Looking for the perfect beach read this summer that will also help you gain new insights into the world of screenwriting? Look no further! Librarian (and self-described Professor) Lauren O’Connor shares ten new books in our Essential Books for Screenwriters list, including the best aids for writing your television pilot, understanding an actor’s process, and adventuring into the historic past—and the uncertain future—of Hollywood.
Welcome to our inaugural edition of The Essential Books for Screenwriters! Our Library team has hand-picked books they recommend for screenwriters.
If you’re in the Los Angeles area, all of these books are available to read in our Library! If you’re not in LA, you can purchase any of these books via our handy Amazon link. (Note that while we haven’t been paid or coerced into recommending the following books, The Writers Guild Foundation may receive a small commission of sales from any books purchased through the below links. These proceeds go directly towards funding our Library and community outreach programs.)
THE PLATINUM AGE OF TELEVISION: FROM I LOVE LUCY TO THE WALKING DEAD, HOW TV BECAME TERRIFIC by David Bianculli
This book isn’t so much a writing instruction manual, but rather a history of television with special attention to how the small-screen landscape has evolved since its beginnings. It provides an essential framework and vocabulary for anybody wishing to create a TV series. From reading it, you gain a sense of how certain types of shows—like the medical drama—evolved from Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey to St. Elsewhere then ER then Grey’s Anatomy. You can’t push a medium forward unless you know where it’s been. You can’t be innovative in your storytelling unless you understand the elements and tropes at your disposal. This book gives you a sense of how others have pushed the boundaries of the television form and gives you seeds for how you might do that too.
THREE USES OF THE KNIFE by David Mamet
This thin little book is an uncompromising, bullshit-free examination of how drama is an essential human practice that helps us to organize and make sense of our lives. Mamet provides the magnifying glass for which to closely examine your own life. You’ll learn that everything has significance you can use in your storytelling. It’s one of my favorite manifestos on writing. You learn you have one job to do when you set pen to paper: TELL THE TRUTH.
THE WOMAN IN THE STORY by Helen Jacey
This is a rare how-to screenwriting guide written from the female gaze as opposed to the male one. It’s an eye-opening study of female characters and archetypes. It calls attention to the ways we’ve neglected and mis-written female characters for decades, but it assists us in our efforts to push past stereotypes and clichés to make all of our characters more multi-dimensional. The book even offers instruction on how to stand-up for yourself when an executive or note-giver wants to soften or diminish your female characters. Whether you think you do or not, you need a book like this.
THE WRITERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SCREENWRITERS AND THEIR GUILD by Miranda Banks
If you really want to feel connected to the WGA and to the film and TV writing profession, The Writers will help you to better understand the ground on which you stand and the circumstances that led to a screenwriters’ union being formed in the first place. In this book, Miranda Banks explores the history of screenwriters fighting for fair compensation, credit and treatment in Hollywood and beyond, which is what the WGA still does today. More than that, she draws on a wealth of archival materials that can be found in the WGF Archives.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: MYTHIC STRUCTURE FOR SCREENWRITERS by Christopher Vogler
Joseph Campbell’s writings about “The Hero’s Journey” have provided a backbone for much of Hollywood’s storytelling for decades. The Writer’s Journey distills Campbell’s often dense teachings into simple concepts and examples very easily digestible by the average screenwriter. The most useful part of this book is its exploration of ancient character archetypes. In defining these archetypes, Vogler helps you make sure every character serves a distinct and useful function in your story. Screen and television writers are modern-day mythmakers. This book provides not only a great first step toward understanding myths more intrinsically, but also helps you to connect your own storytelling to the primal practice of mythmaking.
WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT by Karl Iglesias
There’s nothing more vital for writers to understand than emotion. Writing for Emotional Impact is essential reading as it offers something truly valuable: Insight into how our emotions work. Having trouble making your character appealing on page one? This book provides copious tactics for how to get a reader invested in your script at every level. More importantly, if you bring your own emotions to the table, it will help you to understand what you care about and are moved by, therefore inspiring you to rein in your own taste and storytelling impulses – the importance of which, again, cannot be overstated.