Aspiring writers often ask me how they can learn to write screenplays. The broadest answer is to work really hard at it. Do your homework and put in the time.
In more specific terms, read screenplays, read books about screenwriting, and watch movies with an eye towards scene structure, overall structure, pacing, plot twists and turns, character development, themes, and setups and payoffs.
Find fellow screenwriters and swap feedback with them. If you have the budget for it, take classes and pay for professional mentors and instructors to give you screenplay feedback. Be hungry for constructive criticism, and be even hungrier to improve.
When you finish a rough draft, understand that you aren’t even close to being done with it. Revise and revise again and then revise some more. If it’s still not fabulous, kill your darlings and do a page 1 rewrite. Or possibly scrap the whole thing and move on to a new story. Some of the things you write, especially early in your writing career, are simply meant to be learning experiences. It’s okay to send something to the screenplay graveyard. Just make sure that you aren’t quitting due to lack of persistence or out of boredom spawned from repetition. Because yes, it can get boring to work on improving the same story over and over when you have new ideas you’d love to develop instead. Remember that great writers are determined workhorses, and they stick with their stories. Meanwhile, amateur writers get distracted by shiny, new ideas and spend time talking about writing but don’t actually do very much real writing and revising.
Also, keep in mind that getting distance from your own stories is important, so if you feel stuck (or even if you don’t), set aside the screenplay for days, weeks, or months – sometimes even years. Return to it with fresh eyes and work on it again. This will give you a new perspective.
With all of that in mind, here’s a list of the top screenwriting books that I recommend to anyone who wants to be a screenwriter:
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (and follow-up books Save the Cat Strikes Back and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies) – This is the first book I recommend that new writers read, because it’s a fun, fast, conversational read that provides an easy explanation of screenplay structure and how to develop characters within those parameters. Some might argue that the plot structure presented in this book is too cookie cutter, but the point is that once you fully grasp how to effectively use the classic moviemaking mold that has always worked, you can begin to bend and break those rules as needed. But first things first: Learn the rules.
The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier – This really is the bible. While it covers some aspects of storytelling, it mostly functions as an essential reference for screenplay formatting and industry expectations. Someday, you’re going to be sitting in front of your keyboard wanting to intercut a phone conversation between one character in a car and another in house while a pre-lap of music starts for the next scene that takes place on a yacht and needs a title stating “Greece.” That’s when you’ll pull out Trottier’s book to make sure you’re doing it correctly. New editions are consistently released, so be sure you get a current version.
Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make it Great by William W. Akers – This book is organized as a checklist of 100 things you need to do (or avoid) to make sure your screenplay doesn’t suck. Some of the points will be especially useful to you as you’re making later passes in your revision process, including tips on how to trim down your action descriptions and make your character voices sound different.
Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias – This book goes beyond basics and explores how to craft complex characters that viewers will feel empathy for. It emphasizes how important it is to create intrigue within your story that keeps viewers curious and engaged. It is best read after you have a decent foundation of the screenwriting craft.
Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald – This book explores deeper layers of screenwriting and how to emphasize your story’s themes in subtle ways. This one is also best read after you have a decent foundation of the screenwriting craft.
Elephant Bucks by Sheldon Bull – From the writer and producer of TV shows such as Newhart, Coach, and Mom, this book is about writing sitcoms, but it’s a really great read for anyone who wants to write comedy in any format. There’s a reason that sitcoms remain popular today even as the landscape of television and movies continues to shift dramatically, and that’s because good sitcom writing is hilarious. This book completely breaks down how to write jokes and create comedic setups and payoffs. You’ll never view sitcoms in the same manner.
The Eight Characters of Comedy by Scott Sedita – This is a good book to read along with Elephant Bucks if you’re interested in comedy writing. At first glance it might seem formulaic to claim that there are only eight characters of comedy, but as you study the examples, you start to realize that there really are eight characters of comedy. Yes, of course some characters are complex and can overlap into multiple character types, but the point is that once you understand the basic character types, you can get creative from there.
Writing the Thriller Film by Neill D. Hicks – Pivoting to another genre, this book was one of the first screenwriting books I ever read, and it really helped me get a better grasp on how to write a thriller.
Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon – From the screenwriters behind box office hits such as Night at the Museum and The Pacifier, this book is more about being a financially successful screenwriter in Hollywood than it is about writing. It’s a hilarious, bawdy, tongue-in-cheek, illuminating look into the ridiculousness of the Hollywood machine.
Good luck and get writing!
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, film producer, and editor. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.