Reading List: Screenwriting

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers: Secrets of Success in order to become an expert in anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice. That is also true for screenwriters and film makers.

I am of the belief that if you want to be good at something, you’re constantly working to enhance your knowledge, hone your craft and try new things.

When I interact with young screenwriters, I find myself recommending the same reading material over and over again, so my next logical step was to list them here.

The Short Screenplay: Your Short Film from Concept to Production

Before you run, you must walk.

Before you write a feature, I highly recommend you write a short film.

A short film can range anywhere from 1 min to 45 or so, but usually around 5-10 mins is the common format that can find itself programmed into film festivals. That’s the sweet spot, so you might want to look in that range specifically.

Find it here.

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

Often touted as the “Bible of Screenwriting,” Save the Cat! is a famous book on the craft. This book takes a more Hollywood approach to screenwriting that’s beneficial for those wanting to understand the formula of most popular films.

From the initial idea, to creating a beat sheet to marketing your script, Save the Cat! is a great resource to dive into.

the book’s strength lies in its foundation of the formula of story arcs and organizational tools such as the beat sheet, so this is definitely a book you should check out.

Find the book here.

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways to Make it Great

I always send this book recommendation with the disclaimer “This is by no means a commentary on your script!”

This book is broken up into digestible chunks that go into details on common problems and how to fix them. This book explores structure, the nitty gritty of story and other details that might have been missed during your first draft, such as a deep B story or multi-faceted characters.

Find it here.

Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box

This is the book for any sort of TV writing. Here you learn about the particular format of broadcast television writing. TV writing is a different game than writing a feature by a long shot, as it pertains to act breaks, teasers, tags, and how to best tell a joke (the funny word comes last!).

This book also has a meaty section on agents, navigating the world of spec script writing and pitching.

Find it here.

Honorable Mentions:

All of my links in this post go to Amazon pages, however you may find cheaper copies by perusing AbeBooks.com, Alibris.com and BetterWorldBooks.com or even eBay.

Grab the Audience’s Attention: Opening Shots

When my DP Tery Wilson told me a particular Steadicam shot she wanted in the feature film we worked on, it struck me as important. And important it was. “This,” she said, “Is the beginning shot of the whole movie.” No pressure!

It struck me how big and weighty the first scene — and really the first shot — in a movie is. It sets up story, character and tone. It has to hold your attention from one moment to the next. The first minutes of a film are prime real estate. If you’re not hooked, you might bail. Next movie on Netflix. Next attempt at entertainment.

We are far too impatient as a modern audience to sit around for setup that takes too long.

Pace is influential here as well. Although It Follows is similar in structure to an old school horror movie — slow mounting dread throughout the story — it gets to the meat of the matter right away. That’s something I always thought the old horror movies back in the day had trouble with.

The screenwriter has to catch the attention of the first reader through to the first audience who see the film and can recommend it to their friends.

Having a bombastic beginning also relates to my earlier post about title sequences. You don’t always see flashy title sequences in movies but when you do, you better believe they are doing an important job. You can see that post on title sequences here.

It Follows

That first shot in It Follows is not just a great beginning, but also an example of fabulous shot design. The shot doesn’t break away into any edits as the girl runs from the house, is chased by an unseen follower, and eventually rushes away from the home.

What’s genius about this shot is how it follows the first person you see, establishing the horror element of an unrelenting terror. We first see the girl run out of the house, track alongside her as she runs down the sidewalk, then we become the mysterious follower, never taking our eyes off her until she flees the scene. This shot never stops moving, perfectly simulating the monster of the story.

The Dark Knight

You can see a fantastically simple yet effective opening shot in for The Dark Knight. It’s truly brilliant in its simplicity, as the very first shot doesn’t show any people, but succeeds in building tension and expectations of sudden violence to come.

An extreme zoom into a building as a window suddenly explodes outward tells us everything we need to know about the upcoming scene: stuff is going down, and it’s going to be shocking. The whole film is a slow boil to an epic, explosive showdown. It’s only fitting that we see that echoed in the very first, seemingly innocent cityscape shot.

And that whole bank robbery scene is so engaging that you can’t help but be hooked — ready for the ride.

Make it your goal to master creating a beginning – and especially opening shot – to your film that not only captures your audience’s attention but says something about plot and tone. You’ll be more likely to get an opportunity to make another film and then we’ll be studying your film making choices.