Tag Archives: structure

The Best Screenwriting Books in the world… possibly.

I was recently asked what are my favourite screenwriting books. So here they are:

Save The Cat by Blake Snyder 

It’s impossible to ignore this one, even if you disagree with the formulaic approach. There are tons of terrific lessons here. But best saved for the more advanced screenwriter.

Story by Robert McKee

The guru of screenwriting, McKee’s book contains pretty much everything you need to know about storytelling.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler 

Breaks down every mythic story and archetype. Very easy to read and full of great examples. It clarifies a lot of what other people say.

Screenplay by Syd Field 

The beginner’s guide to writing a script. Contains all the basics on structure and format. Goes into character creation a little too much for my liking, but then he was also an actor.

Raindance Writer’s Lab by Elliott Grove 

A great practical guide that touches upon the business as well. Essential reading.

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman 

Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and many, many more. This is a frank memoir about screenwriting in Hollywood.

Which Lie Did I Tell by William Goldman

More memories and advice from the veteran scriptwriter, with more attention to things like writing for budgets.

Writing Screenplays that Sell by Michael Hague 

The first book I ever read on screenwriting and one of the best. Hague gives you the basics in a way that’s simple to understand.

Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder 

The sequel offers more fixes for common problems as well as a very useful section on Act Three.

Save the Cat Goes to the Movies 

Can’t recommend this highly enough. Some truly great insights into different movie genres and the rules they follow.

The Devil’s Guide to Screenwriting by Joe Eszterhas

The infamous scribe of Basic Instinct gives you a very funny look at the flipside of success in Hollywood. Read it to feel empowered as a writer. This is the stuff they didn’t want you to know.

How to Make a Good Script Great by Linda Seger 

A very good fix-it guide when your screenplay lacks that little something.

Tales From the Script by Various 

Frank and fascinating interviews with many major screenwriters. Learn from the people who are working in the trenches.

The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier

Contains all the formatting instructions you need to avoid being seen as an amateur.

Breakfast With Sharks by Michael Lent 

Be warned. The swimming pool of Hollywood is not for the faint-hearted. Learn to recognize and avoid the sharks with this great guide. Contains some terrific practical advice on writing and negotiating your career (or lack of one). Wish I’d read this years ago.

500 Ways to Beat The Hollywood Script Reader by Jennifer Lerch 

Basically a list of common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Rewrite by Paul Chitlik

This is my go-to guide when I’m beginning, guess what, the rewrites! The best thing about this book is that it gives you a structure and a plan to approach your rewriting with. If, like me, you require structure to do anything, this is the book for you.

Bladerunners, Dear Hunters and Blowing the Bloody Doors Off by Michael Deeley 

Veteran British producer Michael Deeley gives you his rather candid insight into the business.

Screenplays 

Lots of them. Any you can find. Especially good ones. Especially produced ones. Notable ones for study are: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Basic Instinct, Speed, The Fisher King, Jaws, The Terminator, Aliens, Chinatown, Casablanca, Die Hard, Network,The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Alien, Living In Oblivion, Near Dark, The Hitcher, Reanimator, Deliverance, The Godfather Part II, Superman the Movie, Taxi Driver, The Dear Hunter, The Thing, Altered States, Ordinary People, Annie Hall, Groundhog Day, Back To The Future, The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, and many, many more.

Once you dipped into some of these you’ll never look at Transformers 4 in the same way again.

There you go. I’m adding to my on library all the time, so I may well update this post at some stage. If I missed any, let me know. Maybe you have your own favourites or stumble across some gem while browsing around. But these are the books that have helped me the most.

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Characters in your screenplay – good in a room?

Boy, I wish I could write great characters. Then I would feel qualified to write an article on them. But in all honesty, I can’t lay caim to that (what? you cry. Humble? Moi?). So instead this is just about a few techniques I use to write characters that might work for you.

William Goldman said famously that screenplays are structure.

But if you’re like me, you’ll want to know how to populate your story with great characters. They can make the difference between selling a screenplay and it ending up in the slush pile.

More importantly, they can also make your story into something that will hopefully last longer than the popcorn you bought going into the theatre.

How many times have you seen a (usually big budget action) movie, and been carried along by the stunts, explosions, etc. only to never watch that movie again?

In contrast, how many times have you watched certain movies over and over again?

Why do you do it?

What do The Terminator, Casablanca, The Producers, and Frankenstein all have in common?

Great characters.

What would The Terminator be without shrinking violet waitress-turned-badass Sarah Connor? (Answer: Terminator 3)

What would Casablanca be without the outwardly cynical but morally sound Rick?

What would Annie Hall be without the neurotic Alvy Singer?

How about Dirty Harry without Harry Callaghan? Or Rocky without Rocky Balboa? It’s no coincidence that many successful movies have character names as their titles, or even the occupations of the characters (Ghostbusters or The Goonies).

Okay. We get it. Characters are important. They keep us interested in the movie long after the special effects aren’t so special anymore. And SFX go out of date really quickly.  Have you seen The Matrix Reloaded recently?

But I digress…

So here are a few tips I use when designing characetrs.

1) Real Life

Yes, sad but true. Real life actually inspires a lot of art. You remember real life? The stuff that goes on when you’re away from your computer? Sometimes it can be smelly and unpleasant?

Take a walk down any street or through any mall (if you’re an American) and make a mental note of the different people you see. Try to imagine their backstory. How did they become that person? The weirder (or rather “more interesting”) the people, the more extreme the characters.

2) Contrasts

If your protagonist is a quiet guy or gal, a little shy maybe, then try having a nemesis who is exactly the opposite: brash, loud, confident.

If your protag is a straight-forward, no-nonsense, action type, try having a nemesis who is sneaky and never gets his or her hands dirty.

For a good example of this, see Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman in Die Hard.

3) Admiration

One of the ways to make a protagonist interesting is to make them the best at what they do. James Bond, for instance, is the best spy. Wolverine out of the X-men is an unstoppable fighting machine. The ultimate example of this is Superman –  he flies, is invulnerable, always saves the day, and he never lies. He is perfect in every way. yet that’s his curse. Which brings us to…

4) Flawed

Heroes have to have a flaw to be likeable. We all root for underdogs. Arnie in End of Days is faced with insurmountable odds. It makes him human (-ish). Rick in Casablanca is bitter and cynical due to the loss of his love. But we understand why; Ingrid Bergman is quite a catch. Wolverine in X-Men is prickly (literally) because he was mistreated by the military.

Heroes must have a flaw or they become boring. Like Tomb Raider.

5) Consistency

Would Bruce Willis in Die Hard talk to himself in a neurotic way about his situation the way Woody Allen does in Annie Hall?

Would Rocky Balboa set up a complicated sting operation the way Luke Skywalker does in Return of the Jedi in Jabba the Hut’s palace?

That’s consistency. Characters must act according to their personalities throughout the entire screenplay. This is a tough one.

For an example of where this rule is broken, see also Die Hard. John McClane (hero) bumps into an unarmed Hans Gruber (baddie). Gruber pretends to be an American hostage. He does it so well that McClane hands him a gun. Gruber uses the gun on McClane. But guess what? McClane knew Gruber was Gruber the whole time, and the gun is unloaded! But then Gruber’s allies burst onto the scene, removing McClane’s advantage anyway.

Now this may be a good example of misleads and reversals (have to make that the subject of a later post), but it’s bad characterization. Why? Because McClane is a blue-collar cop while Gruber is a criminal mastermind. How could McClane possibly KNOW that Gruber is a terrorist? What gives him this blistering insight? Throughout the script we se that McClane is an underdog, a likeable Joe who just happens to be a cop in extraordinary circumstances. McClane exhibits almost superhuman perceptiveness in figuring Gruber’s identity.

So why did Die Hard make a ton of money? Well, it’s full of surprises, which audiences like. And don’t forget the superhero factor. We want McClane to beat the incredible odds. So we forgive and forget this unsupported character reaction. But it’s still there. It’s a minor “jumping-the-shark moment”, which is one of my favourite movie sayings. But more of that another time…

So I hope this has been remotely useful. Great characters have been filling up our screens ever since Ebeneezer Scrooge (and a good deal before that). So have fun with them.

Chances are, if you come up with characters based on real life, you won’t fall into the trap of writing yet more cookie-cutter one-dimensional video-game characters.

I, for one, am tired of seeing girls with swords kicking-ass, girls with guns kicking-ass, or girls in PVC catsuits kicking-ass (never thought I’d say that).

Now I’m off to try to put this into practice with my own script…