8 min read

12 Best Screenwriting Books for Writing Great Screenplays

William Ellis
November 20, 2022

Whether aiming for the top or just getting started, these books will teach you to write better screenplays. We break these books down and give you a realistic look at the best on the market today that can catapult your skills to the top when applied and practiced consistently.

It is said that filmmaking is a team sport, where each player has their part to play. If this is true, the screenwriter is the one who is making the team's playbook. Screenwriters are arguably just as important as the director of a film, with some saying the screenwriter can be more important.

Becoming a screenwriter, especially in the Hollywood system, is difficult. 

How difficult is it?

Only 0.3% of submitted screenplays get turned into movies.

If you want to become a screenwriter, then you need to have the right tools and know-how. Without the right skill set, you will just be another dime-a-dozen writer working from home dreaming about “someday.”

If you take screenwriting seriously and want to take your skills to the next level, or if you are a person who is just starting to dip your toes into screenwriting, then you need the right resources. 

How do I become a screenwriter?

To become a screenwriter, you need to know more than how to write a screenplay. You’ll need to learn story structure, character development, creative writing, script formatting, finding a mentor, building connections, and working with professionals to improve your screenwriting.

Taking things even further than that, writing a screenplay that will sell to a production company to be made into a film is more difficult.

Writing creatively and writing commercially are two entirely different disciplines. Here are some important aspects of each discipline and the screenwriting books that will help you master them.

How to write a screenplay

Writing a screenplay can be a purely creative and artistic endeavor. In some ways, it can be less time-consuming than writing a novel and possibly more fun. Writing a screenplay can be a bit like solving a puzzle because there are so many parts to be considered. One must consider the story itself, the flow of the narrative, and even the page count.

When you write a script, you must respect the format itself. Beyond that, you are a screenwriter so long as you see your script through, from generating the idea to the end of the writing process.

How to write a screenplay that will sell

Writing a screenplay as a purely creative exercise is one thing. Writing a screenplay that will sell to a production company is almost an entirely different discipline. Some argue that putting an emphasis on selling the script before beginning the writing process is a callous endeavor. However, many screenwriters will tell you that not factoring this into the writing process is a mistake.

By considering what it will take to sell your script, you become more empathetic to the audience's wants and needs. When you are empathetic to your audience's wants and needs, you are better able to not only cater to them but give them things they may not even be aware that they want in a film.

What are the best books on screenwriting?

If you take screenwriting seriously and want to take your skills to the next level, or if you are a person who is just starting to dip your toes into screenwriting, then you need the right resources. 

Here are the best screenwriting books and what each one has to offer you.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder

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At the start of this list, we have one of the most divisive books on screenwriting to ever be published. Save the Cat! is both famous and infamous because it is designed to not only help you write a screenplay but to write a screenplay that has commercial appeal.

Commercial appeal may seem somewhat cynical for a creative to want their work to have, but it needs to be considered if you want to write films that get made. Save the Cat! is designed to teach essential but simple concepts that many successful screenplays have in common.

Many writers have lambasted Save the Cat for what many feel is a promotion of formulaic structures and an over-reliance on making characters “likable”. However, if you are a writer who wants to try and go where the money is or are simply starting your screenwriting journey, it is a fine starting point.

Story by Robert McKee

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Robert McKee is a similarly divisive figure in the world of screenwriting. Robert McKee has spoken to upwards of 50,000 people on the art of screenwriting and storytelling, and yet he has never had a film of one of his scripts made. That hasn't stopped numerous major studios, including Paramount, from sending their talent to his screenwriting seminars.

McKee breaks the screenwriting process down into principles—principles that both his critics and McKee himself will tell you have been around for thousands of years. 

McKee advocates the three-act structure, using conflict to reveal character and taking influence from the films that inspire you. The methods and principles McKee promotes are not new, but they work.

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman

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William Goldman is one of the most respected screenwriters of all time. Most know him for writing The Princess Bride, (both the novel and the screenplay) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

This book offers less in the way of screenwriting advice (although there is plenty of that to be had) and more in helping the reader learn to navigate the Hollywood system as a screenwriter.

There are several nuggets of wisdom in the book, but perhaps the most important is this: “nobody knows anything.” For some, that may be a fairly discouraging statement, while others may find it encouraging, as it means the playing field in the film industry is higher than some would think.

Screenplay by Syd Field

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The art of screenplay writing has been around for over a century, yet one of the earliest works of literature devoted to the screenwriting craft was published in the 70s by Syd Field. 

The screenplay is a rather by-the-numbers take on teaching screenwriting, focusing on the three-act structure, how to make the first ten pages grab the reader's attention, and even legal advice on protecting one's rights over their work. However, its age and approach are a testament to the longevity of the advice it contains.

If you are a budding screenwriter and need a good first book to give you a strong foundation, then Screenplay by Syd Field will give you what you need. This complete guide remains the gold standard, even forty years after its original publication.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant

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The art of filmmaking is serious business...unless you're Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant. This book is less of a book on the tenets of writing a screenplay and more a memoir of how absurd filmmaking can often be.

There are some genuine nuggets of wisdom to be had, but above all, it should help a writer loosen up before returning to the keyboard. Best of all, it gives tips on how you can pitch your work once you are finished at the keyboard.

Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect by Claudia Hunter Johnson

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One of the most important things a screenplay must do is connect with its reader. If your work does not connect with your reader, then it will not connect with audiences when it is on the big screen. The focus of this book is to teach the reader how to craft scripts with dramatic writing that can connect with audiences on an emotional level.

In addition to a full screenplay (in this case, Barry Jenkins' film Moonlight), there are techniques, guides, and exercises. By the time you finish this book, you will be able to craft emotionally effective screenplays of any length.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a book that is rooted that there are no new ideas under the sun. More specifically, in the belief that the conventions of storytelling are ancient and that all stories, particularly heroic journeys, follow similar archetypes and story beats.

The ideas in this book may seem dated and counter-intuitive to nurturing creativity, but the truth is that many successful works have come about from following it. Unarguably the most successful example of a film inspired by The Hero With a Thousand Faces is Star Wars

Star Wars wears its influences on its sleeves, and if the advice and knowledge contained in The Hero With a Thousand Faces is good enough for Star Wars, then it should certainly be good enough for any screenwriter.

Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge

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Michael Hauge is a creative script and story consultant. He has worked with just about every major studio in Hollywood, and many of the top movie stars in the industry, such as Julia Roberts, Will Smith, and Morgan Freeman. So when Michael Hauge wants to tell you how to write a screenplay that will sell, he knows what he's talking about.

This book will give you tips for every step of the screenwriting process, from brainstorming to selling. As much as he tells you what you need to do, he also tells you what you need to not do based on his experience of what causes a script to fail

There's even an analysis of the script for James Cameron's Avatar and how it became (until recently) the highest-grossing film of all time.

The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley

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Most of the books featured here either focus on creativity or on the business side of selling a script. This screenwriting book by Christopher Riley is about meeting and maintaining professional standards, particularly where formatting is concerned.

This book is a veritable screenwriter’s bible on properly formatting your screenplay to strict and correct standards. It also serves as a guide for conducting oneself professionally in the film industry. 

The title “The Hollywood Standard” applies not only to your writing but to your conduct, which can sometimes make the difference between a script that gets sold and a script that is left by the wayside.

150 Screenwriting Challenges by Eric Heisserer

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You can read books about how to write screenplays all day, but unless you sit down and write something, you cannot truly call yourself a screenwriter. Fortunately, this screenwriting book will give you all the inspiration you need to start.

The great thing about this book is not that it encourages you to write a completed screenplay or write a screenplay that sells. The goal is to get you writing screenplays. 

With 150 challenges to take on, you are essentially training yourself to be a better writer through the sheer force of writing more and more. This book is great if you are a writer in the middle of a face-off with writer's block, or if you are a novice with no idea where to start.

Finish the Script! by Scott King

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If you want a book that focuses less on theory and more on the nitty-gritty details of writing, then this is the book for you. Author Scott King treats his book as an accelerated college course on screenwriting.

The book goes through each step of the writing process, embracing just how messy one's first draft can be. 

This is not a book about chasing perfection. Instead, it is a book about crossing the finish line on a project in a limited time. It is about accepting that a messy first draft is better than the “perfect” first draft you keep inside your head.

The Coffee Break Screenwriter by Pilar Alessandra

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One of the biggest appeals of the screenplay format is that, more often than not, a screenplay takes less time to write than a novel. However, if you are not already a professional screenwriter, you may find it hard to navigate the daily grind, let alone try to set aside time to write. Fortunately, this screenwriting book has a solution for that.

This book emphasizes writing your screenplay ten minutes at a time, about as long as it takes to have a coffee break. The purpose is to break down what can sometimes be an intimidating task into smaller, more manageable pieces to take you from your title to your final page. 

It's a “slow and steady wins the race” approach, but it will get you across the finish line, or more appropriately, to “fade to black.”

Conclusion on the best screenwriting books

By utilizing the wisdom and know-how in these books, you can take your screenplay writing abilities to the next level, from amateur to professional. 

The real trick, however, is remembering that there is no singular “right way” to be a screenwriter beyond sticking to the format (and even that is not as concrete a rule as it may seem). Always think of yourself as a student on a writer’s journey, and you will find that you will always find new ways to grow as a screenwriter.

This article is an ongoing serious now how to write. It includes but is not limited to the following writing skills necessary to excel in today's digital age.

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