Story: Robert McKee
This book is my bible, and I still re-read it before I write anything. You are going to have a very difficult time becoming a competent screenwriter without reading 'Story.' The book is much cheaper than the seminar, but if you can sell enough plasma to the blood bank, pay the $600 to take the weekend long class. Chalk it up as an educational expense. If you could take a college course on screenwriting in three days, wouldn't you want to do that? I would. Because I'm impatient and lazy at the same time.
Screenplay: Syd Field
While I think this book has merit (I found it helpful, but not as helpful as 'Story'), some of Field's follow ups like, 'Screenwriters Problem Solver,' felt like lackluster sequels. Let me sum up 'Problem Solver' for you in one sentence. "If you think there is something wrong with your screenplay, there probably is." There, I just saved you $20 and reading three hundred pages (or, whatever it is). You're welcome.
Adventures in the Screen Trade: William Goldman
I love this book. It's more of an introduction to the entertainment business than a comprehensive writing guide. That said, things have not really changed a whole lot from the days when Goldman was starting out. Lots of practical information and hilarious stories. Goldman's follow up: More Adventures in the Screen Trade was a bit of a disappointment. What Adventures in the Screen Trade does best is tell you how to be a writer. How to cinduct yourself, what's expected of a writer once they get there--how to write an effective letter to someone in the industry. Many writers have tried to pen books about entertainment writing, but Goldman's effort is brilliant.
How to Write a Selling Screenplay: Christopher Keane
I've read just about every book worth reading out there, and this one is kind of a sleeper. It was given to me by a friend. This is another book I read frequently before I write--just to remind myself how not to pen a piece of crap. It also covers some of the basics of television writing, which I appreciate(d). Too many books focus on screenwriting only, and most writers today move between both worlds: television and film. That wasn't always the case. When I started out writing, it was still quite segregated. Now success in either sector will help you in the other.
Creating Unforgettable Characters: Linda Seger
Personally, I hate this book, and felt like I was getting water boarded at Guantanimo when I read it. But, so many people swear by it (people who make mucho money writing) that I felt I needed to include it.
There are other books, certainly, but if someone asked me where to begin, I would say read these five before you touch a key on your keyboard. Also, join the public library. Most of these books are there (and others) in L.A., for free.
I didn't read one book (I participated in theater in college, so I thought I knew how to write already), and ended up writing a gigantic pile of donkey loaf my first time out. It was only after thoroughly embarrasing myself that I went "back to school."
There are so many great screenplays. And, you should try to read them all. Every genre. Classics. Anything that has won an award. Any movie you love that hasn't. If you're going to read Citizen Kane, It's a Wonderful Life, Midnight Cowboy, or An Officer and a Gentleman, make sure to read Beverly Hills Cop, Fletch, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as well. All of these scripts are brilliant in their own way. Ghostbusters is just as well written as Chinatown--again--in it's own way.
It's always interesting to read a script from one of your favorite films. Or, to read a script, then watch the film. Here's why. Description and action (or the lack of it, at times) are such a huge part of why a screenplay is so good. When you watch a movie, you hear the dialogue, and watch what people are doing, but you cannot read how the writer is describing it. Some writers have a very concise, straightforward style. Others have a very eloquent, long winded style. I've read scripts where I felt like I was reading a book, not a screenplay. Conversely, some writers have very little description/action, and leave the interpretation open to the director and actors. Neither style is better. That's why they call it a writing "style." It's usually quite unique--and why that particular script is so great.
Every great movie started with a great script, written by a writer who, in that moment and time, wrote something brilliant. If you asked five writers to recommend five scripts, I'd bet you'd get twenty-five different scripts. That's the fun in it all. There are so many great ones. These are my favorties...
People sometimes look at me funny when I say, "If you're going to read one script, read Star Wars. Everything you need to know about screenwriting is in there. It is a master class." Unlikely hero on a journey of self-discovery. Good vs. Evil. Mentors. Villains. Colorful characters. An amazing climax with a brilliant twist (Han Solo came back! He does care about the rebellion! Weee!). And, stakes? How about control over the univese? Sure, there's some clunky/cheesy dialogue. That's part of the script's charm. Whenever I try to describe what a "pinch" in the narative of a screenplay is, I end up at a loss for words and simply end up saying, "Trash compactor in Star Wars." Now, I'm not saying that every script you write has to be a sci-fi film schrouded in ancient mythology and mystical archetypes. I'm simply saying that just about every great story starts with a main character who is seemingly unequipped for the job, but trying to do something with the help of his cohorts, and his/her success means saving his/her own universe. The more I write, the more I realize how truly brilliant the Star Wars script is on so many levels. I could be writing a golf comedy, or a horror film, and Star Wars is still my bible.
A Few Good Men
Sorkin has written some outstanding material (Amercian President, Sports Night, West Wing), but in my opinion, A Few Good Men, is his masterpiece. And, not only is it his masterpiece, it is pretty close to being a masterpiece. It's one of the few movies I simply cannot turn off when I encounter it on cable. It is just that good. Read it, watch it, study it.
You knew Wally World was going to be closed the whole time, didn't you? I have to admit, maybe I'm an idiot, but the first time I saw the movie (when I was twelve?) I didn't see it coming. I mean, surely, after all of that, Clarke is going to be rewarded, right? Wrong. I don't think that anyone would argue about John Hughes' greatness as a comedy writer. But, in my mind, Vacation is the greatest of his great scripts. Clarke Griswald is just your normal bumbling Dad trying to get his family to Wally World, but encountering obstacle after obstacle. Wacky in-laws. Closed roads. Marital strife. A dead Aunt. Christie Brinkley! A dog piss covered baloney sandwich. It's hilarious, for sure, but read that script and write down how many obstacles Clarke Griswald encounters and 'overcomes' on that trip. Then think about what he does when he finally gets there and it's closed. Closed! You'd shoot John Candy in the ass with a BB gun, too.
I don't think there has been a better 'buddy' script ever written. Two opposites who can't stand one another end up actually getting along. They probably never would have been friends under different circumstances, but their journey brings them together. The film has one of my favorite endings ever. I think that's what makes it so special. The gestures. These guys hated one another in the beginning. And, after all that, Dinero let's the annoying white collar criminal go. Let's him go! And, the whole time Groden had three hundred thousand dollars--and he just gives it to him! And, he's still on the lamb, for God's sake! When I think about surprise endings, I always think of Midnight Run, and think, "Where's my money belt for my main character who does the right thing, and expects nothing in return?" Mind you, Dinero's character knows Grodin's character stole fifteen million dollars, and doesn't ask him for a single dime for letting him go. Think about that.
Silence of the Lambs
I think this is one of the most brilliant films ever. And, after all Clarice went through to find out who the killer was, she has to face the villain in a basement--in the pitch dark--and he's wearing night vision goggles!? I've seen this film a hundred times, and I can't sit still for that ending. When I think about a nail biter ending, I think about Silence of the Lambs. Is perfection attainable? I'm not sure, but that ending comes very, very close.
All of these scripts are perfect examples of never letting up on your main character until the very, very end. That's what makes their triumph so special.
Some websites that have free film and television scripts:
Can you write a script in Microsoft Word? Of course you can. But, you can't do scene breakdowns, have your characters talk (and sound like a robot in a 1950's sci-fi movie), or automatically mark revisions, etc. Not to mention people will think you're a hack when you send them something that wasn't written with screenwriting software (never send someone a word document--at least convert it to a PDF). It's well worth the money. Writing in Word is kind of like taking a job at an investment bank and trying to go to work in sweat pants every day.
For me, there is pretty much Final Draft and everyone else. It's the software of choice for studios and executives in film and television.
There are others that are worthwhile, but the three below offer the most options to Winners, Finalists, and Semi-Finalists, in my opinion.
Fade In: Magazine
Fade In: has been around for 15 years. I placed third in this competition in the short script genre back in 1998, and won some cash ($250). I also received some very good feedback about my script. The competition is judged by industry professionals.
I was a quarterfinalist in this contest a few years ago. It has a TV and Film division, is supported by the WGA West, and the contest folks actually push your material if you place.
This contest has 10 genres, and was created by industry people for the specific purpose of finding new talent (I wonder why they don't call it "baby" talent when they start a writing competition?). Definitely worth the price of admission given they hand out $50,000 in cash and prizes.
If you can place in one of these contests, you've certainly written something uncraptastic.