The Five Best Screenwriting Books

Aug 7, 2023 | Screenplays and Screenwriting

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How Screenplays Work

Screenwriting, like most skills, is best learned through the difficult process of doing. You have to write a screenplay, probably many, before your work potentially reaches that professional level of quality. Experience really is the best teacher. A fledgling screenwriter can, with some study, help aid their acquisition of skill by reading books on the craft. There are a lot of books you can read, but these are the best screenwriting books in my estimation. 

Aside from an education based on writing and reading, a fledgling screenwriter can, of course, learn a whole lot by watching. Movies are a fantastic point of inspiration and demonstration of the screenwriting craft. I learned how to write, I believe, from watching great movies (and watching them over and over again). But there is one thing you must take note of – as a writer, you must watch great movies as a part of your screenwriting education with your eyes wide open.

What specifically do I mean? I think you need to recognize that a finished movie has taken the screenplay through a number of filters: the actor’s performance, the director’s direction and editing. There are a lot of changes between page and screen (which are deserving of their own blog). 

A caveat before you dive into the list I’m about to provide. A lot of what you will find here are what you might call “older texts”. That’s because I sincerely believe that, while tastes and styles change, what makes a good story largely remains the same through generations. The best screenwriting books stand the test of time. If you would like a list of newer books, I’d be happy to provide one to you, but these are the bottom line best books for teaching you the fundamentals.

A List Of The Best Screenwriting Books

erick mertz writing, best screenwriting books

“Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” by Blake Snyder

For my money, this is the best screenwriting book for any writer looking to hone their approach to the craft of writing. Followed by a series of similar “Save The Cat” titles, the original book breaks screenplays down into a convenient and intuitively structured beat sheet. Snyder essentially dissects the one hundred pages in a conventional screenplay and reveals what should happen on every single one. 


“Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee

McKee is one of the genuine titans of storytelling education. For generations, he has made his mark on writers young and old, influencing them with his take on how to write a screenplay. This book is a massive tome, filled with examples, often citing classic movies. If you’re new to the craft, this is one of the best screenwriting books you can read. 


“Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field

Similar to McKee, Syd Field’s name has been attached to screenwriting for a long time. Field’s book, slimmer than McKee, offers a more concise view on the process. He dispenses with the volume of examples that Story runs out, focusing on the internal rhythms of how a story is told.  


“The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler

For those looking to get a little deeper, Vogler’s book connects the modern craft of screenwriting to humanity’s earlier, round-the-campfire past. We told stories to one another long before the big screen and this book allows writers a connection to deeper impulses. I was late to this book, but in the five years since I picked it up, I’ve been able to derive inspiration from its admiration for mythology. 


best screenwriting books

“On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King

Not explicitly a screenwriting book, Stephen King is a novelist and master storyteller whose sage advice on the subject should not be ignored. Instead of talking about formula and structure, King explores the writer’s temperament, their orientations, how one cultivates the writer within. 


The Best Screenwriting Books… A Bonus

“The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script” by David Trottier

I would be remiss to leave this one out. Basic formatting can be such a barrier to young writers, finding the blank page, awaiting slug lines, action blocks and dialog, intimidating. I’ll admit – even now, twenty years into my journey, I still get a little shaky when it comes to formatting. There are so many wrinkles and nuances and, considering modern developments like text messaging and Zoom screens, it’s nice to have something rock solid to rely on. Trottier’s book is that volume you can trust. 


Where To Look For The Next Screenwriting Books

There are always new screenwriting books coming out. I go to writer’s conferences and see them stacked at the sale tables. Writers and coaches are always searching for new ways to work with writers to better understand and master their craft.

In my personal study, I try to read three to four books on craft every year.

These books are only a starter. Writing screenplays is ultimately a starting point for selling screenplays and, for that reason, your next course could be on the business (although, considering how fast things change in the business, I would argue, the best screenwriting books for business and marketing are actually blogs and social media).

Some great titles here might be “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!” by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon and “Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting” by William Goldman. These are older books, describing an older version of the business, but they are a lot of fun. 

If you are focused on breaking into a specific genre, say science fiction, rom-com or thriller, your best path may be to read books specifically focused there. There are the rules of writing a screenplay in general but there are also rules specific to certain genres. When I was writing horror screenplays, I read numerous books on the conventions and demands of that specific genre. 

Whatever your path, I recommend you start by writing. Write the first draft of your first screenplay and then, when you’re done with that, start another. In the midst of that trial and error though, do the next best thing. Watch movies and read. Read widely from the best screenwriting books.