Story at a Glance


I know, you weren't expecting much text, much less a New Yorker article, on the “Resources” page. “Where’s the list? It’s just supposed to be a list!”

Sweat not. The goods are all over there to the right if you just want to dive in.

But there’s a reason why I've included the resources I have, the way I have. It has to do with my take on story creation, which requires a bit of a creation story of my own.

I first became interested in screenwriting as a potential career in 12 B.C.—Before Cat. It may strain the analogy, but for those of us who were there, that's about what it feels like.

It was a primitive time: pre-McKee, pre-Trottier, pre-even the World Wide Web. There was no "online." It was a time of hard drives the size of a RAW JPEG now, screeching dot-matrix printers (because laser printers cost $1200), and research at libraries with card catalogs.

Image of Microsoft Works

It was also a time of fabled heroes: Eszterhas, Black, Tarantino. But their influence was only beginning to show on bookshelves. The screenwriting section at Barnes and Noble still reflected the infant industry it was, with a book or two by Field and Seger, maybe a Hague or Goldman, tucked in a “They write books about that?” pocket at the end of the "Theater" section.

Cover of Syd Field's ScreenplayIt’s hard to imagine that era now, how pioneering, even rebellious, it felt to strike out on this line then, so esoteric and mythical it was. “People write movies?” was an actual, and not uncommon, response, followed closely by “As a career?” It was, but barely. And deciding to pursue it was a lot like starting with a riddle in a diary to find the Lost Dutchman Mine.

Now, pushing thirty years later, it’s like every place you stop has a brochure about it by the door: how to get there, what to see, best times to visit. It’s a full-fledged cottage industry, with hundreds if not thousands of experts, real and imagined, online and off, offering their insights about the art and business of screenwriting in every kind of medium on every kind of platform.

I can only imagine how daunting it all must be now for someone just starting out. Frankly, in a real way, it was easier for us, because we had less noise to cut through. When it comes to advice, more is not necessarily better. Especially in this case, I think, it can actually hurt, because it’s too easy to overcomplicate the process and in fact lure writers away from what I believe is the best way to learn to be a better story teller and writer for the screen.

Always keep this in mind:

Almost all the films made before 1990—
so scores of the greatest films ever made
were written by folks who’d likely never read,
or even seen, a book about screenwriting.

There was no Snyder, no McKee, no Field. They learned how to write great stories by reading great stories. By watching great stories.

And that’s the key here.

I firmly believe—and I have a lot of company in this—that there is nothing you can do that will make you better at the art of screen storytelling than simply studying—not just watching—lots of great movies, reading produced scripts, and writing scripts yourself until you perceive yours read and feel like those produced scripts.

That’s not to say none of what’s available today isn’t helpful. Of course it can be. Occasionally somebody says something just right about something you’ve been struggling with, and unlocks one of those rare but wonderful “Aha!” moments. That’s only a good thing.

Still from Raiders of the Lost Ark

The key word there, though, is “rare.” It can often take a browser-choking deck of tabs to find them. You never know where or when it’s going to happen. It’s a sheer numbers game.

It’s not a game you have to play. Your best resource, I believe, is always going to be reading and studying—actually breaking down—scripts and movies themselves to see how they work. This site exists for that very reason.

“But," you protest, "discovering how they built it is different from knowing how and why they decided to build it that particular way.

Yes it is, which is why I have a resources page at all. There are  techniques you can use, and ways of thinking about story, that can make it easier to discover yours.

And there’s the final key word: "discover."

The problem I perceive with anything recommending you start with a particular story template, act structure, or set of story beats is that it can’t know what the best structure is for your story. If you start with them—this archetype here, that story turn there—then from the very start you're conforming your burgeoning idea to that shape, like cookie dough to a mold, without ever knowing if that's its best, most naturally compelling shape.

You have to keep in mind that any such paradigms and templates, especially the more specific ones, can only offer guidance based on a generic, retroactive analysis of lots of other films or shows.

But your story isn’t lots of other films or shows. It's its own unique thing. Or rather, more important—it will be. Your story has its own best form, waiting to be revealed.

Image of archaeologist unconvering fossil

Knowing how to reveal that best form is a skill all its own, an art, even—the storyteller's art. It's a process I’ve by no means mastered myself. On the contrary, I've been refining it over time, and with each new project. Inevitably everyone will do the same, and end up having their own unique approach to it. I do think, though, some methods for it are more effective than others, at getting more to the essence of the process than others.

Thus the list you find here. Of course mileage will vary, but after all the books, the hundreds of articles, the tens of thousands of words of group discussions, all the videos and podcasts, I've consumed over thirty years—these are the resources that truly flipped a switch for me. That ended up having the biggest impact on my own understanding of how best to mine that idea or character you can't shake, or that theme you're wanting to explore. I think by their very nature they offer the most effective methods for coaxing out the best version of a story, and the one you most want to tell, rather than imposing external, averaged expectations on it.

Now obviously I haven't read all of the amazing array of material available dedicated to the craft and career of screenwriting, and am hardly suggesting no one should read anything beyond this list. That's missing my point by the orbit of Neptune. There's plenty of sharp, insightful advice out there that's come out over the years, not just about the craft but about the business, the career, of screenwriting, that I plan to highlight and praise here on the site.

My point here, with this list, is that while there is so much valuable out there, some has the real potential to steer your story away from where it naturally wants to go, where you want it to go, and the resources here could likely be all you actually need to get started in the right direction. (Most of which benefit from being free, a popular feature among screenwriters.) By all means, build the huge library if you want and can afford it. You just don't need to. These will at least get you on the right track to the Lost Dutchman, and maybe even to the first rest stop.

I hope you find them, and the breakdowns on this site, as helpful as I have.

The Goods

Screenplays: if you want to write them, you need to read them. Nothing will get you more used to the form and feel of what a successful—which in this case simply means "made"—story for the screen looks like. They are the models you need at least to resemble. Several sites have screenplays for produced films available for free download. Most are heavy on content of the past decade or so, but the one I've linked to above has a solid selection of both film and TV from the last 20 years, with a few famous entries from the '90s. Older ones are available, but mostly through paid repositories.

The classic by playwright Lajos Egri. The first chapter explaining his conception of "premise" is quite simply the most helpful single piece of advice on story creation and design I've ever read. Nothing else has ever flipped on as bright a light. Click the cover for a long excerpt from that important first chapter, but the whole book is worth your time.

The impact of Robert McKee's Story on the screenwriting industry can be summed up in its—and his—being immortalized in Jonze and Kaufman's Adaptation. Its authoritative, exhaustive exploration of every aspect of screen story was a little too exhaustive for some, including me, but is still a hugely insightful dive into every element of story design. But if Egri's "premise" lit up one side of the room for me, Chapter 6 of Story—"Structure and Meaning"—lit up the other. It's there McKee contrasts his own, more current conception of premise with what he calls the "controlling idea." Click above for that essential discussion, or click here for the whole book, which I do think is a worthy addition to the library.

The charming paperback title for this book is So Your Mama Loves It, but Is It Ready for the Big Time?  Sheila Gallien would know, as she worked side-by-side with Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., for six years. She helped research the stories, break them down, and flesh them out. She also did the story meetings with Broyles and helped usher them through development. In other words, she knows the process. It shows here. Especially for those just starting out, needing a little more hand-holding and welcome to the world, this is bar-none the best introductory book to the craft I've seen. Partly it's because it does an excellent job of introducing the idea of asking questions to find your story. And partly it's because her questions are so good. Her framing is right on point. Gallien knows it all starts with asking the right questions, of your story and of yourself, and she explains it with exceptional clarity and without pretense. She is simple without being simplistic. If you're brand new to screenwriting, start here.

Before social media, Terry Rossio's Wordplay website was the place to go to discuss every aspect of film with pros and aspirants alike, including Rossio himself and his frequent collaborator Ted Elliot, who likely remain the most-ticket-selling screenwriting duo ever. What you'll find here, though, are over 50 columns, completely free, mostly Rossio's, on every conceivable aspect of screenwriting. When it comes to strory creation and design, my favorite is #40 on situation-based writing, but particularly from #40 to the latest are a must-stop for new screenwriters.

These are my preferred "starter kit" for new or confused screenwriters. For some of the other truly great, even essential, craft/trade-related resources I've personally used over the years, look for my reviews in Blog at a Glance.