Friday, October 1, 2010

My Top 5 Screenwriting Book Recommendations

I get a couple of e-mails every week asking for which screenwriting books I recommend and this post was always popular, so I'm bringing it back and in classic Hollywood fashion, I'm reimagining the article. That's the way you do it these days. You don't make sequels. You "reimagine." We'll start with the best book and work our way down. 

I love this book. "The Sequence Approach" sounds overly complicated and I remember initially rating it as "advanced," but the more I think about it, the more I realize just how simple the methods they teach are. The idea is that you break your script into 8 easily manageable chunks as opposed to three huge acts. As a result, you're never lost and always focused. It dissects popular scripts like Toy Story and The Fellowship Of The Ring, giving you real-life examples of how the method works. It's also the method they teach at USC. Now just like any approach, I don't think you should follow it to a "T." But for any writer who gets lost in that second act, this book teaches you how to control your screenplay instead of letting it control you. 

I remember first reading this book. It felt like I had stumbled upon a goldmine. Basically, Breakfast With Sharks prepares you for the actual inner workings of Hollywood - what happens when you have that first call or first meeting with a producer who likes your work. What's your next step? What's the protocol? How do you turn these meetings into opportunities? For example, the book points out why a producer or manager is meeting with you and what their motivations may be. It teaches you that, before you leave, you should ask what kind of projects the company is developing and if you can have a crack at one. That simple question could lead to your first professional assignment. It preps you for what to bring to the meetings as well so you're fully prepared (3 screenplay pitches outside of the one you're meeting about for starters).  Shane Carruth of Primer fame openly admits blowing it after the success of his film.  He didn't know he was supposed to pitch ideas in meetings, and subsequently sat through all of them smiling, satisfied just to be there.  Meetings are OPPORTUNITIES for business.  This book teaches you this and many other tips. 

Save the Cat! is the most popular screenwriting book ever written. And there's a reason for that. Snyder writes in a fun non-technical way that makes screenwriting accessible. And for the most part, he does it well. If you're near the beginning of your screenwriting career and are writing a high concept comedy, an action piece, a family film, or any sort of summer blockbuster, you absolutely have to read this book. Dramas, horror, and anything weird or different (i.e. Pulp Fiction), aren't really Snyder's thing, so if that's your forte, you probably want to let this cat die.

Writing Screenplays That Sell has so much great advice in it. The downside is that it reads more like a text book than, say, the fun breezy Save The Cat!. But this book taught me more about character than any screenwriting book I've ever read. This is for intermediate screenwriters with strong attention spans and plenty of patience. If that's you, pick this up. 

500 Ways To Beat The Hollywood Script Reader has been around forever and the reason for that is, it's a great book. If you like my "What I Learned" sections, you're going to eat this up, as all it is is a series of 500 tips on how to write a better screenplay, and almost every one of them is true. Not only is this a great read, but it's a fast one.

I hate Robert McKee's Story. I mean I really hate it. I've tried to read it twice now and both times I wasn't able to make it through. If "Writing Screenplays That Sell" is a text book, this is a text mountain translated into Chinese and back again, run through the Matrix, shipped to Bosnia, then faxed back on smudgy paper and re-translated in html. There's a reason they made fun of McGee in Adaptation.  Despite this, there are people who SWEAR BY THIS BOOK and think it's the screenwriting bible.  I have no idea why but it definitely has its fans.