Best Screenwriting Books for First-Time Writers
So you want to finally write that screenplay you’ve been dreaming of for years. That’s awesome and you can totally do it! You’ve probably already googled “best screenwriting books” or “how to write a screenplay” which means you know there is a sea of information out there. As if writing wasn’t daunting enough, you can now procrastinate for months while you figure out which resources are the best.
You don’t need me to warn you that it’s going to be hard, and the first draft will probably suck, and you’ll want to quit about ten thousand times. I only say this because I’ve been through it and that was my personal experience. The thing that helped me most was finding the right book to get me through the process. Here at Script Karma we want to help you succeed, so we’ve rounded up what we believe are the best screenwriting books for writers who are sitting down to write a screenplay for the first time.
As a script reader I read a lot of books on screenwriting, take courses on story structure, and attend writer’s conferences. The information overload is awe inspiring and wasn’t super practical when it came to actually writing my first script. When I finally committed to sitting down to write my first screenplay, what I needed was a combination of practical systems to keep me showing up each day and prompts to get me unstuck. Here are what I found to be the most user friendly screenwriting books to help me reach “Fade Out”. I hope they get you one step closer to finishing your script too.
The 90-Day Screenplay by Alan Watt
What I loved most about this book was the 90 day plan. The number one thing that will get your screenplay finished is sitting down every day and writing, even if it is only for 10 minutes. The 90-Day Screenplay walks you through a three month process. Don’t worry you won’t be writing the actual script the whole time. The first month is dedicated to getting to know your characters through free-writes. You’ll also use that time to build out your story arc. I like that the process allows for the ideas to marinate in your mind in between writing sessions. And also, that Alan makes it clear that these are only guidelines which will likely evolve as you start writing scenes.
The back of the book has hundreds of prompt questions which is great for the days you feel stuck. By the time I got to day 45 I was writing my second act and could tell you everything that was wrong with my story but not how to fix it. When I knew I was supposed to write another scene but was stuck for ideas, I turned to the questions section, picked a character and a prompt, and free wrote until an idea for a scene or some dialogue arose. I could then complete my writing for the day and stay on schedule.
This is my go-to book now because it provides a clear day-by-day plan for getting through all stages of writing your first screenplay – research, first draft, and re-write. At the same time it encourages you to be flexible and open to your creative process. It’s the perfect blend of right brain and left brain approaches to a project. The book provides enough information on story structure and writing theory to be helpful to writers of any level, but it doesn’t overwhelm you with information. And it helps you develop your own process, which you can only discover by going through it. Getting your first screenplay written is a huge hurdle to overcome and this book gives you the support and insight needed.
Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder
Save the Cat! has an equal share of fans and haters as you’ll see from the reviews. Some people argue that the traditional Hollywood story structure is dead or at least it should be. I’m not here to argue that point because what is important is that you get your first screenplay written so you can set it aside and write the next one and the next one. If using a formula helps you accomplish that, then use a formula. Besides, you have to know the rules in order to break them well, and you can always change things up in your rewrite. Come on, you didn’t think you were going to bash out a masterpiece in one fell swoop did you?
For a first-time screenplay writer Save the Cat! gives a solid introduction to story structure in an easy to follow format. The book is based on the “beat sheet” and breaks down the Hollywood version of three act structure page by page.
Even if you find the approach a bit formulaic, using the beat sheet is still a strong starting point for laying out the major moments in your script.
Blake guides you through the pre-writing process by having you write your log line (don’t worry he tells you how) and fill out a beat sheet so you understand where your story is headed. Using his notecard system makes it easy to get a visual overview of your story structure and easily move scenes around to see where they work best.
The book is a short, easy read, and great for keeping handy as a reference while you’re doing your daily writing.If you’re looking for a streamlined, practical guide to get your through your first draft, then Save the Cat! is a strong choice.
Cut to the Chase by UCLA Extension Writers' Program
For those of you who will fight the structure of a daily plan with every fiber of your being, here is my top pick in the inspirational yet helpful category of books on screenwriting. The first thing that drew me to Cut to the Chase was the esteemed list of authors. In one book you have access to guidance from dozens of industry experts who teach at one of the best screenwriting programs around, the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
The topics are laid out in an order that follows the screenplay format so you can start at the beginning and work your way through as you write. But I know you’re a rebel so you can also jump around to whatever topic interests you or will be helpful to what you are writing that day. This book is useful for writers at all levels, so while the story material may be the most helpful to you as you work on your first screenplay, the more advanced concepts can help you later on. And this book also has sections on the actual business of getting your work sold and produced which makes it a great one to have on your shelf for years to come.