What are the best books on screenwriting? And what can you learn from each of them?
There are so many books on screenwriting out there and so few of them actually matter. If you want to read about the industry and the way to craft stories, you want to read the best advice out there.
Film school cost me thousands of dollars. These books cost significantly less than that. I tried to pick only the ones I have read, or was forced to read, while in school. I think they will truly help you. but you do not have to buy all of them to succeed. In fact, you can buy or read none and still be fine.
But if you want a list, we got one for you below. Let's dive into the best books on screenwriting and see what we can glean from each title.
Ready to read?
Perhaps the most famous or infamous book on screenwriting ever, it's the one I most recommend to new writers.
Save the Cat breaks down structure into key plot points that can help newbies see the most simple of story formats. While the book gets fair criticism for creating the fallacy of "likable" characters, it still makes sense to list this book because of how it will help you learn and master simple structure. You can also try our free beat sheet here.
I hate screenwriting gurus. If you ever catch me selling myself as one -- just scorn me.
But I like screenwriting professors. In case you were wondering. I consider every article I write here basically a lecture in front of a class. My lectures don't cost thousands like McKee, but I also don't care how he makes his money. His book does a great job tracking the origins of story and entertaining the most erudite among us.
This is an oldie but a goodie. It's a meat and potatoes book that talks about the tenements of writing and laid the foundation for every book that came after it. I like it for its barebones layout of how screenplays should look and its straightforward look at the industry.
One of only a few books on this list actually written by a professional screenwriter (Eric wrote Arrival), this a practical book set to get you writing.
Which is the most important lesson of all. It's basically a list of valuable brainstorming activities that should spur your own creations.
What more can you ask from a book?
This is the only book on here I think should be a mandatory read. It outlines what it is actually like to be a writer in Hollywood and what it's like to deal with the biggest executives in Hollywood. More than anything. Goldman shows what it's like to conduct yourself with class and grace.
I love this book. Look, chances are you got into movies and TV because you love the glitz and glamour. If you're like me, you imagine your name in lights. This book talks about what that's like and also the bullshit of... well... what that's like.
It also gives you great tools for pitching and makes you laugh. That's good enough for me.
If you like theory and Aristotle and all that stuff...this is the book for you. I don't like that stuff, so I am the worst person to endorse it.
But I respect the words written and the number of people who love learning the deep origins of storytelling and the mystic structure that's carried them from campfire to screen.
Screenplay formatting can be a complicated thing. It's changing with new technology and getting looser as writers discover new ways to format ideas. This is a great book on formatting. It won't teach you anything else. But you may need to learn that.
Film school is expensive. So instead of taking a class that costs thousands, learn from the screenwriting professor whose students have written some of the biggest hits of all time. This book is an excellent foray into what it's like to take a screenwriting class. And it also helps you navigate your own story as you read and write.
Have you guys seen Mamet's Spartan? That movie is so dope. Man, Val Kilmer kicks ass in it.
What sets this book apart from the rest is that it comes at writing from a purely magical angle. "Even though it's about playwriting, the principles are the same. It’s not about selling out or entertaining, but about leaving behind something that matters to the audience. Your story matters. This book makes you believe it." I wrote these words for another website and I want them here.
I like this book because it is constantly updating based on where Hollywood is today. This is another of the catch-all book on here. Format, style, substance; it al can be found within this book. and because they regularly update it you always have current information.
Hooray, you've made it and got signed by reps. Now how do you handle them? What are their expectations for you and how can you make them proud?
There are lots of egos to navigate and questions to ask. This book lines them up and knocks them down with quotes from current agents and writers.
This is another snobby entry for those obsessed with where stories come from and how they have changed over time. Again, I don't find too much use for these kinds of material, I think they are more about procrastination, but some people dig them.
This book is my jam. Writing short scripts is hard. But it's also where I think everyone should start out. It also houses my favorite exercise, the Le Menu, which helps you figure out stories that mean a lot to you and what the characters in your story want as well.
The Le Menu asks the writer to craft five to ten answers to the provided questions. After you’re done that, you have the basis for dozens of stories. It almost eliminates the excuse of “Writer’s Block.”
THE LE MENU
Write five to ten answers to the following prompts:
- What I love
- What I hate
- What I fear
- What I believe
- What I value
- What I want
- What I know about
- People who made a difference in my life
- Discoveries that made a difference in my life
- Decisions that made a difference in my life
I like tackling story from the smallest point and then building outward. Sort of like planting an acorn and growing an oak. Ladies and gents, that's the nutshell technique. Chamberlain is a script consultant, so I don't quite know how I feel about that, but I like her approach and thought it was a useful book.
16. No Film School by Me and a Bunch of Other People
Wait, but we're not a book... I know we're not a book. But we also cost nothing. Like, you click here and I write 12-ish articles a week and they're free for you and I talk about everything you'll find in these books and more. We keep talking about making all the articles into an e-book. Maybe we will. but for now, if you want to learn character development, arcs, three-act structure, five-act structure, how to write a script, how to write a pilot, short films, beat sheets, outlines, treatments, or screenplay downloads...
I have your goddamn back.
Seriously, I wrote this article because some people love to buy books because they think it makes them an expert -- but it truly does not. You can't buy a bunch of art books and become Picasso. And you can't buy a bunch of screenwriting books to become a screenwriter.
You just need to learn the basics and to write.
That costs only the price of screenwriting software.
Unless you pick free screenwriting software.
Anyway, back to the books.
As a fan of her podcast, I was excited to check this book out. The highlight is that it takes screenwriting ten minutes at a time. When I started out, I was working two jobs to make ends meet and was waking up at 5AM to crank out the pages. It sucked. This book understands that and is like having a coach there cheering you along.
Is there a more prolific and generous writer than Stephen King? This book is an inspiration for writers of any ilk. King walks us through his career, from early struggles to his near-fatal car accident. Instead of being written like a textbook, this book is written to be enjoyed.
Yorke uses fairy tales to expose five-act structure. He builds on the ideas of Aristotle and poetics and takes you through the psychological journey that writers and stories go on as they are constructed. Again, this is more philosophy than craft, but people like that sort of thing.
20. Actual Screenplays by Their Respective Writers
Look, no list is complete without telling you the very best thing you can do is read actual screenplays. They will teach you formatting, style, structure, and just be inspirational. We try to post them on here with free downloads, but if you Google almost any script named here, you can find it. Or hop on Screenwriting Reddit and they'll help you out, too. Just read scripts. They're the key.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a force of nature. She can write, act, and produce better than most people on this planet. So what lessons can we learn from her?
Click to find out.