Sunday, December 11, 2011

The best screenwriting books

Professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin recently spoke in a podcast about the helpfulness of screenwriting books, concluding that such books are not necessarily detrimental to your development as a screenwriter, but cannot replace analysis of actual screenplays and films. John & Craig also cautioned against any book (or consultant or "guru") trying to boil screenwriting down to an overly simple, one-size-fits-all formula. (I agree that despite the psychological appeal, there is no quick scheme or solution to writing a script.) Also problematic is that many book writers and seminar organizers have few or no produced credits, leading Craig to believe that many of them operate in bad faith.

However, I think that a commenter on John's blog made the valid point that John and Craig may have trouble remembering what it's like to be an inexperienced, aspiring writer. They throw out phrases like "first act" and "midpoint," expecting that we know what they mean. Craig also suggested that a pile of books would cost about $80, forgetting about libraries. Did you know that for zero dollars, the County of Los Angeles Public Library system lets you reserve books (from their network of 88 libraries) online and emails you when they're ready to be picked up at your local branch? (Strangely, there is also an entirely separate City of Los Angeles library network.) As a cash-strapped girl who often gets stuck on a diet of whatever's left at the back of the freezer, I've found the library to be quite beneficial - and the brand new West Hollywood branch is also a gorgeous, free writing space.

John suggested that unlike screenwriting gurus who hold expensive seminars, college professors teach screenwriting in good faith. Let's look at one example: NYU currently costs $41,606 a year for tuition, room and board. So if you go for four years of undergrad, that's $166,424 for a film degree. If you move to LA after school and get an assistant job that pays $25,000 a year, I bet you'll have a pretty tough time paying off your student loans. I actually got into NYU and really wanted to go, but even with financial aid, loans, work study and a $13,000/yr merit scholarship, I was told I would still need to come up with $20,000 a year. (Apparently, I was supposed to have this on hand in a Walter White duffel bag somewhere). I'm not saying professors aren't teaching in good faith - I loved many of my IC professors, and it's not like they're pocketing gobs of cash while selling superfluous services to writers - but private film schools aren't cheap. For financial or other reasons, many writers get interested in screenwriting after college and don't know where to turn for guidance. You can start reading professional scripts (and you should), but you might not know exactly what you're looking for. Sure, some screenwriting books are complete crap, but I think books can be useful in getting you to think about screenwriting in new ways. I figure that if you learn just one helpful thing from a book, panel, blog, interview, etc., it's worth it. I certainly feel that my knowledge of and approach to screenwriting are things I've compiled from hundreds of things I've read, heard and watched.

The important thing to remember is that there is no quick fix to your writing - or your career. I often write complex notes to people and see them write back, "So, if I just switch this scene and this scene, it'll fix everything?" Facepalm. No! I just wanted you to think about your script in a new way. Often, we think of character arcs in movies as lessons character need to learn...but Like Crazy (my constant example, sorry!) made me see the arc as a study of how characters can become drastically different by the end of a movie. It's not about Felicity Jones learning to follow international visa rules, or even whether she and Anton Yelchin will stay together; it's about the fact that they will never again be the people we saw in the opening scene. The transformation is heartbreaking.

As far as careers go, people also send me emails like, "So, I just need to enter a fellowship and then I'll be good?" Facepalm again. There is no quick fix to your career. You need to write something great and get someone important to read it (and like it) - and unfortunately, both of those things entail multiple attempts, tactics and false starts. As Craig noted in the podcast, our psychological desire for certainty and simplicity is understandable - but you won't find it in a Hollywood career.

So, back to the screenwriting books. I've read many of them, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is definitely my favorite. You may criticize the book for demanding that screenplays adhere to a super-strict structure, but it's been a very useful tool for me. It was the first book that made me think, "Okay, this makes sense. I can do this," rather than intimidating me with lofty thoughts about the hero's journey. (But hey, read about that too!) Also, I tend to write things based on characters I love or lines of dialogue that pop into my head - and that can make me want to ignore structure. Blake's book forced me to focus on structure, in addition to giving me a practical framework for analyzing scripts and films. I have printed out the BS beat sheet and used it to break down dozens of movies. Now when I'm struggling with a midpoint, I can flip through my binder of breakdowns and look at how 15 similar movies dealt with midpoints. In Legally Blonde, the midpoint is when Reese stops trying to win back Warner and starts trying to exonerate Ali Larter. At The Holiday's midpoint, Cameron Diaz finds out that Jude Law has kids and isn't some deceptive womanizer. Both can inspire you to think about your script's beats in a new way.

Below are some of the most popular screenwriting books. If you'd prefer to buy copies so you can refer back to them later instead of borrowing them from a library, I've included Amazon links.
Save the Cat! The Last Book You'll Ever Need on Screenwriting by Blake Snyder
Save the Cat Strikes Back
Save the Cat Goes to the Movies
Story by Robert McKee
Screenplay by Syd Field
The following aren't specifically books about writing, but are fun and informative books about the industry:
Small Screen, Big Picture by Chad Gervich
Billion Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson's Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff
Hello He Lied by Lynda Obst
Writing Movies For Fun & Profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant
The Mailroom by David Rensin
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Feel free to comment about any screenwriting books or TV writing books you've found helpful!

Also, a quick note about my script consulting. In the podcast, Craig theorized that many script consultants start notes services because of underemployment. True! The production companies, festivals and contests I read for simply don't send me enough work to add up to an entire income. If I only needed one job, I wouldn't have five. But I like to think that my prices convey that I'm not doing this in bad faith; I'm simply making a fair and modest hourly rate. I never try to up-sell people, and I'm honest about shows I haven't watched or genres I don't like. Do I give encouragement to people whose scripts need a ton of work? Sure...but I'm also honest about whether their work would be taken seriously by professionals, and I acknowledge that we all have to start somewhere. Some of those who have asked for my notes are attempting their first scripts, and I evaluate them as such. Whether you think I'm qualified enough to offer notes is completely up to you, and I don't begrudge anyone who would rather go to someone with more than four years of professional reading experience. Most aspiring writers turn to their friends for free notes, and if those notes plus studious analysis of real scripts are enough for you, great! However, some people (in LA or otherwise) have complained to me that their friends only give feedback like "I like it" and "cool." I can't give you a simple quick fix for your script, but I can be more specific than that.


Greg M said...

Blake Synder's "Save the Cat" is fantastic and invaluable, as is "Billion Dollar Kiss," which was available on amazon for around $4 last time I checked. Chad's book is great too.

For those who are considering Amanda's services: Amanda's notes are excellent, as someone who's been the beneficiary of them.

olafolaf said...

Here are lesser known books that were REALLY helpful to me:

Jack Ryan: Screenwriting from the Heart
Linda Cowgill: The Art of Plotting

Of great help (and self insight) were
psychological studies on "temperament"
especially the "Kersey" approach.

odocoileus said...

Did you know that for zero dollars, the County of Los Angeles Public Library system lets you reserve books (from their network of 88 libraries) online and emails you when they're ready to be picked up at your local branch? (Strangely, there is also an entirely separate City of Los Angeles library network.)

Nothing strange about it. The LA city system serves the city of Los Angeles only. It's one of the biggest library systems in the country and it carries just about every screenwriting, filmmaking and acting book released in the past fifty years.

The County system serves everywhere in LA county not covered by a local library system.

So Culver City and We Ho both have county libraries, but Santa Monica, Burbank, Glendale, and Pasadena all have their own independent systems.

Amanda said...

@odocoileus - I find it strange that we have two separate systems (requiring separate memberships) that cover overlapping geographical areas. Wouldn't it be simpler just to have one?

Pliny The Elder said...

For anyone who's finished at least one draft of a movie, get yourself a copy of The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson. So much better than anything else out there, and it's not even close.

Sam said...

Alex Epstein's book Crafty TV Writing was invaluable to me when I first started writing specs. If you're going the TV route, I'd highly recommend it.

Max said...

I'm a big fan of William Goldman's two books, Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? They're more about being a screenwriter and less about writing, but they're still very much worth reading.

I haven't read it yet, but Desperate Networks by Bill Carter was recommended to me recently, about working in network television. On the feature development side, though, I can recommend The Hollywood Economist by Edward Epstein.

And even though it's not strictly about writing, Sydney's Lumet's Making Movies should be required reading for everyone in Hollywood. Best book on filmmaking IMO.

Chris Ming said...

Nice post -- I absolutely agree that whether you take a book's advice about structure or heroic arcs or inciting incidents verbatim, the important takeaway is the ability to analyze and break down your own scripts in different ways.

Not a book (though she has one) a great resource is Pilar Alessandra's podcasts. They're free on iTunes, and they've been offering me nuggets of wisdom ever since I moved out to LA about a year ago. I've taken a few of her classes too, which are wonderful.

Nathan said...

Good post. First time reader here--I like yo style.

"Both can inspire you to think about your script's beats in a new way."

Hit the nail on the head. You see your project from a different angle. And beginning at a certain skill level, it doesn't hurt to be continually absorbing everything you can. Sometimes a problem won't fully register until you run into it yourself, and its nice to have somewhere to turn when it happens.

I think there is a place for screenwriting books--but the ultimate takeaway is nothing can trump putting in the work.

I'll throw two more that I found useful into the mix:

Alternative Screenwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules


In The Blink of An Eye, Walter Murch

The second is an editing book, but I still found it really useful for writing. A lot of the same principles apply to both.

Karel said...

Great post, Amanda.

I dig John August but Craig Mazin is really a bit of a whinger who doesn't like anyone or anything.

Some people prefer to learn from books, others from people, yet others directly from the scripts and movies. Why doesn't Craig acknowledge this?

I know a few consistently successful screenwriters who are quite happy with the services of their script consultant.

I'm also fed up with the argument that whoever hasn't written a successful script can't give advice.

Consultants need to have a sharp analytical mind. Teachers need to be able to communicate well. Neither need to be (good) writers.

BzzBeeLife said...

As a newb just starting on my first spec script, I found Elephant Bucks by Sheldon Bull to be extremely helpful.

It spends a good amount of time discussing outlining which helped me quite a bit in getting that initial story line in my head fleshed out on paper.

Amisha said...

"The TV Writer's Workbook" by Ellen Sandler, writer for Everybody Loves Raymond among other hit shows, gives great practical advice on breaking down scripts, how to get the right notes and structure and brainstorming for story.