7 great screenwriting books you often won’t find in bookstores

We’re in 2021, and whether you’re an amateur or a pro screenwriter, you probably already know the bookstore shelves are overloaded with books on writing. These books vary in content and quality, from bestseller handbooks, such as Story by McKee or Anatomy of the Story by Truby, to rarer gems, such as On Writing by Stephen King or The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr. You don’t have to be a bookworm to find them. You just need to open your browser search bar and type “Great Books for Screenwriters.” However, one distinctive feature pools them together: they are all written by English authors.

If we think about Bong Joon-Ho’s viral quote – “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films” – it’s not that difficult to remember that great storytelling goes beyond national borders. Similarly, filmmaking language has evolved over a century thanks to the craft of many authors from all over the world, such as Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Bergman… And as it happens with directors, every writer knows that research is part of the deal: the more you expand your knowledge, the more you become confident with your subject. So, why not read foreign authors? After all, as Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation reminds us, “writing is a journey into the unknown.”

In this article, I’ve collected a list of seven great books for screenwriters (and filmmakers) that you often won’t find in bookstores. These are rare gems written by foreign artists and scholars that, luckily for you, have been translated in English. They may not be as popular as the bestselling how-to books, but they undoubtedly offer alternative perspectives on the craft of telling a story.

#1 – Making a Film by Federico Fellini

You might not be familiar with Italian Cinema, but you certainly remember Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), with its iconic shot of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain. This masterpiece, along with many others (Nights of Cabiria, 81⁄2, Amarcord), earned him international recognition and an Academy Honorary Award in 1993. Fellini’s oeuvre is rooted in his autobiographic experiences, explored and reinvented through his oneiric, satiric, and melancholic visions.

Making a Film is a great chance to venture into the filmmaker’s creative process. The book collects personal memoirs and reflections and thoughts from his experiences as a filmmaker, and how the ideas for his films arose in his imagination and what drove him to make them real.

#2 – Morphology of the Folktale by Vladimir Propp

Structure, structure, structure… Yes, you know what I am talking about. The screenwriting gurus founded their theories and teaching on this concept, and many professionals in the industry talk about it as an essential ingredient in a screenwriter’s toolkit, even though sometimes you get the impression they don’t have a clear idea of what they are talking about… However, the study of structural elements in storytelling traces back time way earlier than Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1979).

Vladimir Propp, along with other Russian folklorists, was among the first scholars in recent history to shape this study tradition. His book Morphology of the Folktale laid the foundation of his theories, and it’s a classic in several other fields of studies. If you are keen on exploring the concept of “structure” under a new light, this book is for you.

#3 – Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa is unanimously considered one of the most influential pioneers in the history of cinema. During his career, spanning over fifty years, Kurosawa directed ground-breaking films such as Rashomon and Seven Samurai ,that renovated the language of the seventh art and granted him critical recognition and a place among many other artist’s favourite directors (Roman Polanski, Fellini himself, and Orson Welles, and so forth).

Something Like an Autobiography covers Kurosawa’s life in 54 chapters, from his birth to 1951, the year when Rashomon won the Golden Lion (Venice Film Festival). As reported by Variety, the book addenda “lays out his beliefs on the primacy of a good script, on scriptwriting as an essential tool for directors, on directing actors, on-camera placement, and on the value of steeping oneself in literature, from great novels to detective fiction.”

#4 – Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema by Andrei Tarkovskij

This list continues with another well-known foreign artist, the Russian filmmaker, theatre director, writer, and film theorist Andrey Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky’s unique artistic vision, characterised by metaphysical themes and long takes, culminated in universally acclaimed masterpieces such as Solaris and Mirror. Recollecting his discovery of Tarkovsky’s cinema, Bergman described his language as “true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.”

Sculpting in Time is a collection of the memoirs and inspirations at the origin of his films, and reflections on his creative process. You can get a taste of the book artistic statement in one of its famous quotes: “The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame.”

#5 – Cinema I and II by Gilles Deleuze

Gilles Deleuze has been one of the most published and studied French philosophers of the 20th Century, with a body of work ranging from philosophy, literature, film, and other arts and disciplines. To name a few: Difference and Repetition (1968); Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus (1972); A Thousand Plateaus (1980). What does such a refined, versatile thinker have to say to screenwriters and filmmakers? More than you think.

Deleuze two volumes, Cinema I: The Movement-Image and Cinema II: The Time-Image are considered a must-read in film theory and philosophy. Screenwriting is writing for the screen, and mastering this craft can only benefit from looking at the seventh art from a different perspective. Cinema I and II are “Deleuze’s reflection on the new ways the cinema enables us to think about time and movement, opening up insights into semiotics and our ideological construction of a world increasingly experienced through representational media” — Sherryl Vint, Film International, Issue 27, Film International.

#6 – Starting Point 1979-1996 by Hayao Miyazaki

You don’t need to be keen on anime to know the Japanese artist and co-founder of Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki. His films (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away to name a few) have obtained international acclaim and granted him a reputation as one of the most appreciated and accomplished storytellers in the history of world animation.

Starting Point 1979-1996 (followed by the later Turning Point 1997-2008) is a collection of essays, interviews, and memoirs about Miyazaki’s childhood, the formulation of his theories, and the founding of Studio Ghibli. For every screenwriter, this collection is a great chance to explore his creative process and challenges, from his job as an animator onwards.

#7 – Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut

This book might look like an intruder in this list of foreign authors and artists, but it suits it better than you think. There are not many words about Hitchcock’s artistic relevance that haven’t already been said. While his legacy permeates the language of modern filmmaking, Hitchcock’s famous quote about scripts has probably become one of the most recurring slogans used by the how-to books: “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script, and the script.”

Truffaut’s book is a series of dialogues between him and Hitchcock, moving chronologically through Hitchcock’s films to discuss his career and techniques. What makes this book so precious isn’t only Hitchcock’s reflections, but the fact that Truffaut, one of the founders of the French New Wave and an icon of French cinema, asks the right questions. It is no coincidence that Hitchcock’s films’ artistic value was first recognised and promoted by the founders of the French New Wave. Looking at the master of suspense by the Truffaut’s perspective, filmmaker to filmmaker, is an excellent way to challenge our conception of Hitchcock’s genius.

Honourable Mentions

Suppose you’ve already read these books, or you find yourself with more spare time and money in your pockets. In that case, I recommend Signs and Images by Roland Barthes, The Architecture of Vision by Michelangelo Antonioni, Lessons with Kiarostami by Abbas Kiarostami, and The Magic Lantern by Ingmar Bergman.