An Overview of Screenwriting Manuals since 1913 1911.

Screenwriting books

As with the previous brief history of Structural and Anthropological Narratology research (see: StoryAlity #27, Narratology Since Plato), this research, (and the doctoral research study which produced it), is part of a tradition (of just over 100 years) of analyzing movies/movie screenplays/stories, to find common elements that screen storytellers can use as “practical writing aids/tools” while writing in the commerce-driven environment of the film industry.

A Brief History of Screenwriting Manuals - JT Velikovsky (2012)

A Brief History of Screenwriting Manuals – JT Velikovsky (2012)

A brief history of Screenplay/Movie Story instructional manuals is as follows:

The Photoplay - by Ralph P Stoddard (1911)

The Photoplay – by Ralph P Stoddard (1911)    [click image to read it online]

How To Write A Photoplay (Hoagland 1912)

How To Write A Photoplay (Hoagland 1912)       [click image to read online]

  • In 1913 William Lewis Gordon published How to Write Moving Picture Plays, in which he outlines how to write silent films, including the wise advice: “REMEMBER THAT A PLAY EASILY PRODUCED IS FAR MORE LIABLE TO BE ACCEPTED THAN ONE REQUIRING THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS TO STAGE.” (Gordon 1913: 21)
How To Write Moving Picture Plays (Lewis Gordon 1914)

How To Write Moving Picture Plays (Lewis Gordon 1913) – Revised 1914 Edn

  • Also in 1913 Epes Winthrop Sargent published Technique of the Photoplay. New York: The Moving Picture World and Chalmers Publishing Company
  • Also in 1913 – Eustace Hall Ball, The Art of the Photoplay, New York: Veritas Publishing Co.
  • Again in 1913 (a big year for Screenplay Manuals) – J Berg Esenwein and Athur Leeds, Writing The Photoplay. Springfield, Mass.: The Home Correspondence School
  • In 1914 A. W. Thomas published How to Write a Photoplay including advice on Story, the theme and its material, the division into scenes, the action, unity, sequence, suspense, unexpectedness, crisis and climax.
  • 1920 – John Emerson and Anita Loos How To Write Photoplays. New York: McCann
  • Also 1920 – Frances Taylor Patterson Cinema Craftsmanship. A Book for Photoplaywrights. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe
  • 1922 – Frederick Palmer Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia. An Analysis of the Use in Photoplays
    of the Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations and Their Subdivisions. Hollywood. Palmer Photoplay Corporation. (Notably – this refers to Georges Polti’s work The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations [1916], but Polti claims to be continuing the work of playwright Count Carlo Gozzi, who lived 1720-1806.)
  • 1924 – Frederick Palmer Technique of the Photoplay. Hollywood: Palmer Institute of Authorship
  • 1928 – Frances Taylor Patterson Scenario and Screen. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company
  • 1929 – Frances Taylor Patterson Motion Picture Continuities. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • 1936 – Tamar Lane The New Technique of Screen Writing. A Practical Guide to the Writing and Marketing of Photoplays. New York, London: McGraw-Hill
  • 1936 – John Howard Lawson Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting. New York: G P Putnam’s Sons
  • 1937 – Norman Lee Money For Film Stories. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons
  • Also 1937 – Frances Marion How To Write and Sell Film Stories. With a Complete Shooting Script for Marco Polo by Robert E Sherwood. New York: Covici Friede Publishers.

And – `The Modern Era’ of Screenplay Manuals: (notably – cinema changed after `The Paramount Antitrust Case of 1948′.)

Screenwriting books

  • In 1979 Syd Field published Screenplay, in which he outlined the 3-act structure that he claims feature film screenplays follow, including a misconception of “Aristotelian 3-Act structure”. Notably however the films studied in Screenplay are selective and illustrative, the story system is not the result of an empirical or scientific study. Screenplay has sold over 1 million copies and has dominated the screenwriting convention.
  • In 1983 William Goldman published Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. Though not a screenwriting manual, it contains advice on story structure and dramatic writing. Originally a novelist and Broadway playwright, Goldman is regarded as one of the most successful Hollywood screenwriters, in terms of both art and commerce. Notably this text contains the quote “Nobody knows anything”. However Goldman was working in a pre-paradigm era, when consilient, empirical and scientific research of narrative and film success (such as, perhaps, this doctoral research study) did not yet exist.
  • In 1987 Linda Seger (a student of Field’s) published Making a Good Script Great. This story system is essentially similar to (an extension and complication of) Field’s.
  • In 1989 Michael Hauge published Writing Screenplays That Sell. (Notably however the screenplays studied in the book were not primarily `spec’ screenplays.)
  • In 1992 Christopher Vogler published The Writer’s Journey, in which he applies the Joseph Campbell monomyth structure to various popular movies.
  • In 1994 Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley released Dramatica screenwriting and story software.
  • In 1997 Robert McKee published Story, in which he outlines his “dramatic principles” and presents his “10 commandments”. However like Aristotle, McKee selectively chooses his examples to illustrate his points (or `principles’), regardless of whether the films examined were `successful’ or not. Yet in 2014, this remains a highly-influential screenwriting manual, possibly largely due to its strong rhetoric.
  • In 2002 Richard Stefanik published The Megahit Movies, a study of the common story structure elements in films that had U.S. domestic box-office grosses of $250 million or more. This is one of the few screenwriting manuals with a clearly-defined data set. However – given that only experienced screenwriters write films with the sorts of budgets involved in these films, this book is arguably not useful to most screenwriters; such high budget films are unlikely to be financed.
  • In 2005 Blake Snyder published Save The Cat! in which he presents 12 plot steps in selected film stories. Snyder’s genre classifications are a worthy contribution to screenwriting literature.
  • Also in 2005, Victoria Lynn Schmidt published Story Structure Architect, which extrapolated Polti’s 36 dramatic situations into 55, with a feminine perspective.
  • In 2007 John Truby published The Anatomy of Story in which he outlined 22 steps in various film stories.
  • In 2011 Todd Klick published Something Startling Happens, a minute-by-minute analysis of story events in certain well-known films.

In 1995, 2003 and 2011 I also published an Academic Summary Review of about 100 of the most popular of the above: (I summarized each book, into a page). It is free online here:

Feature Screenwriters Wkbk cover

This list above is by no means a comprehensive list of all Screenwriting Instructional Manuals. (There are over 2500 on Amazon.com).

Additional information can also be found in Edward Azlant’s 1980 PhD dissertation, The Theory, History, and Practice of Screenwriting, 1897-1920, in Assoc Prof Steven Maras’s excellent book Screenwriting: History, Theory, and Practice (2009) and in Marc Norman’s, What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting. New York: Harmony Books (2007).

However – in terms of the most popular, well-recognized and accepted (and academically-cited) texts, these works listed above are the “key milestones” in screenwriting manuals, as recognized within the film industry and the Academy (academia).

Note however that – almost all of these `popular’ Screenwriting Manuals are not consilient, and do not use an empirical sample of successful films, for their study sample data set of films/screenplays. Their findings may therefore (possibly) be dubious – and in general, are not supported by empirical nor scientific evidence.

Confused Crowd 

Also – a recent (2015) addition to the literature:

I have some articles in “Miller’s Compendium of Timeless Tools for the Modern Writer” by Greg Miller (Author, Editor, 2015)

Millers Timeless Tools For the Modern Writer - cover


Amazing book, and not just because I’m in it. Nice work Greg. (And, the illustrations are amazing too.)

Also in 2016, I published this chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture (and narreme, or unit of story)

Thoughts? Comments? Feedback?


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



My sincere Thanks go to screenwriter and screenwriting teacher Raija Talvio MA, for assisting in this research, and especially for pointing me towards Claus Tieber’s excellent book ‘Schreiben für Hollywood’ (‘Writing for Hollywood’) Münster: Lit Verlag, 2008.

As Raija also notes: “In the book Tieber writes about the time of the ‘scenario fever’ around 1912 – that there was a boom of magazines advising about scenario writing: Picture World, Monography, Motion Picture Story, Photoplay, Photo Playwright, Author, Motion Picture News, Script, Photoplay Scenario and Photoplaywright. The source for this is Richard Koszarski’s book ‘An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture: 1915 – 1928‘. Also – a very brief presentation about the genealogy of screenwriting theory from a Scandinavian – Central European point of view of is available here: http://zakka.dk/euroscreenwriters/articles/history_of_dramaturgy_539.htm. At archive org you will also find the drama theory book of William Archer Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship (1912), which has been published in many printings and seems to be the direct source of many modern screenwriting manuals. http://archive.org/details/playmakingamanu00archgoog“.

Raija also notes: “A mid-century influence in Central Europe was Vsevolod Pudovkin, a contemporary of Eisenstein, Kuleshov and Vertov in the Soviet Union. His book about filmmaking was translated into German in 1928. The Foreword of the translation was written by Thea von Harbou, the screenwriter of Metropolis and wife of Fritz Lang. Pudovkin was not translated into English before 1950s, but that English translation is also available at archive org.: ‘Film Technique; and Film Acting: the Cinema Writings of V.I. Pudovkin’ (1954) http://archive.org/details/filmtechniqueact00pudo Daniel Gritten’s thesis ‘The Profession and Practice of Screenwriting in British Cinema: The 1920s and 1930s’ is also downloadable at the British Library website http://ethos.bl.uk/Home.do

Notably, Raija has written an article about the public debate about screenwriting in 1930’s Finland: ‘First of all, the screenplay problem has to be solved’. It was published in the Journal of Screenwriting in Issue 2/2010.

Notably, the Journal of Screenwriting is the only academic, peer-reviewed journal devoted to Screenwriting. It was first published in 2010. I commend it to you.

See also, the great site: http://roteirodecinema.com.br/wp/os-manuais-de-roteiro-do-cinema-mudo/ (which is where I found out about the 1911 manuals!)


Gordon, William Lewis (1913), How To Write Moving Picture Plays (Cincinatti: Atlas Publishing Company). http://archive.org/stream/howtowritemovin00gordgoog#page/n6/mode/2up


7 thoughts on “StoryAlity #28 – Screenwriting Manuals since 1911

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