Best Screenwriting Books
Here is a list of the best books I’ve read as a Screenwriter. Not all of these books are Screenwriting Manuals, but they have all in some way enhanced my understanding of storytelling, creativity, the film business – or myself.
The Writer’s Journey – Chris Vogler
Vogler takes the mythological analysis of Joseph Campbell and applies it to the movies. In fact, the 12 Steps of the Hero’s Journey we use are from Vogler rather than Campbell. I studied under Chris at UCLA and reading his book was a turning point for me. Recognising the emotional spine of the story – rather than focusing on plot – completely altered my understanding of storytlling. If you only read one book on screenwriting, make it this one. I do however disagree with Vogler on Character Arc and have developed my own 12-step Hero’s Emotional Journey. I would recommend you read Vogler – then take a look at my Emotional Journey – then, ideally, come to my Introduction to Screenwriting Course.
The Power of Myth – Joseph Campbell
When I was studying in LA and doing it a bit tough, reading this book was an absolute epiphany. It’s the transcript of a conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyes for a PBS series in the States, and it makes very clear why stories are so important to all cultures. You can’t really begin to write for your audiences until you understand what it is they’re seeking. Totally inspiring and life altering. A must-read.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
First published in 1948, the book provides the foundation for so much of contemporary understanding of story structure. Campbell literally went off into the woods, read myths from around the world, and concluded there was a monomyth that resonated for all cultures. It’s less accessible than Vogler and makes no mention of the movies, but it will expand your appreciation for the universality of this structure. I would read Vogler first and save this for a little later.
The Art of Dramatic Writing – Lajos Egri
This is a text recommended by almost all the best screenwriting teachers and it’s one I first read when I was studying at UCLA. It was written in 1942 and its focus is theatre but I think that it’s particularly helpful in getting you to understand the connection between theme and idea – how you use your characters and the story to explore the various dimensions of your premise. Highly recommended.
The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller – John Truby
I hadn’t looked at Truby in 20 years but I got this out of the AFTRS film school library the other day and was pretty impressed. I particularly like his section on what the character needs – as opposed to what they want.
The Hero’s Two Journeys – MIchael Hauge & Christopher Vogler
I respect both of these guys and this DVD series does a good job of emphasising the importance of marrying the Hero’s External Journey and their Inner Journey. My one qualm, again, is that I don’t agree with Vogler on character arc.
The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success – Stanley D. Williams
Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing is great but its dated theatrical references limit its contemporary appeal to movie screenwriters. Fortunately, Stanley D. Williams Ph. D. has produced a book that explores premise specifically for film writers and uses modern film references. This is no idle academic discussion either – despite the fact that the book is based on his doctoral thesis – it’s second half is a step-by-step guide to crafting your screenplay from the moral premise. He has a formula in the Appendix that relates a film’s moral message to its box office success – but I’m going to overlook that. It’s worth a read.
Myth and the Movies – Stuart Voytilla
This is a companion book to Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Voytilla is a disciple of Vogler and has analysed 50 of the great movies in terms of the Hero’s Journey. What you’ll find interesting is how the 12 steps aren’t used singularly or sequentially. Writers draw on these mythological building blocks wherever they feel it will enhance the story and deepen the emotional engagement. It’s a more polished, concise version of what I’ve tried to do with my Hero’s Journey Analyses.
The Technique of Screen and Television Writing – Eugene Vale
This was first published more than 25 years ago and I’m not sure it’s that well known but its chapters on “Anticipation” and “Suspense” I found extremely useful – from page 168 in the first Touchstone Edition.
The Craft of the Screenwriter – John Brady
Features interviews with some of the greatest screenwriters in the film industry including Paddy Chayefsky (Network), William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), Ernest Lehman (The Sound of Music, North by Northwest), Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), Neil Simon (The Goodbye Girl) and Robert Towne (Chinatown).
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter – William Froug
Features interviews with the screenwriters of more recent films including Dan O’Bannon (Alien), Ronald Bass (Rain Man), Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct), Diane Frolov (Northern Exposure)
The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron
Formerly married to Martin Scorsese, Julia is a screenwriter in her own right but she is better known for this manual for Recovering Creatives. She takes you through a 12 step process that helps you reconnect with your inner artist. Full of great quotes like this one from Joseph Chilton Pearce: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong”.
The Uses of Enchantment – Bruno Bettelheim
Bettelheim explains the psychological significance and importance of fairy tales to children. It enhances your understanding of the role of storytelling for the individual and society.
Story – Robert McKee
A lot of screenwriters swear by this book but I doesn’t resonate for me as much as the work of Campbell and Vogler. I find the language overly technical and his story paradigm isn’t nearly as helpful as the Hero’s Journey. However, I include because someone you meet will tell you it’s the Holy Grail.
The Third Act – Drew Yanno
This is a book that looks exclusively at the element of the screenplay that brings most writers to grief; the ending. I found the book useful in the way it identifies the various elements that characterise the final reel of a great screenplay. I just have one major reservation. There is little mention of the character growth that I think is essential in generating emotional power for your audience – what’s defined in Step 11 The Resurrection in the Hero’s Journey. He also mentions Saving Private Ryan a lot and I don’t rate the ending of that film specifically because there is no character growth. But it’s still well worth a read.
The Writer’s Idea Book – Jack Heffron
I came across this book when I was putting together my lesson on Movie Ideas. He takes you through the whole creative process from how to stretch your brain right through to giving shape to your idea. He provides 400 prompts to help kick start things. e.g. “Have a character espouse a viewpoint on life with which you very much disagree, but have the character argue it well, citing examples from her life to buttress her stance. Page 85. A great resource to have on hand when the juices are getting like the Murray-Darling.