For Screenwriters

This post was originally written as a guest spot on Liz Strange’s blog, but I wanted to share it here as well.
During my glasses and braces youth, I took piano lessons for five years and at the same time taught myself to play guitar. Eventually I picked up the violin, and then the bass guitar. Though my only formal instruction was in piano, I was able to branch into other forms of musical expression because each new instrument had two common denominators:

The theory was the same.
Success came down to practice.
Each used the same notes, time measurements, song structure and the more I played – the greater my skill. Because of their shared foundation I was able to build upon what I’d learned in piano and transfer my knowledge to other instruments.
I feel the same way about the various formats I write in: lyrics, flash fiction, short fiction, novellas, novels, and scripts.
The theory is the same.
Success comes down to practice.
While I don’t have any formal training in fiction, other than the single creative writing class I took in college, I’ve read and wrote, wrote and read, deleted and revised – learning the craft of writing by trail and error. Though I now have a handle on the basic tools I need to produce a decent story, I still have much to learn.
I like to share my discoveries with other aspiring writers and have posted a handy list of my personal “must have” tools / resources for writing fiction on my website…here.
After recently diving headfirst into the world of screenwriting, I’ve established another list of resources I studied / absorbed / highlighted and stickie-noted to death which you’ll see below. What I didn’t expect (but should have anticipated) is that the better I’ve become at writing scripts, the better I’ve become at writing and plotting – just about anything.
Screenwriting resources and the skills they impart translate well into the world of fiction. Nothing will teach you more about plot, character development and the need for conflict than the following resources. Even if you never intend to write a script, I encourage you to read a few of these…your fiction – and your readers – will thank you for it.
Then all you have to do is numerous hours of butt-in-chair practice. I know you can do it…now go ahead and add these babies to your to be read pile:


Save the Cat: The last book on screenwriting that you’ll ever need – Blake Snyder. Ironically Save the Cat was the first book on screenwriting I’d heard other fiction writers talk about and thus the first one I purchased…but I do return to it again and again.
Save the Cat: Goes to the movies. The screenwriter’s guide to every story ever told – Blake Snyder. Main plot points of films identified so you can make them happen in your own tales.
The Coffee Break Screenwriter – Pilar Alessandra. Fantastic resource for plot structure and dividing the task of writing a complete script into bite sized, manageable sections.
Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 ways to make it great – William M. Akers. I find this to be the best revision tool around. I use it for fiction manuscripts as well. It helps you identify problem areas and kick the snot out of them.
Four Screenplays. Studies in the American Screenplay: An analysis of four groundbreaking contemporary classics – Syd Field. Wonderful breakdown of Thelma & Louise, Terminator 2, The Silence of the Lambs and Dances with Wovles. In terms of understanding what makes a story work – this beast is priceless.
Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 most powerful film conventions every filmmaker must know – Jennifer Van Sijll. You’ll never watch a movie the same way again…and it will help you place your fictional cast on your stage with more finesse and creativity than ever before.


A la The Shooting Script series – as with writing fiction, the best way to learn what works is to READ. Here are some of the scripts I’ve purchased, but I also follow the Scott Myers blog for script evaluations and industry insight.
A Knight’s Tale – Brian Helgeland – great example of how to incorporate music, as well as take on a period piece with humour.
Dan in Real Life – Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges – heartwarming example of family drama / romantic comedy.
Stranger than Fiction – Zack Helm – seriously brilliant…and offers tons of insight into the creation of the script.
Juno – Diablo Cody – groundbreaking, wicked cool and reads every bit as quirky as the film.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Once more with feeling (the musical script book) – Joss Whedon – includes the sheet music for the songs Whedon composed for this episode, that’s right – words AND music, the background to its creation and then…the very cool script itself.
SIDE NOTE: I also study other script formats, such as graphic novels. Here are some resources if you’re interested…
Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative: Principles and practices from the legendary cartoonist – Will Eisner. Great insight in the development of comics and how to combine words with images.
Panel Discussions with industry storytellers – Durwin S. Talon. Everything you’ve wanted to ask about graphic novels…with real answers.
Panel One: Comic book scripts by top writers – Nat Gertler. Featuring scripts by Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, Kurt Busiek and more!

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