I got into screenwriting a few years ago and like anyone who hasn’t done a course I decided to read a few how-to books to get an idea of structure but in all honesty they didn’t really help. There is a some value in reading a couple of them but only to a certain degree and the one thing I really got from all the books that stick in my mind is listed right at the bottom..
The Robert Mckee seminars are probably better as you get the visual performance for educational purposes but the idea that you should read these books or you will end up with a 100-page mess is not necessarily true. I am near the end of the third book, Save the Cat, which everyone talks about after Syd Field’s Screenplay and don’t get me wrong, I have gleaned a few bits of helpful information but the only way I really learned to write is watching films (lots of films!) and reading screenplays (lots of screenplays!). Absorbing that much information gives you an idea on structure.
Oh, and write. Write all the time, rewrite and keep rewriting. You will get your own rhythm and believe me, you will get your own voice. I personally refer to screenplays rather than the how-to books when I get stuck and listening to established screenwriters, they pretty much do the same.
Learning the fundamentals is an important aspect to great screenwriting but take in the script books verbatim and you will invariably have run off the mill scripts that work through the motions. Look at the films you really like and ask yourself if they followed the rules to the letter? No, they learned the fundamentals and then added their own characteristics.
Also to be blunt, if you want to write “within the system” then go ahead and follow these books to the letter and then start counting the money but that’s not me, that’s not the style I am going for. The best how-to book on selling out and generally a really fun read is Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: by Garant and Lennon. This one is explicit for writing purely for money and thereby selling your soul.
Now, stop procrastinating, open that Final Draft and get going
The following is roughly the screenplay breakdown and most movies follow this model:
-page 1-10: we meet the character and the world they live in
-page 10: the incident happens
-page 25: your hero is launched into the story
-page 45-50: things get worse
-page 65-70: something even worse happens
-page 70-80: things get as bad as they can possibly get
-page 80-90: the winning is going to be harder than we thought it was
-page 90-100-ish: the climax, the hero wins