Cinematic storytelling has much in common with literature and the many arts that cinema draws from, however, cinematic storytelling is essentially its own, unique way of telling stories. These books, taken together, provide an excellent course of study in the fine art of cinematic storytelling. Regardless of your role in media making: directing, writing, editing, cinematography, multi-hyphenate creative, etc., it is important to understand the language and grammar of cinema, and with that goal in mind, this bibliography was created. Writing for the moving image is at the foundation of cinematic storytelling. Is there a book you really like that is not on the list? Let me know about it via the contact form.
The short list
These five books provide an accessible introduction to cinematic language and writing for the moving image.
Wired for Story will be added here
Into the Woods will be added here
The 20th Century Screenplay will be added here
The Science of Storytelling will be added here
Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know by Jennifer Van Sijll (Michael Wiese Productions, 2005)
This book challenges the notion of writing as limited to character, structure, and plot and provides a foundation for the understanding of cinematic literacy, as important as reading and writing with words. Writers play a more important role in the visualization of cinematic stories than the “Auteur Theory” has given them credit for, and there is a trend towards a greater appreciation of the role of the writer not just in crafting the story, but in how the story is visualized. This book essentially teaches you how to write visually and essential for anyone who is both the writer and director of their project.
The rest of the list
Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect by Claudia Hunter Johnson (Focal Press, 2000)
A delightful change of pace, this book is about writing short screenplays rather than full-length screenplays and advocates a balance between the connections between people and dramatic conflict as the key to writing compelling short screenplays.
Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno (Hyperion, 2002)
Tierno does a nice job of explaining the important concepts from Aristotle’s Poetics and applying the concepts to films including Angel Heart, Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction. The Poetics might be hard to read and understand on a single read, however, this little gem cuts to the chase and delivers the essence of Aristotle’s wisdom in 167 fun to read pages, and while the examples might be a tad dated given the book was published in 2002, the wisdom shared is timeless.
Screenplay by Syd Field (Revised Edition, Delta, 2005)
This has become a classic book on the screenplay, the standard many people refer to, so you do well to read it at some point, however, it is weak on characterization, so for that you must turn to Egri’s book. I suggest that Robert McKee’s Story is a better starting point for beginners.
Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (Michael Wiese Productions, 2005)
This is by far the most entertaining book on the topic of screenwriting I’ve come across. It is full of insightful anecdotes and practical techniques that you can put to use right away whether you’re writing or editing. A perfect companion to the classic duo of the Syd Field and Lajos Egri books.
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee (Reprint edition, Methuen Publishing, 2005)
McKee brings together in book form the essence of what he teaches in his popular screenwriting workshops. Story has become a widely praised and often recommended starting point for screenwriters. McKee outlines the essential elements of narrative structure and characterization that goes into a good story drawing from a wide range of sources including Aristotle and Stanislavski and refers to a lot of classic screenplays.
Poetics I by Aristotle, translated by Richard Janko (Hackett Publishing Company, 1987)
Aristotle was the first critic and judge of drama and his work remains fresh and relevant today, a must read for anyone seriously interested in drama. Follow this up with Campbell for a very complete foundation, or read Tierno’s book instead which is more readable than the original Poetics. It’s interesting after reading a a book or two on story to go back to Aristotle’s writings.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (Princeton University Press, 1972)
According to Campbell, myth is the projection of a culture’s dreams and ideals into a story. Many stories follow a pattern describes as the “The Hero’s Journey” in which the protagonist experiences the call to adventure, refusing the call, finding a mentor, encountering threshold guardians, crossing the threshold, facing the worst evil, and finally winning the elixir. This is the structure of many classic western myths as well as modern day films, with Star Wars being one of the most popular examples (Lucas based the film on Campbell’s ideas).
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri (Touchstone, 1972, originally published in 1948)
The best dramatic writing is based on people and their relationships, which give energy to the story and serves to move the plot forward. Unlike most other books, Egri offers an excellent treatment of character that people continue to reference and cite it to this day.
Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger (2nd Edition, Samuel French Trade, 1994)
This book can help you understand some of what’s required to write a great script, especially characterization and structure, two essential elements of every great script.
The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler (2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions, 1998)
For people interested in Campbell’s ideas, but find his book hard to read, Vogler provides a more accessible explanation of “The Hero’s Journey” applied directly to the task of writing and evaluating screenplays.
Elements of Style for Screenwriters by Paul Argentini (Lone Eagle Publishing, 1998)
A good reference covering screenplay format, structure, and style.
Stealing Fire From The Gods by James Bonnet (2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions, 2006)
Bonnet argues that stories are designed to guide us to our full potential as human beings and are necessary to our psychological well-being. He introduces a model which is built upon the foundations of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Arisototle’s Poetics but unlike the structural and character-oriented approach of these models, Bonnet suggests we look deeper at the psychological models embedded within great stories. A provocative and interesting synthesis of story models and theories.
On Stories by Richard Kearney (Routledge, 2001)
Kearney considers how our national identity can emerge from stories and examines the hidden agenda of stories in the antagonism between Britain and Ireland, and how stories of alienation in film such as Aliens and Men in Black reveal disturbing narratives at work in projections of North American national identity.
Special thanks to Chris Boebel for his contribution to the first version of this bibliography.
Image by Janko Ferlič