Playwriting & screenwriting books every fiction writer should read

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

When I discuss fiction with other writers, I’ll often turn the conversation to playwriting and screenwriting. (My writing friends are kind of sick of the topic.) I talk about these other genres because I believe there’s much for a fiction writer to mine from them.

Plays and film are different narrative forms than a novel or a short story, and so not all their nuances translates well. However, like comics and graphic novels, I believe the similarities outweigh the differences. What’s more, the practitioners of these other narrative arts have approached them with different assumptions and focuses than fiction writers. Different perspectives on the same art is a great way to learn more.

What I respect about plays and film are their emphases on structure. Structure is woefully under-emphasized in creative writing programs. Far too many MFA students are exiting programs without a working definition of crucial fiction elements like plot and character under their belts. Thankfully I was exposed to excellent playwrights in my education who exposed me to a world where narrative structure is not treated as a necessary evil but rather the primary focus.

From stage plays I explored books on screenwriting for largely the same reason: to better understand narrative structure. I cannot be overemphasized: scripts, both stage and film, are not defined by characters or setting or genre or dialogue. Scripts are structure. What I’ve learned is, the same applies to fiction, from short stories to novels.

What follows are various texts I’ve read over the years that have influenced my thinking.


Aristotle’s Poetics: Not the dry, dusty book you might think. Aristotle was a fan of stagecraft and his Poetics are an ancient fanboy’s attempts to understand why plays make us laugh and cry and why some plays “work” while others “fail.” If nothing else, read the Poetics for Aristotle’s definitions of plot, character, and spectacle. You will walk away with a workable definition of plot and character and comprehend why Aristotle thinks story should be plot-driven, not character-driven—and it will drive your MFA friends nuts.

The Playwrights Guidebook (Stuart Spencer): Spencer lays out the same elements as Aristotle but in terms more practical and less theoretical. Too often craft writers think “how-to-write” books are restrictive or push formulas with the ultimate intention of producing a blockbuster. Spencer’s more thoughtful approach breaks those expectations. If there’s one lesson to take away from Spencer, it is understanding the backbone of all playwriting, the beat as the fundamental unit of drama (action, conflict, and event).

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (John Patrick Shanley): A play in two acts featuring a pair of characters who are alternately in each other’s arms and at each other’s throats. Shanley’s humanist play is a model of economy and character-building. Fiction writers should look to Danny for its effective dialogue, the use of ambiguity, and creating characters through the steady accretion of detail—the naturalism of two highly protective people revealing their soft underbellies to one other.

A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) and Fences (August Wilson): It’s difficult for me to pick one over the other, so I list both. In some ways, each play is constructed in a by-the-book manner: each act made of scenes, each scene made of beats, and all beats and all scenes propelling their stories forward. You can put your finger on a random page of either of these plays and discover all the elements of Great American Playwriting in action. This is why I’ve written on both plays before (here, here, and here).

Film & Television

Adventures in the Screen Trade (William Goldman): Although much of this breezy book regards the insanity that is the movie business, Goldman spends valuable pages discussing the creative decisions he made penning screenplays for such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men as well as lesser-known films like Harper and A Bridge Too Far. Most instructive is Goldman including a short story of his own and the script he developed based on it. Goldman is an accomplished novelist (he wrote The Princess Bride!) and his insights into screenwriting often “sound” like they’re coming from a fiction writer. Plus, let’s face it—reading the inside scoop behind these great 1970s films is a treat for any movie aficionado.

Screenplay and/or The Screenwriter’s Handbook (Syd Field): The former is “the Bible of screenwriting” and the second is the New Testament. Yes, both books focus heavily on script specifics, but Field’s discussion of narrative structure made me re-think how the novel is constructed, so much that I’m working on a series about it.

Unlike plays, I can’t recommend hunkering down and reading any particular movie script. That may sound strange since I’m recommending books on writing them. Film scripts are so concerned with camera work, it often hampers getting to the meat of the script fiction writers should be concerned with—dialogue, conflict, scene structure, and so on.

Often it’s instructive to read plays adapted into movies, especially if the films are loyal to the source text. A good example of this is Glengarry Glen Ross, which features easily the best case ever assembled for the play (trust me, I’ve seen a few productions).

Otherwise, consider watching a film as a writer instead of an audience member. Keep the remote handy so you can go back and re-watch key scenes and study their dialogue and construction. Go even further and watch a film scene with your computer open so you can transcribe their dialogue. That may sound nutty, but you will really come to appreciate the use of language in film—and your own dialogue will improve for it.

For scripts more dialogue-heavy and less involved with the camera, look for television scripts, in particular those set before a live audience. They tend to focus on characters with well-defined motivations and generating conflict, much like plays, while writing to a different audience than theatergoers. (An old theater saying that applies to any great performance: “When someone walks on stage, it better be trouble.” Take that saying to heart in your fiction as well.) Unlike plays, television scripts are usually harder to locate. A used bookstore with a well-stocked Film & Television section may be your friend here.

Fawlty Towers: John Cleese’s and Connie Booth’s sitcom regularly tops British polls as funniest show ever, and for good reason. While the comic acting is one-of-a-kind, the show’s writing is also superb. The first episode and “The Hotel Inspector” are heavy on wordplay and farce, with each character well-defined in their role.

Blood in the margins

Previously I wrote glowingly on Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. While I gushed how thoroughly McCloud dissects the language of comics, I didn’t spend much time (if any) on how Understanding Comics has affected me as a fiction writer.

Rather than expand my review to, oh, 10,000 words or so, I’ve broken up lessons I’ve drawn from Understanding Comics into separate posts. Most of these posts will deal with narrative structure in fiction, so they might be viewed as a supplement to the series I’ve been developing on fiction treatments and outlines.

Gutters & paragraphs

I write fiction: novels, short stories, the occasional novella. My chosen art form is pure text: letters to words, words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters.

Scott McCloud’s chosen art form synthesizes images and written language into panels and panels into pages—comics. (Most people forget comics deal with text as well as images, another reason he calls comics “the invisible art.”) Word balloons, descriptive headers, even Batman’s BLAMMO!! coordinate with pictures in cell-like frames.

This doesn’t seem terribly applicable to writing fiction. What lessons can a fiction writer possibly glean from Understanding Comics?

Comics are a sequential art. Their “motion” depends on the layout of images across a page and the order with which they’re consumed by the reader. This is not so different than a story or a novel, only that they are built with a single component, words. But like comics, that single component is laid out sequentially, with words grouped into sentences and paragraphs. It may seem like a stretch, but I say these groupings act as narrative “panels.”

If you look back at my last post, you’ll notice McCloud identified written language as the ultimate pictograph in his “Picture Plane” diagram. By his reckoning, fiction is like a comic book with all the imagery stripped out. In comics, image and language spin together like dancers on a dance floor. In fiction, language is a solo act. Words are delegated to do all the heavy lifting.

Also like comics, fiction has a narrative “clock” which may be slowed down or sped up panel-by-panel, sentence-by-sentence:

   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
   Ten years later, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Probably the most-quoted section from McCloud’s book is the chapter “Blood in the Gutter.” Gutters are the blank space between panels (although some people question if even a space is required). For proof of McCloud’s obsession with the language of comics, look no further than his exhaustive dissection of the role of gutters in comics—the role of blank space in telling a story.

The blood in the gutter flows between seeing the axe-murderer bearing down on his victim in the left panel and “hearing” the scream across the night sky in the right panel. This closure occurs in comics as well as fiction (and in most other narrative arts too, such as film). McCloud reminds us, visually and lucidly, that narrative is a participatory act. No reader? No story, then, only ink on the page.

Closure in fiction is as complicated as it is in comics, and I can’t possibly cover all its facets here. One type of closure comics and fiction share is the use of white space (“empty space”). Take the above fiction example and add an asterisk:

   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
   Ten years later, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Even though the only change between these two examples is the asterisk centered on the line, it “feels” like more time has passed in the second example.

Different publishers use different devices to mark section breaks, such as three asterisks across the page, a short line or curlicue, or no print signal at all other than extra blank space separating the two text blocks. Often the first paragraph of the new section is not indented or has some other print feature to distinguish it, such as using small caps for the first three words.

Chapter openings and other similar breaks in the story will usually employ a variation of the above. Unfortunately, my blog’s layout isn’t conducive to demonstrating these different print styles. If you’re unfamiliar with them, pick up a books from different publishers and check closely how their layout editor arranged their chapters and section breaks.

White space can indicate the passing of a span of time—but it may also indicate a shift in space:

   Mary set down the phone with a sigh. “Hopefully that’s the last I’ll hear of Bob Wilkins.”
   Ten miles away, while searching through a stack of oily newspapers tied and bound for recycling, Bob Wilkins discovered…

Here the asterisk indicates a change of location, leaving the reader to search out other clues to determine how much time, if any, has passed between Mary hanging up the phone and Bob sifting through the recycling. The blatant cues I’ve added here (“ten years later,” “ten miles away”) are meant to assist my examples. A more artful author could indicate the same shifts with other, more subtle textual clues.

So asterisks, line breaks, and white space can indicate changes in time and space. What other visual signals does the fiction writer have at his or her disposal?

Look at paragraphs. Paragraphs employ white space (a new line, often a leading indent) to indicate all manner of changes in fiction:

  • time
  • location
  • point-of-view
  • shift of tone and subject matter
  • change of speaker (as with dialogue)

There’s plenty of other possibilities too. And don’t think breaking up paragraphs is some mechanical rule-based process out of the creator’s control. It’s a grammarian fantasy that hard-and-fast rules exist for making paragraphs. In fiction, breaking prose into paragraphs is a somewhat subjective art. After a century of modernist and postmodernist experimentation, it’s only become more subjective. Packing paragraphs with shifting sentences is considered avant garde in some situations. Run-on sentences packed into a single paragraph are now acceptable as well. (Read the first chapter of Billy Bathgate for an example.)

If you think about it, chapters are an even more extreme form of visual signaling. Chapter breaks are miniature explosions in the novel’s stream-of-narration. Chapters give the writer a chance to make major shifts and signal big changes occurring, to take a deep breath before moving on with the tale. (Chapter breaks also give the reader a chance to bookmark and set aside the book. Every chapter the writer introduces is one more risk of losing their audience.)

Even the format of chapter breaks sends signals to the reader. Some books use numbered words (“Twelve”) and others numerals (“12”). Some books start each chapter on a new page while others do not. (I’ve noticed Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer books often fail to start chapters on new pages, contributing to the detective’s relentless pace. Alex Garland’s superb The Beach is also laid out like this, another novel with a unremitting narrator.)

Children books are notorious for chapter titles (“At the Old Sawmill”). Other books merely indicate chapters with—you guessed it—exaggerated white space at the top of the page. Even the numbering of chapters may play a significant role in the telling of a story. Chapters (and page numbers!) are numbered backwards in Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, while the chapter numbers in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time form a sequence of prime numbers because the narrator finds them pleasing.

I’ve read enough books to know a chapter’s blank space (or lack of it) and the format of chapter titles plays a role, no matter how minor, in my reception of the book. If narration is a participatory act, and if you’re the kind of writer who believes every detail matters (and I think you should be that writer), then pay attention to how you employ blank space.

One temptation at this point is to suggest these white space markers are not so diverse after all—aren’t asterisks and line breaks and chapters merely for scene changes, separating the story’s structure in a less-blatant way than stage plays are marked (“Act IV Scene 2”)?

Not really. For example, a chapter may end on a cliffhanger and the next chapter pick up immediately where the last left off: same scene, same characters, same time and place. I’ve seen book chapters end with a line of dialogue and the next chapter open with another character’s reply. Writers often use chapter breaks to highlight the importance of that moment in the narrative, but they’re not a scene break per se.

This is what I mean when I say you, the writer, should pay close attention to your use of blank space. When you insert blank space in your next story—a scene ending with a second break, or starting a new chapter—ask yourself what your story gains (or, what your story loses) with the blank you’ve added.

It strikes me as fashionable these days for writers to break apart short stories into quick, MTV-like section breaks. Often each section builds a little emotion, heightens some tension, then drops off and shifts to a new scene. Try writing a short story told in one uncut narration. Try writing a short story told in one uncut scene. Try writing a short story in one paragraph.

Likewise, if you’re working on a novel. question each chapter break. Should these two sequential chapters be “glued” together? Or perhaps the first chapter should conclude earlier, or the second chapter start later?

I have a bad habit of starting a chapter in media res, that is, in the middle of the action, and a couple of paragraphs in, jump to a flashback explaining how the characters wound up in this action. Most times this indicates a poor choice of where I started the chapter. Some times I drop the flashback entirely and it’s not a problem at all. The flashback added little, and removing it only strengthened the chapter as a whole.

But the exercise itself is a questioning of blank space in my fiction. What purpose does this particular use of blank space serve? Does it add or subtract from the story?

For a real-world example of empty space in fiction, here’s a selection from Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Look how Thompson uses fictive closure to avoid the censor’s red pencil in 1952:

I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.

I took off my belt and raised it over my head. …

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped, before I came to my senses.

(Those ellipses are in the original.) Welcome to fiction’s version of “blood in the gutter”—a craven act of violence committed by three periods in sequence and the white space between the paragraphs.