We read a lot of books on writing, and here is a selection of books we can recommend to budding authors on the craft of storytelling.
Aristotle, Poetics. Oxford University Press, 2013. – Influential in the west, though to be read and interpreted with some care.
Baxter, Charles, Burning Down The House. Greywolf Press, 2008. – Very interesting essays on storytelling.
Booker, Christopher, The Seven Basic Plots. Continuum, 2005. – Much more erudite than the title would suggest, and somewhat controversial since he favours classics and disses almost every story of the last 200 years.
Boyd, Brian, On The Origins Of Stories. Harvard University, 2009. – The world’s foremost Nabokov expert with a brilliant and comprehensive – though occasionally quite dry – explanation of why stories are an integral part of the human species, an evolutionary adaptation we couldn’t live without.
Braine, John, Writing a Novel. Methuen, 1985. – Old and of limited interest since Braine seems to have been a bit of a pantser.
Burnett, Hallie and Whit, Fiction Writer’s Handbook. Harper & Rowe Perennial, 2001. – Old and somewhat dated, doesn’t contain much on composing narrative.
Burroway, Janet, Writing Fiction. Harper Collins, 1992. – Not so well known, but actually pretty good.
Butler, Robert Olen, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. Grove Atlantic, 2005. – Partially brilliant, but some wastage in the sample stories.
Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008. – This is a classic one ought to be aware of, though it must be treated with a certain degree of caution. It is analysis, not how-to.
Cron, Lisa, Wired for Story. Ten Speed Press, 2012. – A little irritating in tone, but sums up the state of play quite well.
Damrosch, David, What Is World Literature? Princeton University Press, 2003. – A book about reading rather than writing from the point of view of comparative literature. Wide-ranging and enlightening.
Egri, Lajos, The Art of Dramatic Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2004. – Quite old and supposedly a classic, but we found it vague and imprecise.
Field, Syd, Screenplay. Bantam Dell, 2005. – One of the early “gurus” for filmwriting. A bit imprecise by today’s standards.
Forster, E.M., Aspects of the Novel. Harcourt, 1985. – Transcript of a lecture series on how novels work. Quite old, imprecise, and sometimes missing the point entirely, and nevertheless interesting since it is E.M. Forster.
Gu, Min Dong, Chinese Theories of Fiction, A Non-Western Narrative System. State University of New York, 2006.
Gottschall, Jonathan, The Storytelling Animal. Mariner Books, 2013. – This is Boyd light. Gottschall takes the same ideas and adds some anecdotal bonuses to make a popular science non-fiction book covering much the same ground as Boyd. Still worth reading though.
King, Stephen, On Writing. Simon & Schuster, 2002. – More of a memoir than an analysis. Frankly, the book is proof that practitioners are not necessarily the best teachers or analysers. It is myth-building – King doesn’t give away too many tricks of his trade.
Kundera, Milan, Der Vorhang. Fischer, 2008. – Some interesting and thoughtful musings on how literature works.
Lumet, Sidney, Making Movies. Vintage, 1996. – Anecdotal and much about the technicalities of making a movie, but this great director’s observations on screenwriting are pertinent.
McKee, Robert, Story. Harper Collins, 1997. – Aims to be comprehensive, and nearly makes it too. Concentrates on movies.
Plaks, Andrew, Chinese Narrative, Critical and Theoretical Essays. Princeton, 1977.
Saunders, George, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Random House, 2021. A creative writing teacher and author analyses (sometimes brilliantly) short stories by Russian masters such as Tolstoy and Chekhov with a view to what we lesser writers can learn from them.
Snyder, Blake, Save the Cat! Michael Wiese, 2005. – Very brief, and irritating in that is seeks to provide the formula for a Hollywood blockbuster, disregarding all else. Nonetheless influential and worth reading.
Steiner, George, The Death of Tragedy. Faber & Faber, 1961. – More stimulating than useful.
Steiner, George, Grammars of Creation. Faber & Faber, 2001.
Storr, Will, The Science of Storytelling. Harper Collins, 2019. – After Yorke probably the most precise book on what storytelling is to us humans.
Swain, Dwight, Scriptwriting. Butterworth Heinemann, 1988. – A bit aged, but not bad. Covers everything, including formatting and sales.
Truby, John, The Anatomy of Story. Faber & Faber, 2008. – Another “guru” like Vogler, McKee and Snyder. Truby holds workshops at over 500 dollar a day. His book is annoyingly complicated and curiously little fun to read. For all that, it covers a lot of ground and has much useful insight.
Vogler, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey. Michael Wiese Productions, 2007. – A Hollywood “guru’s” reinterpretation of Campbell, and Vogler’s hypotheses are sometimes mistaken for Campbell’s theories. Very influential.
Wood, James, How Fiction Works. Vintage, 2009. – Very badly named book, because what he talks about is writing, not dramaturgy. The great critic is interested in language and style, not composition of narrative.
Yorke, John, Into the Woods. Penguin, 2013. – Possibly the best book on the subject of storytelling we’ve come across so far. Only the Introduction seems arrogant, the rest is most insightful.
Put the theory into practice: