5 Must-Read Books About Screenwriting… and What I Learned From Them

By Mathew Allen

There are countless books out there about screenwriting. Each has its good and bad points, but I figured I’d give you a run-down of the best, most useful things I learned from reading many of them. In this case, I’m gonna focus on five (as that’s a catchy number) and try to save you some time in terms of having to read the whole things:

1. Story by Robert McKee

This has gotta be the most famous book on screenwriting. And there’s a ton of great stuff in it. But the two biggest take-aways I garnered were a) what constitutes a three-dimensional character and b) that there are basically two kinds of movies. To make a three-dimensional character, McKee argues, you merely have to show them behaving differently in different settings or with different people. And the two kinds of movies (he lists more, but these are the main ones) are what he calls “Arcplot” and “Miniplot”: Arcplot is what most Hollywood films are, and consists of a main character with a clear, outer goal; Miniplot, on the other hand, is more artsy—about passive characters looking inside themselves for redemption. It’s important to know which kind of movie you’re writing.

2. Screenplay by Syd Field

Syd Field is kind of the father of the genre (the genre of books about screenwriting, that is). And so he says much of the same as those who came after him. But one thing really stood out for me in his book: he said that, to make a character interesting, one good technique is to give them a philosophy about life (i.e. have them articulate a unique worldview). This particularly helps in terms of making bad guys memorable and empathetic.

3. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder

Blake Snyder is almost unique among screenwriting gurus in the sense that he was a successful writer in his own right. Like the others, he has a lot to say, but the one thing he really added to the discipline (at least from my point of view) is the concept of what he calls “Fun and Games”. Fun and Games is the stuff that happens at the beginning of the second act that is kind of the core of the movie. Snyder also calls it “the promise of the premise”. And so it’s important to think of what scenes you’d want in the trailer for your movie, and make sure they happen somewhere between the 25% and 50% marks.

4. Inside Story by Dana Marks

Dana Marks is far less famous than the others, but no less valuable. I first heard of Marks as Miles Teller (of Whiplash fame) had given her a rave review. What McKee did in terms of taking away the mystery surrounding what exactly three-dimensionality means, Marks did in terms of demystifying the ever-elusive character arc. In short, she prescribes having the character start to achieve their inner need (i.e. overcome a character flaw) at the Midpoint (i.e. 50% mark) and then complete that growth at the climax of the film.

5. Scriptshadow Secrets by Carson Reeves

Last but not least is another, less famous screenwriting guru: Carson Reeves. Reeves lists 500 screenwriting secrets, but the one that really stood out for me was the need for ticking clocks. This may seem like common sense, but strangely, many of the greats fail to either mention the issue or go into it in any great detail. And what is a ticking clock, you ask? It’s some chronological device like a deadline, approaching enemy, or metastasizing disease that explains why the characters have to do what they’re doing right now. And fast. Without a ticking clock, a script lacks a sense of urgency and runs the risk of falling flat.

So, now you don’t have to read the books! But please don’t tell anyone I told you…