For a long time, I never believed you could learn writing from a book. The writing process seemed too mysterious and magical to be captured and put down in words. But then I tried writing my own stories. I’d start off with what I thought was a killer few pages and then inevitably, I’d hit a wall. “So then what happens?” I wondered while banging my head against my desk. I started looking for some writing books, hoping to find some guidance.
There are thousands of writing manuals out there, each promising to teach you how to write novels, memoirs, or screenplays on the weekends, or during your lunch break, or while your stuck in traffic. There are a few gems out there, but a lot of it is garbage. The main problem with most writing books is they assume you already have your story all figured out and you just need a few pointers to get it down on paper. But this is never (or rarely) the case.
Our stories don’t come to us neatly packaged so that all we have to do is unwrap it and learn to put the right pieces in the right places. Stories are messy. They come to us in bits and pieces, all out of order. Sometimes we get an image, or a character idea, or we’re inspired by a fantasy world or particular time period. But how do you actually take all those disparate elements, all those little nuggets of inspiration, and weave them into a cohesive, entertaining, and enlightening story? There is no one way. No easy answer. But I found the following books smart and sage and they can help jumpstart that idea you’ve been thinking about or help you get over that story problem you haven’t been able to crack. Not every part of these books resonated with me. The key is to take what works for you and leave the rest. I also find that the fundamentals are similar between books, the authors just have different ways at explaining the ideas.
I’m recommending these five books because they each guide you in creating a story from the ground up. They help you to make sure that the blueprint for your story is strong and sound. Or if you’re rewriting a story, they can help you more quickly hone in on what is working and what is missing in your story.
Anatomy of Story by John Truby
While the focus of this book is screenwriting, the teachings can be easily translated to novels. His approach to story transcends the traditional (and oversimplified) three-act structure. Truby’s philosophy is about building a story from the inside out, in an organic way. He likens a story to all living things, in that it has several stages of growth (seven stages, to be exact), which make up the DNA of your story:
1. Weakness and need
7. New equilibrium
He believes all stories must have these seven elements in order to function, and he provides a ton of great examples of stories and why they work according to his story model. There are also several writing exercises that help you nail down your story as you develop it.
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
Brooks’ approach to story is very pragmatic. He believes that story is engineered, like a building. You need to nail down the blueprint before you begin the time-consuming part of actually making the thing. His take on story is that there are Six Core Competencies, which are non-negotiable. If your story doesn’t have these, its foundation will be fundamentally unstable. These are:
5. Scene execution
6. Writing voice
He goes into depth about each topic, why it’s important, and how to develop it. He also lays out a four-act structure that really resonated with me and helped me look at story structure in a different way.
Brooks also has a great blog that further expands on the topics in his book — storyfix.com
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
Wired for Story is a unique book in that it is both a “how-to” and a scientific exploration into how story works on our brains, based on research in neuroscience. Our brains are hardwired to expect certain things from stories, and if that framework isn’t there, we will put the book down or turn off the movie.
In combination with any of these other books, it provides a great guidepost to developing your story and making sure it triggers the reader’s brain so the reader will want to keep turing the page. This book helped me realize how powerful storytelling can be — that the stories we write can literally change the way people think.
Inside Story by Dara Marks
This book helps you get to the emotional heart of your story. Marks’ focuses on the character’s transformational arc through the story. The “challenge to grow and evolve as we face the trials in our life is referred to as the transformational arc of the character.” It’s a very psychological approach to building a story structure and plot. It shows how the character’s arc is the plot – the two are not separate. The transformational arc is “the second line of structure wrapped within the structure of the plot.”
Stealing Fire From the Gods by James Bonnet
Drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, this is the most myth-focused book of this bunch. It explores the reason why we have stories and their importance, while also providing guidance in creating your own stories. I love when he says that stories and the human mind are linked in a way that is deep and meaningful, and if you can tap into the power of great stories, you can tap into your full potential. I first read this book during the early days of developing Avatar and, looking back, I think it really helped me tap into the mythological aspects and archetypes of the story Bryan and I wanted to tell. If I had to recommend one of these books to start with, I’d pick this one.
The biggest takeaway from all these books is that while story is a mysterious beast, it can be tamed with the right techniques. And all the authors stress that these techniques aren’t “rules” that must be followed, but are ways to help you get at the heart of your story and what you want to say.
So while there is no magic bullet to creating a story, I think these books can help you get there a lot quicker, and with fewer false starts.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Dara Marks:
“What is needed in the way of writing tools are instruments of excavation that can unearth the bounty of self-knowledge that lies beneath the surface of our own stories… Technique… is only a device that can be used to help the artist maximize the communication of his or her own creative expression.”
Have any of you read these books and if so, have you found them helpful? Do you think writing can be learned from a book?