5 books to help you create a compelling story

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.

Cover of "The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps ...

Cover via Amazon

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

2. Desire

3. Opponent

4. Plan

5. Battle

6. Self-revelation

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

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:

1. Concept

2. Character

3. Theme

4. Structure

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

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

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.”

Cover of "Stealing Fire from the Gods: A ...

Cover via Amazon

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?

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15 thoughts on “5 books to help you create a compelling story

  1. I’ll really hope one day we can work together developing a new project, I admire you Michael , you’re my inspiration.

  2. I haven’t read any of these books, but I probably should. I definitely think writing can be learned from a book (these books from what you’ve posted)

  3. I might have to take a look at these sometime over the summer if I can. I’ve been trying to get into story writing for a while, but I could never seem to stick with whatever ideas pop into my head. That and I just start worrying about it too much.

  4. For me, personally, I have learned a lot more about storytelling and writing stories from just trying to write stories that appeal to me, personally — writing about what I want to see, rather than what I think will be most popular.

    BUT I definitely think it can be great to use templates like this as a starting point if you need a boost.

    My own style is more organic — I will even go into a scene without a deliberate plan, just a loose Point A, Point B concept, and see what happens as the characters sort of…write themselves, really.

    Here’s a quote a friend shared with me that I liked a lot:

    “I think there are two types of writers: the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have — they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”
    ~ George R.R. Martin

    So I’m probably much more on the ‘Truby’ side of things.

  5. I wonder if some of these will help me make some interactive fiction which I desperately need. Well there is my challenge as a game designer… 😦

  6. Great post! I’ve found myself searching through the mass of writing how-to books and it’s easy to become lost. And as you say there are few that are truly useful. You’ve compiled some interesting ones here, especially the “Wired for Story” which could be a good read on its own, the science of story construction through neuroscience.

    Have you come across “Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein? I’d say it’s structured in a similar manner as “Story Engineering”, which believe in in my Amazon wishlist. I found it an excellent source for writing. Mine’s all dog-eared with note tabs sticking out from every corner.

    I’m going to check out at least a couple your suggestions here.

  7. I certainly think there are some important lessons to learn from the masters when it comes to creating a story exciting our imagination. The book Story by Robert McKee is another must especially if you desire an understanding of the principles of storytelling. Everything from archetypes to originality to craft and the nature of it all. I highly recommend it.

  8. Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing” is another great book, not about the mechanics of plot specifically, but about the whole process of writing and inspiration.

    Also Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” is a great reflection on the whole business of storytelling from an academical linguistic/folklorist perspective (with a surprising spiritual aspect added towards the end as well).

  9. It’s so funny, the other day I was just thinking to myself, “I need to find a good book on story structure. I should start asking around…” Then I open up your site and there they are!

    Thanks Mike!

  10. I haven’t read any of these books yet but am looking forward to! Thank-you for this great resource, I always learn something new from your posts! I don’t think writing can be learned from a book, I think books help us polish and focus our writing. When inspiration strikes it’s never perfect, it always need a few rounds of editing. I agree that writing comes to us in bits and pieces, it can come at random moments — I know that I do most of my writing riding the nyc trains, and over time it adds up. I think books about writing help us as a guide post for helping us determine the direction of our story.

  11. Love that you touched on how so many writing books out there so quickly assume that you have a full and complete story to work with when you consult them, or assume that having a fully complete, workable story is something that’s accomplished as easily as snapping your fingers. That’s just a kind of writing arrogance I have yet to reconcile.

    I find myself in the stage right now of struggling to NOT use the wisdom of these books as gospel and just trying to take away enough to use as a guide. When I was younger I would literally comb books like these and try to apply LITERALLY EVERYTHING they were offering and put it to use in my story. I guess though that comes from not fully having confidence in your story’s potential, or maybe not trusting it to kind of breathe a little. I think there’s a certain level of mystery that you maybe inevitably HAVE to let your story have because trying to stick to a solid framework is just too trying. At least for me. I start to restrict myself and I panic when I began to turn away and want something different from the path I set. Thus, I restrict the story.

    Whoo. Yeah. These recommendations look great, Mike. Great post! 😀

  12. After watching episode 1 to 10 of Korra I felt like I’ve might have been watching one of the most important works of animated series since the beginning of animated series. Such wonderful composure of art, storytelling, twists and characters!
    Then I watched episode 11 and 12 where I feel something went terribly wrong.

    If I had the money I would have changed the following things:
    * Let Tarrlok shout out “brother” as a mysterious clue when he is being captured by Amon. Have Korra use this clue to uncover the identity of Amon searching the historical records. There is no reason for the known lier and deceiver Tarrlok to tell Korra the ultimate truth, nor is the story credible as Tarrlok position himself as a victim which he clearly is not as became a leader and a council man with great power and influence.
    * Let Korra or Tenzin discover the connection between waterbending and the ability to remove the bending earlier. The clue to this could have been derived from the first vision Korra had where Yakone first was introduced. Surely it must be well known Avatar knowledge.
    * When Korra confronts Amon, why would he be wearing a make up? And a make up which doesn’t hold up against water even? This doesn’t make any sense what so ever. Just let his story be try about the fire bender? Why couldn’t it have been true? It isn’t like he had to make up a story. There are many reasons for him to hide under a mask. Fire benders are known to scare people too.
    * Why would Amon confront Korra by himself? He has never done so before nor was there any real reason for this. Using this troops he could have captured Korra as easily as before. Nothing had really changed in the power balance. The final combat just doesn’t make any sense. Nor does it make sense to find out that his lieutenant didn’t really know who Amon was and still “gave up his life for the cause”.
    * Even when Amon is exposed as a bender the cause is still valid. Surely there would be people still supporting him as a leader of the Equalists. He never practiced water bending on them other than the ability to remove bending powers.

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