The thing about being a writer–or a creative of any kind–is that you never stop leveling up. Every project you create pushes you to be better and grow your skills. As a novelist and screenwriter, I’ve learned a lot from creating new works, collaborating with other writers, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but after a certain point, it’s not effective to exclusively learn through trial and error. Especially if you have dreams of writing professionally, you are going to have to put in a concerted effort to learn new skills. Enter these three writer craft books. Each one of them has personally shaped my craft, made me think about story in a new way, and pushed me to grow as a writer. If you want to improve your writing, I can’t recommend them enough.
Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere)
As you may guess from the title, this book is geared towards novelists, but if you’re a screenwriter, don’t look away quite yet. My agent recommended this writer craft book to me when I was struggling with a revision, and when I say it was life changing, it’s no understatement. Lisa Cron truly is a story genius. In this book (which is an easy, enjoyable read) she breaks down how character is the real key to creating an engaging plot. She makes a strong case for developing your main character before you do anything else, and teaches you how to take your outlining to the next level by making sure each and every plot point challenges your protagonist in new and transformative ways. Plot has always been the hardest part of the writing process for me, and this writer craft book totally changed that for me. I have a deeper understanding of plot, character development, and story structure now that I’ve read this. If you’re not a big reader, try the audiobook (Audible has a free trial, cough cough) and I promise, you’ll be as obsessed as I am.
Let’s be real, if you are already familiar with story structure or writer craft books, you knew this one was coming. What would this list be without Save the Cat? It seems like every outlining tool in the whole world has elements of Blake Snyder’s famous story structure in it. But these books are far from overrated. If you’re new to plotting, or even if you just could benefit from a refresher, these are the books for you. One of the best parts of Save the Cat is that there are tons of resources online that help you use the method. The website has beat sheets that break down famous movies into their story beats, which is so helpful if you’re wondering what these methods look like in action. This is one of the first writer craft books I recommend to new writers, but even if you’ve been at it for a while, it’s worth your time.
At first glance, this book seems highly specific, maybe too specific to be useful unless you’re, you know, writing a romance novel. However, as someone who has never once written a romance novel, I can attest that this writer craft book is life-changing. So many screenplays and novels have romance storylines, and so often they fall flat. How many times have you watched a movie or read a book and found that it was difficult to root for the couple on the screen or on the page? Especially when you’re writing a screenplay, there are so many factors that could impact this; the director’s choices, the actor’s chemistry… but if you have a rock-solid script, those things matter less. Do yourself a favor and read this book before you outline your next story. This book is inexpensive and I read it in one sitting, so even if you’re a slow reader or if you’re on the fence it’s not a huge commitment.
When my agent recommended this book to me, I was struggling with a romance storyline. I was obsessed with my characters and knew audiences would be obsessed with them too, but something wasn’t working out. Their scenes were on point, their chemistry was perfect… but their timing was all wrong. This writer craft book helped me understand the story beats of a romance novel, which allowed me to create a B-plot that really, truly made sense. Some people dismiss romance novels as formulaic, but you can’t deny that the formula WORKS. Romance readers devour the books; they’re some of the most prolific readers out there. Fans of romance movies and rom-coms are absolutely riveted by romantic movies, which follow the same beats. Even if your romance storyline is not the focus of your book or screenplay, don’t try to reinvent the wheel and invest six bucks to learn how to make this part of the story absolutely perfect.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I wrote and published a workbook for screenwriters that helps them create an outline in a day (although a novelist could 100% use it too!) It has elements of all of these books, plus a lot of other things that I’ve learned from my many years of writing novels and screenplays. Here’s a quote from Avery, a screenwriter and filmmaker who loved the workbook:
“This screenplay workbook is a very thorough yet non-intimidating way to approach outlining. I really appreciate how it constantly makes you ask yourself questions about your intentions with your story, and forces you to continuously return to the character’s needs and identity. This is so important and often can slip away if you’re not careful! It helps keep the story grounded and meaningful, making sure you don’t get away from the character or heart while swimming around the intimidating expanse of act 2. The workbook also has helped me better understand the functions of common story structure thresholds with simple and approachable explanations for each act and beat. Honestly, the workbook makes writing a full feature seem much more doable. I’ll definitely be using this with the next script I write!”
Glenn, a screenwriter, had this to say:
“This is an excellent outlining workbook for those, like myself, interested in screenwriting (or for those who just need to get their ideas down on paper). A lot of thought and care was put into the flow, allowing anyone with a story to tell to follow along in easy to read and understandable steps. The author keeps the writer engaged as you work through the outline, consistently asking questions to ensure your characters and story go the direction YOU want them to. If you’re looking for a great reference to help you flesh out ideas, I’d recommend this workbook.”
These are my favorite writer craft books! What are your favorites? Are there any you want me to read and review? Shoot me a message if there are any I missed here!