I once heard that if you read five books on any topic, you’ll know more about that topic than the vast majority of the public. Since it’s not always possible to learn directly from someone more advanced than you, the next best option is to read books.
At the very least, books can reinforce what you already know and provide different examples and perspective to help you further understand a particular idea. Since everyone needs to work on different aspects of their writing, one book may be perfect for you right now while another book may not.
In many cases, you’ll learn at least one useful bit of information from a book that you didn’t know before. In “Save the Cat! Writes for TV”, the biggest idea is that writing for movies and writing for television are two different stories. When you write a movie, you want a conclusive ending with a definite change in the hero from beginning to end.
Yet when you write for TV, you’re essentially creating a situation where the hero and the other major characters do not change. If they do change, they do so slowly over the course of several episodes or seasons. Think of a TV series as trapping characters in a hell that never changes and that’s essentially the difference when writing for TV.
“The Nutshell Technique” focuses on tying your story closely with the hero’s emotional need. The prime example the book gives is “Tootsie” where the hero needs to learn how to treat women better and thus he’s forced to disguise himself as a woman and see first-hand how women are treated. This story wouldn’t be the same if the hero had to disguise himself as a fat man.
The main idea I got from “The Nutshell Technique” is that when the hero leaves his/her old world and enters a new world, they eventually achieve their goal (False Victory) but there’s a catch. In “Die Hard,” John McClane finally notifies the authorities about the terrorists. The catch is that he’s still trapped and they’re still holding his wife hostage.
In “Tootsie,” the hero finally gets an acting job, but the catch is that he has to disguise himself as a woman. In “Titanic,” Rose finally finds someone to truly love, but the catch is that she’s on a doomed ocean liner. In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel finally gets to meet the prince but the catch is that she cannot speak or sing.
When your hero leaves Act I and enters a new word in Act IIa, look for the catch that keeps the hero from having everything. The stronger the catch, the stronger the motivation of the hero to resolve this problem and that leads the hero eventually to Act III.
Many aspiring screenwriters focus on screenplays, yet there’s a whole new market in writing stories for video games. While movies are linear stories, video games are non-linear stories, so they have different challenges. To learn more about video game storytelling, read “Video Game Storytelling.”
One crucial idea from this book is to challenge your hero in Act IIb. In Act I, your hero is behaving one way and then in Act IIa, the hero overcomes minor obstacles to achieve success. However, Act IIb is where the hero’s life starts falling apart and that’s what you need to emphasize.
In “Star Wars,” Luke was a timid farm boy in Act I. However in Act IIb, he’s taken the initiative to rescue Princess Leia and winds up trapped in a garbage compact where he’s nearly killed.
In “Die Hard,” John McClane is a tough cop in Act I. However in Act IIb, he’s nearly killed by the FBI and the terrorists until he’s seriously wounded by stepping on glass.
In “Legally Blonde,” Elle is a smart blonde in Act I. However in Act IIb, she’s treated like a sex object by her law professor. This forces Elle to really think about who she wants to be: a dumb blonde sex object or a strong woman?
Notice that Act IIb is all about taking the hero’s greatest fear in Act I and forcing him/her to deal with it in Act IIb? That’s what I learned from “Video Game Storytelling” although you may learn something completely different.
Perhaps the most important book is “You’re Going to Need a Bigger Story.” The main idea behind this book is to create not just a story, but a story world. In other words, create a franchise that can support multiple stories. If you pitch a single story, that might be profitable like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Yet if you pitch a story world/universe, you’re really pitching a franchise that can make far more money in sequels, merchandise, and TV shows. Think of the vast difference between “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” compared to “Star Wars.”
“Star Wars” created an entire world that wasn’t dependent on just a single story. Instead, George Lucas was able to write multiple stories (including the really bad prequels). Think of the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games series, or the Jurassic Park series. They all tell stories within the same story world, but they can mine multiple stories out of that story world compared to just creating a single story.
So if you really want to shoot for the moon, don’t create a story. Create a story world, and “You’re Going to Need a Bigger Story” can teach you how to do it.
Most people likely have their own favorite books, but the key is to keep learning and keep reading. Sometimes a single book can just reinforce your ideas, but sometimes it can give you one idea you never had before. In rare cases, it can give you a whole new way of looking at writing (“You’re Going to Need a Bigger Story”).
The best way to improve as a screenwriter is to write. The second best way is to keep learning from books. Never stop learning because you can always learn something new.