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Top 10 Must-Reads for Every TV Writer

Looking to become a successful TV writer or improve your writing skills? 

We’ve scoured the shelves and poured over pages to bring you a comprehensive guide that includes a range of resources, from William Rabkin’s Writing the Pilot to Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

Each book offers practical advice and insider insights that are invaluable to aspiring TV writers, covering everything from character development and storytelling to navigating the TV industry. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, these resources are an essential addition to any writer’s toolkit.

Diablo Cody

Ten Best Books on TV Writing

1. Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin.

As a professional TV writer and showrunner who also teaches and trains aspiring writers and showrunners, I lean towards books written by actual writers and showrunners. William Rabkin is a veteran TV writer and showrunner who’s written three must-haves – Writing the Pilot, Writing the Pilot/Creating the Series and his newest, Writing the Pilot: The Streaming Series. They’re all terrific, but if you’re to pick one, I’d go with this one, the OG.  Why is this at the top of my list of best books on TV Writing? This one will teach you all you need to know about writing pilots, creating series, and going pro with zero fluff. 

2. The Idea by Erik Bork.

Bork’s The Idea: The Seven Elements of a Viable Story for Screen, Stage, or Fiction is an excellent resource for aspiring TV writers looking to develop compelling story ideas. Bork, an Emmy-winning writer and producer, offers practical advice and clear guidance on how to create a high-concept, emotionally engaging story that will resonate with audiences. He breaks down the essential elements of a strong story, such as a unique premise, compelling characters, and clear goals and obstacles. This is not a practical “how-to” guide so don’t expect worksheets or step-by-step instructions. But if you’re looking for a deep dive into what makes a concept really work, this is the one.

3. Save the Cat! Writes for TV by Jamie Nash.

I have mixed feelings about the school of ‘Save the Cat’. I’m a fan of the Save the Cat beat sheet, a simple schematic all screenwriters can use to start beating out their story. My issue with the Save the Cat school of thought is with its steadfast insistence on character relatability over character complexity. But this book hits different. Writer Jamie Nash has taken what really works from Blake Snyder’s original Save the Cat doctrine and adapted it for tv writing with strong results. His book focuses on the specifics of writing for television, offering a step-by-step guide to structuring your TV scripts, creating memorable characters, and crafting binge-worthy storylines. Nash’s book transcends the limitations of the Save the Cat formula to really get to the heart of character-centered TV writing.

4. The Negative Trait Thesaurus/The Positive Trait Thesaurus/The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi.

Ackerman and Puglisi are co-authors of three essential writing resources books, all of which focus on character development: The Emotion Thesaurus, The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus.  These guides were written for authors, but are tremendously useful for all writers, placing them firmly on my list of best books on TV writing. The Emotion Thesaurus is a guide to understanding and conveying character emotions, providing a list of physical, psychological, and behavioral responses to various emotions. The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus provide writers with a comprehensive list of personality traits and behaviors that can be used to create three-dimensional characters. The authors’ approach of providing specific, actionable information is particularly useful, making these books accessible and practical for writers at all levels of experience.

5. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development by K.M. Weiland. 

While this book is geared towards novelists, many of the principles and techniques presented can be applied to the TV writing process. Specifically, the book’s emphasis on the relationship between character development and plot can be particularly useful for TV writers who need to balance ongoing character arcs with episodic storytelling. Overall, Creating Character Arcs is a valuable resource for TV writers looking to develop their skills and create more compelling and nuanced characters and stories.

6. Inside the Room: Writing Television with the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program edited by Linda Venis

The book covers a wide range of topics, from concept development to pitching and selling a show, and draws on the expertise of top writers and instructors in the field. The focus on collaboration and working effectively in a writers’ room is a particular strength, as it provides readers with a realistic understanding of what it takes to succeed in the industry. However, some readers may find the book’s heavy emphasis on the American TV industry and its practices to be limiting, and the lack of variety in the case studies presented may be a drawback for some. Overall, Inside the Room is a highly informative guide to TV writing, but it should be used in conjunction with other resources on this list to ensure a well-rounded understanding of the craft.

7. Screenwriter’s Bible 7th edition: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by David Trottier

There’s a reason every screenwriter (and Story Dept Coordinator) has this tome on their bookshelf. This is THE guide on screenplay formatting, making it essential to any list of best books on tv writing.  This tome offers a wealth of information on everything from proper formatting to industry standards for length and content. Much of this information is out there for free on YouTube… but can you trust it?  If you’re looking for trustworthy answers for all your formatting questions, The Screenwriter’s Bible is an essential resource.

8. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

Truby’s guide to storytelling is a must-read for any aspiring screenwriter looking to understand the principles of good screen storytelling. This book focuses on writing features, so if you’re looking for a one-stop guide for TV writers, you’ll want to look elsewhere on this list. But you’ll learn lots from Truby’s understanding of screen storytelling.

9. Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV by Pamela Douglas

What makes this book essential is its practical focus, providing clear and actionable advice for writers looking to break into the industry. Douglas includes helpful exercises and examples throughout the book, giving readers the opportunity to apply the concepts she presents to their own work. Be sure to get your hands on the most recent edition, published in 2018.

10. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

While not written for screenwriters specifically, Pressfield’s self-help guide is essential reading for all artists. Pressfield offers practical advice and strategies for overcoming obstacles like self-doubt, fear, and procrastination, and provides readers with a framework for developing the discipline and focus necessary to succeed as a writer. He places emphasis on the mental and emotional aspects of the creative process, and recognizes that these factors are often the biggest impediments to success. This book provides valuable insights into the psychological challenges of writing, and offers strategies for overcoming them. His candid and engaging style makes this book both entertaining and informative, and its universal themes of perseverance and self-discipline are applicable to writers in all genres and mediums. 

10 Best Books on TV Writing: Summing Up

Writing is a skill that requires discipline and continuous learning, and even the most seasoned writers recognize the need for ongoing improvement.  This list of must-read resources includes a range of books on writing, character development, and storytelling, as well as guides on navigating the TV industry.  

From Rabkin’s Writing the Pilot to Pressfield’s The War of Art, each book offers practical advice and insider insights that are invaluable to aspiring TV writers. 

While some books may have limitations, these resources provide a wealth of knowledge and are an essential addition to any writer’s toolkit.

Steven Pressfield

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