We’ve been writing about screenwriting for nearly a decade, and we’ve interviewed all the top experts – from book authors to award-winning screenwriters. Here’s our roundup of the best screenwriting books.
Understanding how to write a great screenplay takes time and practice. One of the best ways to improve your screenwriting skills is to read great scripts. Every year around awards season, the nominated screenplays are released for anyone to download for free. Sometimes they’re released before the nominations come out, so always do a quick search online, or visit our partner The Script Lab’s Free Screenplay Library and search for the scripts you want to read.
And right at the top of this blog post, we’d like to plug our free downloadable e-book An Introduction to Screenwriting:
The next best way to improve your screenwriting skills is to read books that are written for the sole purpose of teaching new writers how to write. But don’t stress if the first book you read doesn’t completely speak to you. Some ways might be too rigid, some too loose. You should read a couple different ones, maybe even this whole list, before you decide what screenwriting “rules” to embrace and which ones to discard.
In no particular order, because different methods work for different people, here are the top 15 screenwriting books.
1. Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need – by Blake Snyder
Perhaps the best-known book on screenwriting is Save The Cat. The ‘Save the Cat’ philosophy is based on those scenes where we meet a hero and the hero does something (like saving a cat) that defines who they are and makes the audience care about them. While there is no one secret formula to a successful screenplay, this book gives screenwriters a great overview of potential beats that could be explored throughout the screenplay. Some writers swear by it, while others don’t want anything to do with it. Either way, it’s a must-read, whether you agree with it or not. Get the book here.
2. Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
Not to sound too much like a fan, but Robert McKee isn’t just a screenwriting guru, he’s an absolute God. His workshops alone have earned him international acclaim, as he knows intimately how to inspire new voices, refine current works in progress, and putting stale screenwriting careers back in the game. His alumni include Quincy Jones, Diane Keaton, Gloria Steinem, Julia Roberts, John Cleese and David Bowie. He offers an intense learning experience, and you’ll be able to glean more than just a few tips and tricks from this book. Get the book here.
Multiple Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning writer/producer Erik Bork (HBO’s Band of Brothers) takes a different approach to the craft of screenwriting with his book. Instead of focusing on structure, scenes or navigating the business, he thinks the most important party of the process is before any of the above comes into play. His industry experience and time as a screenwriting instructor gave him unique insight into the craft of screenwriting and to him, it’s all about selecting that initial idea. A clever, well thought out initial idea is what will motivate Hollywood “gatekeepers” to read your script. Of course, it needs to be well written enough to keep them holding on past page 10, but you need a great idea first. Get the book here.
4. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
The Hollywood Reporter once called the late Syd Field “the most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world.” In the 1980s and 1990s, his internationally acclaimed best-selling book very quickly established itself as the “bible” of the film industry. His books Screenplay and The Screenwriter’s Workbook, in particular, are in their fortieth printing and are used in more than 400 colleges and universities across the country and have been translated and published in 29 languages. This one is a classic that you should have under your belt if you consider yourself a serious screenwriter. Get the book here.
5. 150 Screenwriting Challenges by Eric Heisserer
The award-winning screenwriter of ARRIVAL, LIGHTS OUT and BIRD BOX has written this book of helpful exercises for improving your screenwriting craft. He started by tweeting writing tips which gained him a large following (you can follow him at @HIGHzurrer) and decided to put them down in book form. This is a treasure trove of great advice and challenges to help you improve your writing. Eric Heisserer was also our guest mentor at the ScreenCraft Writers Summit last year (which you can attend this year, if you’d like to join us). You can get his book here.
6. The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by David Trottier
This book has sold over 200,000 copies in its twenty years on the planet. Whether you’re a new writer or a working writer, you can truly benefit from this book. In this book is a wealth of knowledge and practical information including sample query letters, worksheets, checklists, sample scenes and more. With each new edition, the book beefs out more and more, while staying as up-to-date as possible. It’s definitely one of the more popular books about the business and craft of screenwriting, taking you the whole process from conception to marketing. Get the book here.
7. The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting by Jill Chamberlain
Callum Greene, the Producer of Star Wars Episode 9, Crimson Peak and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug says, “The Nutshell Technique cracks the code behind why we love the movies that we love. It guides you to organically write the story you want to tell.” Sounds too good to be true, right? But it’s not. Jill Chamberlain has worked in the industry long enough to realize that most newbie writers aren’t quite sure how to tell a story. In order to rectify that, she created the Nutshell Technique, a method whereby writers identify eight dynamic, interconnected elements that are required to successfully tell a story. Don’t worry, there are diagrams and examples of some classic and contemporary movies including Casablanca, Pulp Fiction, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno and more. It’s even on the syllabus at several universities. Get the book here.
8. Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
One of the most memorable writers, William Goldman once said, “The single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Not one person knows for a certainty what’s going to work.” With that said, no one knows the screenwriter’s Hollywood better than Mr. Goldman. Known for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride and All the President’s Men, Goldman is a legend in the industry. In this book, he shows how films get made and what element to include in your screenplay if you want to make it great. This was one of the first books that offered a personal view of not just the screenwriting trade but working in Hollywood, so some anecdotes might be a little dated, but it’s a captivating read that will expand your perspective. Get the book here.
9. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
John Truby shares his screenwriting secrets in this book that outlines 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller. He’s known for his compelling scripts and a few of Hollywood’s more successful films, including Sleepless in Seattle, Scream and Shrek. The book pulls from philosophy and mythology, while providing fresh techniques and anecdotes that are quite insightful. He has a unique approach to effective storytelling. If you’re looking for answers on how to make your characters grow in meaningful ways, while constructing surprising plots, then this is your book. It’s essential for all writers, including screenwriters, novelists and journalists. Get the book here.
Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.
10. Getting it Write: An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career by Lee Jessup
While there are many books in this list that talk about the craft and business of screenwriting, not all of them talk about how to pitch your screenplay and how to handle the professional space. If there was a formula or a step-by-step process, that would be amazing, but there’s not. But you can read this book to unlock some much-warranted guidance when it comes to your screenwriting career. Lee Jessup works with both novice and professional writers, so she knows exactly what she’s talking about. Get the book here.
11. Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them by John Yorke
This book is a such a complement to all of these other books listed. It picks up where they left off and travels straight to the heart of storytelling. John Yorke not only shows us there is a narrative that echoes from deep within, he explains why. He uses examples from fairy tales to The Godfather to Mad Men to express his philosophy, and even utilizes Shakespearean five-act structure. Analyzing storytelling from film and TV to the stage and novels, he leaves the three-act approach behind. Get the book here.
12. Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story by Jennifer Grisanti
Jen Grisanti’s background as a TV development executive gives her a great perspective on the craft of screenwriting. She’s built a thriving consultancy helping writers (especially TV writers) start their professional screenwriting careers. This book focuses on finding inspiration in your own life for your screenplay. You can get the book here.
13. Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant
Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon have truly done it. Even Paul Rudd has said about them, “These guys are proof that with no training and little education, ANYONE can make it as a screenwriter.” Now, while not everyone will get this lucky, these guys show you that it’s at least worth a shot. The title is an understatement — they made over a billion dollars at the box office, and they actually want to show you how to do it too. They know the industry and they know what it takes to be successful. Follow their advice and you probably won’t win an Oscar, but you’ll make a bunch of money. It’s okay to sell out sometimes; we’ve all got bills to pay and lives to live. This is perhaps the best, most honest, and most hilarious insight into how it really is to be a working screenwriter. Get the book here.
14. The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
Whether you fully employ the full mythic structure, or just adapt it to whatever you’ve got floating around in your mind, The Writer’s Journey takes Joseph Campbells infamous Hero’s Journey and contextualizes it for screenwriters. There are several editions of this book that keep getting better and better, including new insights and observations that Chris Vogler has discovered through his work. Considered a classic, this is a must for anyone writing a hero-based fantasy, action or adventure script. Get the book here.
It’s one thing to learn from a single point of view — be it a screenwriting guru, professor, instructor, or award-winning screenwriter. This book offers screenwriters the chance to learn from many of the industry’s most prominent and most successful Hollywood screenwriters. Screenwriters interviewed include: Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost), Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Amy Holden Jones (Indecent Proposal), Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), Horton Foote (To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies), Andrew Bergman (Blazing Saddles), Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King), and Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo). Some of the opinions and perspectives will resonate with you and your process. Others will not. The variety is the key. Get the book here.
If you’re also wanting to produce your own screenplay, we can’t recommend our very own book by producer David Kaufmann:
The Producer’s Brain: A Pocket Guide to Thinking Like a Film Producer by David Kaufmann
If you’ve already read some of these, let us know what your favorite takeaways were. And if you’ve got a favorite that we’ve left off the list, let us know! We’re always interested in expanding our library.