Book larnin’

Last week, one of my fellow bloggers expressed interest in screenwriting and wondered if I could recommend any good books to help him navigate this format of storytelling, and I promised to do it in a future blog post…well, guess what?

To be honest, my first piece of advice to anyone interested in getting into screenwriting would be to simply tell your story in whatever format comes easiest to you. Because, as I’ve said in a previous post, the most important thing is story. No matter how well formatted your screenplay, if your story doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

Okay, that soap box being out of the way, my next advice is to take a class in screenwriting, because no matter how much you think you’ll write, there is nothing like the pressure of a deadline for 10 more pages to keep you motivated. And ultimately, until you’ve heard your pages read out loud, you have no idea if you’re getting your thoughts across or using the right words.

So now, on to books. There are few really good books to tell you what a script should look like, so I recommend you simply try to get your hands on several different scripts, whether film or television (although pick your preferred medium, because there are differences in presentation). There are several places on the Internet where you can get free scripts (and when I remember what they are, I will tell you), but for those with a couple of bucks to spare, I highly recommend Planet MegaMall for their breadth of scripts that you can purchase rather cheaply.

No one book will give you everything you need, so I recommend sitting in a bookstore and perusing as many books as possible to see which one fulfills some unconscious need today. Then, repeat the process several weeks later, because your unconscious needs will have changed.

For the best understanding of story as a whole, you can’t go wrong with Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Using mythic structure, Vogler breaks down story into its key components and then contextualizes those concepts using popular movies. Knowing almost nothing about screenwriting, I wrote my first screenplay using these elements as a template.

To get more into the structure and execution of screenplays and plots, then Linda Cowgill’s The Art of Plotting is very good. Written very approachably, Cowgill goes through the fundamentals of a good plot (e.g., conflict, character, action) and helps you understand where your story may be faltering or be improved.

A little more into character and how character changes through the screenplay, Dara Marks’ Inside Story helps you understand the concept of theme, which will lead you to better understand the motivations of your characters. In a similar vein is Stanley Williams’ The Moral Premise, which examines how opposing forces within and between your characters will move them forward in your story and more importantly, make them much richer.

Somewhere between individual scenes and broader acts of a screenplay are sequences, which one of my instructors described as being equivalent to book chapters where a single idea is explored before moving to the next one. Paul Joseph Gulino’s Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach is your guide here, helping you pull your scenes together into the right order.

And the chief poobah of screenwriting books is Robert McKee’s Story. I was actually afraid of getting this book for quite some time as people warned me that reading it too early would make me too intimidated to keep writing. I can see where they were going, but it’s not that McKee’s writing is difficult to follow, it’s more that he talks about a huge variety of topics. Suddenly, you realize how many balls you’re juggling when you’re writing a screenplay.

Ellen Sandler’s The TV Writer’s Handbook is a great step-by-step, but you have to do the exercises to make it worth it. Pamela Douglas’s Writing The TV Drama Series is a little dated but still gives a fantastic overview of hour-long programs, spending the bulk of its time on how to break down and analyze a program, before it gets into actually writing an episode.

Scott Sedita’s The Eight Characters of Comedy is an interesting analysis of comedic archetypes in sitcoms. Written more from an actor’s perspective, it still offers valuable insights to the writer trying to understand or create characters. And finally, Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis’s Show Me The Funny offers amazing insights into how the minds of comedy writers work, but even more importantly, shows you that no two people will develop the same story from the same premise…so don’t sweat starting with cliché ideas.

That’s a lot for a first kick…I hope you find something in here to get you started.

5 thoughts on “Book larnin’

  1. Don’t know if it’s in print anymore, but I highly recommend Paul Lucey’s STORY SENSE. Does a great job of explaining the basics.

    • Thanks for the suggestion…I’ll have to see if I can find it.

      The nice thing about living in downtown Toronto is there is a bookstore around the corner specializing in theatre and film, and a hundred second-hand bookstores within walking distance.

  2. There used to be a great showbiz bookstore here in SF, but they’ve since closed, but there are a handful of fantastic ones for new and used.

    I’ve since cleared out a majority of the books I’ve accumulated over the years, holding on to maybe 4 or 5 I still consider helpful and/or necessary. And to be honest, I always thought McKee and STORY were pretty overrated.

    • I like McKee, but I appreciate what you’re saying about the reverence in which he and the book are held. For good or bad, I am automatically cautious when I am presented with any author/expert whose name is spoken in hushed tones.

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