After losing my job back in November, I decided to use the time I had to pursue my only real “dream” – becoming a screenwriter. After my experiences writing Granted for Ma’s Meatloaf, I decided that perhaps I should actively study screenwriting academically instead of relying on my storytelling instincts and, admittedly, unreliable resources found online.
Through some research, I bought three highly regarded screenwriting books and stumbled on a blog written by a working screenwriter. What I found was that these resources all offered similar yet differing lessons on screenwriting as a craft, as well as more inside-baseball things like marketing yourself, finding an agent, and understanding contracts, options, and so-forth.
Following are comparisons of the four resources I’ve found myself turning toward, written in chronological order from which ones I read first.
The Essentials of Screenwriting by Richard Walter
Being the first book I read, almost everything was relatively fresh to me. Everything in the book does a good job as offering a brief overview of screenwriting as it relates to the audience, the agencies, the production companies, and the screenwriter himself. There are often philosophical asides that seek to breakdown what it is people look for in cinema.
The book itself, besides being broken into four parts with chapters and subchapters, offers numbered principles that seek to help the aspiring screenwriter remember important concepts. Some of these principles are technical in nature, some are bits of advice to deal with the inevitable rejections, and others are philosophical asides that need some interpretation. For example:
Principle 47: Maturing as a writer means more than merely learning to throw away; it means learning to love to throw away.
This principle talks of learning to constantly seek to make your work better, even if it means starting from scratch. The book does a good job of personalizing screenwriting this way. Richard Walter’s writing style is breezy and entertaining.
However, because of this I felt like much of the advice and technical teachings were lacking in detail. Perhaps this isn’t so much of a problem with Walter’s voice, but more of an issue with the lack of examples his book provides. Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible is similar in structure and advice, but does a much better job of illustrating examples so the reader can see exactly how a script is formatted, or what a contract looks like, or how coverage is given.
I found The Essentials of Screenwriting to be more useful in understanding what it means to want to be a screenwriter, how to approach screenwriting in order to be successful (not that I’ve been successful with it, yet), and how to keep myself from getting too low after rejection.
The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters edited by Karl Iglesias
What attracted me to this book was the fact that it gets advice from working screenwriters who, as the title suggests, have been “highly successful”. The book is stitched together from interviews with the writers of Men in Black (or, one of them), Basic Instinct, Rush Hour, Forrest Gump, Crimson Tide, Matilda, Fallen, The Client, and others.
Where this differs from your typical “Learn how to write screenplays!” books, of which there are many, is the fact that the advice is solely based on what it’s like to work in the industry as a writer. There are brief sections on how to write a compelling story, and understanding the importance of certain dramatic tools, but mostly the writers talk about writing.
Their thoughts and routines (which often differ or contradict depending on the writer) are not only interesting, but also enlightening. Essentially, one can view this book as a blueprint to developing the strong habits that have led other writers to success.
Most importantly, and what I mentioned attracted me to this book, is the fact that these are writers who are writing in the industry. Most screenwriting books, including Essentials of Screenwriting and The Screenwriter’s Bible, cannot boast the authors successes like this one can. While certainly qualified, neither Richard Walter or Dave Trottier have written a hit movie that has reached a wide audience. That fact alone separates this book from the others and makes it worth the read.
Wordplayer.com by Terry Rossio with Ted Elliot
Wordplayer is a website that is written by a working screenwriter with an occasional guest post by his writing partner. Much like The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, Wordplayer offers excellent insight into the industry from people who have been successful in the industry.
The columns themselves are fun to read, and cover mostly screenwriting theory, inside-baseball type stuff, and anecdotes from Mr. Rossio’s own screenwriting career that always lead to a larger point. While light on the more technical aspects of filmmaking, for a resource that takes you into the thought process of people working in Hollywood this website is invaluable. Wordplayer also offers examples of contracts and coverages so that, if you get your foot in the door, you know what to expect.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Rossio offers drafts of his own screenplays to read. For example, the early drafts of “Little Monsters” is very different from what ended up on screen, as is his and Ted Elliot’s early draft of the American “Godzilla”. To actually be able to read screenplays, understand the structure, and “hear” the voice is extremely beneficial to those who wish to write better. I have to admit, I stole some of their formatting tricks to make certain aspects of my screenplay read more urgently.
As a free online resource, this is a spectacular place to go for insight into the business as well as more intangible things, like inspiration. As a bonus, quite a community has cropped up around the website as well.
The Screenwriter’s Bible (and supplemental features) by Dave Trottier
This book is touted as “six books in one”; a screenwriting primer, a screenwriting workbook, a formatting guide, a spec writing guide, a sales and marketing guide, and a resource guide. I have a hard time agreeing that it is six books in one volume, as they would be pretty short and sometimes not all that substantial books, but ignoring the marketing I would agree with some of the back-cover quotes that say this is the best book for a beginning writer. Much like The Essentials of Screenwriting, this book covers all of the basics but without the philosophical slant.
More importantly, The Screenwriter’s Bible is extremely detailed and gives excellent examples, some of them from Trottier’s own screenplays. Trottier also offers up several worksheets to help you develop well-rounded characters that help push your plot forward. Richard Walter discusses the concept of “integration” in The Essentials of Screenwriting, a very important concept, but Trottier gives you the tools to achieve it.
Each resource offers overlapping advice and teachings, but each also offers differing perspectives and examples. If you had to choose one, I would say The Screenwriter’s Bible is the most complete education. But… Considering that Wordplayer is a free resource so long as you have access to internet, those two combined will give you the best chance at being well-rounded.
Any screenwriter should continue to look to improve, and that’s what I plan on doing. Other resources that come highly recommended include Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! series, and Robert McKee’s Story. For me, those are next.