even wilder!
2. Calvin and Hobbes – Bill Watterson. Any of the books! (The Essential Calvin and Hobbes (amazon), and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (amazon) are good choices!)
Want to up your comedy game? Learn from the pro Bill Watterson! While there isn’t a lot of overlap between screenwriting and three-panel comic writing there is one key element that makes for good comedy.
They’re both snappy. Comic books cut to the quick!
Good comedy in screenplays and in comics cut to the quick in terms of the punchline. In both mediums, there is nothing superfluous left to mar the joke. “Calvin and Hobbes” is one of the most successful, well-known comic strips out there. You can do worse than picking up a copy and giving yourself an afternoon to enjoy the antics of this kid and his toy tiger. Also, the humor stems from so many different factors; from Calvin as a child versus his parents and other adults, the grownup view he has of the world versus his age, the way he views Hobbes versus the way the rest of the world views him. It is truly an incredible well of comedy.
Plus the entire premise is just inspiring in its simplicity; a boy and his imaginary friend that only he can see come to life. The soft juxtaposition between Calvin’s reality and the world around him is masterful. Watterson has thought about how children think and work; his deep dive into this different world should inspire you to explore the worlds of your characters as intensely as well. It pays off.
(Bonus; if dark comedy is more your thing, Gary Larson has your back. The Far Side’s single-panel comics pack a wallop. Comedy zings made out of pure gold.)
3. Books of Poetry. Like, all of it.
In the same vein as comic strips, poetry tends to get to the heart of the matter much more quickly and effectively than other mediums. Think of the last novel you read and think of the last poem you read. Try to decide what the ultimate theses of those two things were. Each of them boils down to a specific theme (or multiple themes, in the case of most novels), but obviously they do it in different ways.
Something you can glean from Lord of the Rings for example is that World War One was very bad; Tolkien pulled imagery from his experiences of the trenches in Europe and applied it to his stories. He captured the horrors of war, the concepts of good and evil, and the foggy middle realm between them in fantasy.
On the other hand, Wilfred Owen wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum est’; 28 lines, two sonnets, detailing the front lines of the war, and a gas attack.
Poetry distills concepts to their basest forms. It is really the most base example of that screenwriting adage, “Less is more.” Sure, in the end, you’re not going to have rhyming couplets or pentameter in your screenplays, but there is something very important to be gleaned from poetry: you can get to the point powerfully and simply all at once.
Here are a few of my favorite books of poetry to help you on your way. (My background in classics means some of my favorite are translations of ancient texts. Sorry not sorry)
Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson. (An excellent read to further your understanding of the African American experience post-Jim Crow, given the climate of systemic racism in our country). (amazon link)
4. Fun Home; a Family Tragicomic – Alison Bechdel (amazon link)
This graphic memoir now turned broadway musical, is really a stunning piece of storytelling. The thing to glean from this book is the interaction between characters; Bechdel and her father are two people living in the same house but in completely different worlds. This is a classic example of the tension between characters. You can feel there’s something large marring the connection a father and daughter should have, within the benign world of a child and parent just living their lives. It’s a brilliant read and a perfect case-study for character interactions.
Pseudo-within the realm of screenwriting, this memoir has been made into a Broadway musical. Obviously not quite a film, but someone read this and knew that this character-driven story was good in multiple mediums. The overarching plot lends itself to a good yarn, but it really is the way these people are living and dancing around each other that gives it its power.
5. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer – Michelle McNamara (amazon link)
True-crime isn’t for everyone, and the story of the Golden State Killer is a doozy (this ain’t no Swiss Cheese Pervert!). I read this a few months ago, and I’ll be honest, a lot of the details of the crime have sort of faded for me – not because they’re uninteresting, but because I’m a bit of a space cadet. But what stuck with me was the deeper story of Michelle McNamara’s life. She was a true-crime blogger and was thoroughly invested in this case, up until her passing from cancer — the book was finished by her husband and fellow crime writers and investigators posthumously.
With regards to screenwriting, this may seem really out of left field, even for me, the most left-field of screenwriters. What to focus on for your writing? The story behind the story, the tension between obsession and real life, the juxtaposition of a serial killer, and an average woman. This book wouldn’t hit as hard as is does without these things. If it was just a recapping of all the crimes and clues regarding GSK I probably would not have finished it; the thing that kept me in was Michelle. She’s a brilliant writer of course, but what pulls this away from other true crime books is that she inserts herself into her investigation, and thus the crimes are a part of her life.
That intermingling between ‘the story’ and the story being told is delicious. Your screenplay can benefit from that sort of examination. Sure you may not have a character researching the events of your screenplay outside of the action, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to. Further still, take a step back from your story and try to imagine what would make an impression to an outside observer within the world you’re creating.
And now, one you should throw away;
Save The Cat – Blake Snyder (Do I link to a book I don’t like? What’s the protocol there?)
Listen, I’m not going to lie, I learned a fair amount about script-crafting from this book. That being said, I hate it. I freaking hate it. The fact is that ‘Save the Cat’ is geared towards making a cookie-cutter movie. If you’re trying to write a screenplay that’ll make producers happy the outline provided is a good template, but that’s it. But it sells itself as a bit of a magic pill; a no-fail way of getting your screenplay made into a movie. Bitter truth is that if you can’t write, this book won’t save your screenplay.
That being said there are some small bits that you can take out of this book; especially if you’re looking to punch up your pacing after the third or fourth rewrite. Snyder says they always check page 25 to see what happens because that’s a good turning point for a 90-page screenplay. Is your page 25 up to snuff?
Have you been trying to make your pacing flow? If that’s the case, this might be a good resource. But honestly, I wouldn’t follow the rules set out here to the letter. None of the screenplays that make it to the Oscars do. Learn the rules but then feel free to break them. Life is too hard to try and whittle your story down to a perfect 90 pages when it’s really 97 and a half. Perfection will ultimately kill your story in the end. No amount of saved cats can fix that.
Finally, the last thing you need to read in order to write good screenplays?
Nine times out of ten people who want to be screenwriters aren’t reading screenplays. And I’m not just talking about scripts online, I’m talking about things your friends and screenwriting peers have done, and things you encounter through sites like Reddit where people you don’t know sometimes post their own stuff. Those screenplays may be bad, or they may be brilliant but I guarantee you if you read them you’ll glean something. It may be something you know you want to incorporate into your writing (a great way to describe something or a quippy bit of dialogue to emulate) or something you wish to avoid (wrong tense usage or over-describing settings).
In the end, no book can replace exposure to the real thing. It doesn’t feel like it, but you absorb everything you read and you are learning from it, so why not learn from the source material?