Forget the gurus. They want to sell you useless books that you don’t need (see Robert McKee & Syd Field). There is no formula for screenwriting. These are all of the books that I find useful for screenwriting.
1. On Writing by Stephen King
I know what you’re thinking. Stephen King? It just so happens that this is the best book on creative writing that I have come across. This book is split into two parts. The first is a semi-autobiography of Stephen King that helps you understand the life and journey of a writer and how that shapes their work. The second part consists of a nuts and bolts breakdown of the craft of writing. While Stephen King’s advice is geared towards aspiring novelists, the advice he gives on plot, character and story are also applicable to the art of screenwriting.
2. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King
This is the audiobook version of Stephen King’s memoir on writing read by the ol’ Stevie King himself. Before I start a new script or begin rewriting an old script, I often find myself listening to this audiobook for both inspiration and as a reminder of what and how I should be writing. I recommend both the printed and the audio versions of the book and find each to be useful in different ways.
3. On Directing Film by David Mamet
I realize that this is a book on directing, as the title so clearly states. It is an excellent book for directors. However, it is also a great book for aspiring screenwriters. Although best known for his dialogue and his plays, Pulitzer-prize winner David Mamet was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter before he became a director. This book, which was taken from a series of lectures that David Mamet gave while teaching a directing class at Columbia University, will help you learn how to break down a story visually. This is an important skill for any screenwriter.
4. Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach by Paul Gulino
This is the method taught by my alma mater, the USC School of Cinematic Arts. It offers a non-conventional approach to structure that can be useful but is not, by any means, the only way to approach screenwriting.
4. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Every writer should have proper grammer, spelling and punctuation; screenwriters included. This timeless guide will not only make your writing look more professional, but also help you to make your writing clearer and easier to read.
These are the only books that I have found useful for screenwriting.