Tomorrow, an army of geeks descends on San Diego — and many of them would kill to write for television. Comic-Con always hosts panels about TV writing, and they're always standing-room only. But how do you learn the craft? We asked some great television writers, and they told us 11 books that every aspiring scribe should read.
And yes, a couple of these things aren't "books" exactly. But they're close.
This 1895 book by the famous French author breaks down storytelling based on a study of Greek drama. According to Marc Bernardin (Alphas, The Highwaymen), this book "posits that there are only 36 possible stories and details their fundamental essences. Of course, one can combine them in hundreds of ways, but we as writers are basically remixing these 36 songs, over and over again."
This book by a longtime artistic director at a theater goes through four types of improvisation. Says Jack Kenny, the showrunner and executive producer of Warehouse 13, "It's essentially an primer to techniques used in improvisation, but it goes much deeper than any standard improv class or tome. It's about PEOPLE and how they move through the world — and what better study for any actor, director or writer!"
This book takes place in a far future, in a distant solar system where humanity has established an empire, and it follows a group of travelers going to the time tombs, following the style of the Canterbury Tales. And then the second volume is a story of "Johnny Keats" and machine intelligence. Josh Friedman (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) says: "For the sheer joy and brilliance of what genre can be (and for its semi-episodic nature), I think everyone should read Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos. It won't help you write TV specifically, but it's fucking awesome." Also, Friedman recommends a profile of David Simon where he talks about his approach to writing The Wire (possibly this one). Adds Friedman, "Also, if there's a book called Don't Be an Asshole in the Writers' Room, they should read that twice."
This book by an experienced TV scriptwriter includes input from other experts, like Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) and walks you through the four-act structure of television drama, including how to layer in an A, B and C plot in an episode. According to Deric Hughes (Warehouse 13), this is "the one book I tend to recommend to anyone who asks me how to write for television." He adds that it's "an extremely helpful, insightful book."
Grisanti was story consultant and VP of Current Programs at CBS/Paramount, but she's also an expert on story, according to Spiro Skentzos (Grimm.) She "really focuses on bringing the emotional journeys in your life to your writing. And since, especially in TV, executives and EPs are looking for your emotional brand as a writer, I think this is a good book that a nascent writer should read."
The best way to learn about television writing is by reading actual scripts, says Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Caprica, Game of Thrones, Once Upon a Time). So you should definitely dig up this script book, "or the Buffy Script book or the Sopranos scriptbook," she says. "Any of the books that actually give aspiring writers access to the actual shooting scripts of TV shows. All the 'rules' in the other books are abstracted from scripts, so you might as well just start there, and you won't get very far without some actual examples to look at anyway!"
This one is a seminar rather than a book — although McKee also wrote a book called Story. But Kenny recommends watching the seminar. Explains Kenny, "It's amazing! He spends a day and a half telling you all the 'rules' of structuring a story, and then you all watch Casablanca frame by frame, and he shows how it breaks every single rule brilliantly."
Really the most important thing for an aspiring television writer to read is "anything they can," says Ashley Edward Miller (Andromeda, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fringe).
Seriously. Fiction, non-fiction, semi-autobiographical historical paranormal romance. Doesn't matter. Part of your job is to consume story and information. If you're not doing that, you are on some level not serious about what you do. That said, if there were one thing I'd insist any aspiring TV writer spend some time reading and internalizing, it would be David Mamet's memo to the writing staff of The Unit. Really, it's all of his best advice and most important insights as a writer, a creator and a professional boiled down into a few short pages. Here is my two word synopsis: 'Don't suck.' Really kids, it IS that simple.
Jose Molina (Firefly, Haven, The Vampire Diaries) recommends this as a great book for screenwriters specifically. "The Goldman book is a brutally honest account of the life of a writer in Hollywood. (It focuses mostly on features, but it's a great primer for anyone who wants to know what it's really like. When I was 21 and first starting out, Michael Piller insisted I read it. The whole time I was reading, I was like "it'll be different for me — I won't have to eat any of this shit." I was 100% wrong." This isn't a writing book per se, but it's an essential book "about the Hollywood culture," Molina adds. "How writers are perceived and treated. It's a book you have to read, simply because you need to be warned what you're getting into. It's the first necessary step in losing the naivete with which so many people approach the industry."
Says Javier Grillo-Marxuach (The Middleman, LOST, Helix), "Not only did [Adams'] work instill in me at a young age a love of wordplay, non-linear narrative logic and extremely unexpected consequences — all of them incredibly useful tools in the writers room (even on TV shows far from the thematic preoccupations of Adams's work) — it also taught me that the universe is a capricious bureaucracy where absurdly subjective interpretation is the rule of law, entire creations can be destroyed by the powerful and unfeeling, and all of the material concerns of the individual are ultimately hare-brained distractions from the greater truth... in short, it was the perfect primer for life in the entertainment industry."
Almost everybody recommended this book as the essential book for anybody who wants to be a writer, in any medium. Says Bernardin, "it is both a harrowing look at a man dealing with crippling injury and how the work, in a very real way, saved his life as well as a nuts-and-bolts look at how a master storyteller goes about doing the work." Adds Friedman, " No fucking around, do the job, tell a story kind of shit. Clean, fun, inspiring."