I’m in that daze that follows completing an intense draft – excitement, concern, and feeling the natural let down. Right now, the draft is “in the drawer” for a few days to give my writing partner and me a little distance before we decide whether it’s really finished. (We usually decide it’s still a mess when we look at it again – but in this moment, I’m feeling pretty damn excited.)

During these infrequent lulls in writing, I spend time revisiting my books and thinking about the basics. I’m hoping that it will help get me out of the particulars of the story so I can have a fresher look when I get back to it. I’d probably be better off going fishing.


Tonight, I took a look at one shelf in particular. There’s some great stuff in there, but I was surprised to see how much utter crap I’ve accumulated in the mix.

Here’s what I think of these books:

Top Five On The Shelf:

Standard Script Formats – Part I (Cole/Haag) – A terrific book. Having a strong command of formatting makes the rest of the process much more productive. It’s freeing to really understand your options. I’ve worked hard to develop a narrative voice and formatting is as much a part of it as anything else.

The Tools of Screenwriting (Howard & Mabley) – Maybe its just because this one is newer than some of the others, but I find it a great refresher of the basics. I can spend hours with this book. Unlike some of the more popular “how-to” books, this is really a summary of many of the concepts taught in writing programs. Not “tips”, but real writing techniques. The book’s main shortcoming is that it spends too little time on each technique.

The Art Of Dramatic Writing (Lajos Egri) – A standard on every writer’s shelf. If you don’t already own it, you’re probably just screwing around.

Crafty Screenwriting (Alex Epstein) – Despite the cheesy title and cover, this book is a great reality check. Alex is a working writer, has an interesting screenwriting blog, and gets to the bottom line on a great many writing issues. But reader beware. He makes it sound easy. We all know it is not.

(Couldn’t find another book from this shelf that deserves the top five status, so there are only four books in my top five.)

Pretty Good Reads:

Writing The Character Centered Screenplay (Andrew Horton) – I love Horton’s sense of wanting complex, rich characters and his very intelligent discussion of how to create them. However, at the end of the day, this book didn’t really help me get where I want to be. I prefer a more story-centered approach and don’t find that characters or complexity suffer because of it. I think working from the characters out is a difficult way to go.

On Writing (Stephen King) – I’m not a big Stephen King fan, but he’s a very accomplished writer and, when you read this, you’ll see he faces the same issues we all face. His complete rejection of theme is disheartening (and the main reason I’m not very attracted to most of his writing), but his discussion of writing techniques is excellent and his account of being run down by a van, his near fatal injuries and his recovery is extremely entertaining.

Aristotle’s Poetics For Screenwriters (Michael Tierno) – The original Poetics is available online all over the place for free and its under fifty pages. However, it takes a lifetime to fully understand it. Poetics is an important work to understand inasmuch as it forms the basis for Hollywood’s ideas of proper screenwriting. Tierno cans it down to essentially the “Poetics For Dummies” level. Better than no Poetics at all, I suppose. I think there’s a competing screenwriter oriented analysis of the Poetics in the stores now. I haven’t read it and don’t know if it’s any better.

Most Overblown Book:

Story (Robert McKee) – McKee starts out saying all the right things about hard work, true imagination, developing creativity, and everything a writer wants to think about what she is doing. Unfortunately, after a great opening, McKee spends the rest of the book reducing screenwriting to series of intricate formulas (with nifty graphs and charts), all the while insisting he’s not reducing anything to anything. It doesn’t work that way, folks. Even if your completed script can be analyzed using these charts or graphs, even if it fits perfectly, that wasn’t how you got there.

Everything Else:

The others books fall into three categories: (i) crap, (ii) on the wrong shelf, such as the producing books, or (iii) scholarly works on screenwriting I enjoy but aren’t really designed to assist writers. If you want to know about any of them, just ask.

It’s late. I think I’ll pretend to sleep now.

On looking over this post later, when I’m awake, I have to acknowledge that a lot of people get a lot of value out of some of the books I called “crap” and “overblown.” As with all things, if the book works for you, use it. In fact, use whatever works, always.

11 thoughts on “A WRITER’S BOOKSHELF”

  1. Gotta love Cole/Haag. First serious screenwriting book I purchased and the only one I read or reference anymore.

    I find it hard to read other people’s screenplays and other people’s ideas of screenwriting while I’m working on my own screenplay (or at least the first draft of the same). I don’t even like to watch movies that are close to the subject matter.

    But based on your rec I’ll have to check out the “Tools of Screenwriting” after I finish my current draft.

    My favorite of the “starting-out” books was probably Lew Hunter’s “Screenwriting 434.”

  2. Good reference to 434. Haven’t looked at Lew’s book in years. Must have loaned it out. For those who don’t know, Lew Hunter is the former Chairman of UCLA screenwriting program. An extremely knowledgeable teacher with substantial real world experience.

  3. I’d also add Hollywood Representation Directory/Hollywood Creative Directory to the bookshelves of those with no contacts in Hollywood (like myself :-)). Those aren’t really screenwriting books, but rather books for screenwriters.

    Great blog.

  4. I’d add one, maybe two more books to your screenwriting bookshelf. Alexander Mackendrick’s “On Film-making”, recently published here in Britain — and I think in the US too. Mackendrick (of course) was the great Scottish-American film-maker, responsible for such classics as The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers (so much smarter and the sharper than the Coen bothers’ remake) and Sweet Smell of Success, who gave up film-making in the late 60s to teach a classic course at Cal-Arts. This book is based on his notes for that course. It’s full of insight, inspiration and sound common sense. I’m also rather partial to Bill Froug’s modestly-titled “Sceenwriting Tricks of the Trade” — though generally I regard how-to books in writing as tosh.

  5. Greg –

    Thanks for mentioning Mackendrick. He is an interestng character worth knowing about. He had a love/hate relationship with Hollywood that itself might make a great picture one day. His book “On Film-making” is about writing and directing from a man who cared a great deal about both. It provides rare insight into the director’s perspective on what we do. Although not a household name in this country, Mckendrick is revered by many of our best directors and filmmakers.

  6. Some good picks there, but I wished I’d have seen my book there. “SELL YOUR SCREENPLAY – YOUR GUIDE TO THE INDEPENDENT FILM & TELELVISION PRODUCER” which received rave reviews from Hollywood insiders such as Digby Diehl (literary correspondent for Good Morning America) and Lew Hunter.

    But just the same, great idea to post your book shelf. Reading is a great help to the aspiring screenwriter.

  7. Nice picks. The first one you mention, Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film by Tom Stempel is excellent. I refer to it often. It brings us right into context with what the hell we are really doing as writers and how we got here.

  8. I agree with you on King’s ON WRITING – thought it was one of the most heartfelt books on the craft I’ve ever read – and on McKee, of course, a big boob in my opinion. Thought I would add a book that I like a lot, it’s called THE 101 HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS edited by Karl Iglesias. Like the book a lot, he basically asks trade questions of working screenwriters today and breaks it down into usefully catagories (BLOCKS, NETWORKING, etc) and now that I think about it, it’s not so different than what you’re doing with your site. It’s a fun easy read, too.

  9. “Alternative Screenwriting”, by NYU’s screenwrting teacher Ken Dancyger is a must for every serious writer!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *