The best books about how stories work and how to write your story to its best effect

Who am I?

I was lucky enough not only to get published in my thirties, I also got a film deal for those first two books. I was flown to Hollywood and it was all very grand. However, what they did to my stories in translating them into film scripts horrified me. And ruined them. And the films never got made. I started to look deeper into what ‘experts’ did, and it was awful. I became obsessed with how stories work, developed my own ‘knowledge gap’ theory, proved it through my Ph.D. research, and became a story consultant in the industry. Story theory has completely taken over my life and I love it!

I wrote...

The Primary Colours of Story: A storyteller's guide to how stories work

By David Baboulene,

Book cover of The Primary Colours of Story: A storyteller's guide to how stories work

What is my book about?

A story is a conversation between an author and a receiver. The author encodes using knowledge gaps. The receiver decodes by providing the knowledge that goes into the gaps. The knowledge that goes into the gaps is called subtext. That, right there, is the substance of every story ever made and will be the substance of yours. Understand subtext and you understand story. It’s as simple, and as beautiful as that.

“David Baboulene is truly a master when it comes to the science behind storytelling.” Craig Hinde (Writer/Director).

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The books I picked & why


By Aristotle, Joe Sachs (translator),

Book cover of Poetics

Why this book?

Aristotle was the world’s first story expert.

As a story consultant myself, it was incredible to have a man from 2,300 years ago talk to me about story theory! And more than that… everything he says is spot on. 

The real meaning of much of what Aristotle said has been debated for millennia. However, when I used his principles as story dynamics in real stories, they became very clear to me; so, in my own work, I have distilled Aristotle’s principles into a modern three-part interpretation, and I give examples of them working in classical and popular modern stories.

Aristotle’s principles are not only applicable today, but they are still better than almost any other new thinking of the last 100 years. Aristotle is amazing. I love him! 


By Aristotle, Joe Sachs (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Poetics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the most powerful, perceptive and influential works of criticism in Western literary history

In his near-contemporary account of classical Greek tragedy, Aristotle examines the dramatic elements of plot, character, language and spectacle that combine to produce pity and fear in the audience, and asks why we derive pleasure from this apparently painful process. Taking examples from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the Poetics introduced into literary criticism such central concepts as mimesis ('imitation'), hamartia ('error') and katharsis ('purification'). Aristotle explains how the most effective tragedies rely on complication and resolution, recognition and reversals. The Poetics has…

Book cover of Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Why this book?

This was the first story theory book I read and it was hugely influential on me, because it is probably the definitive work in terms of a formulaic, structural approach to story.

This book gave me a depth of knowledge of the traditional approach to story theory, but also a clear understanding of how people in the film industry are going about their work today. It is all wrong, in my opinion, but it is also the truth of what is going on.

It is wrong because a story does not begin with structure. A story begins in the mind, and a structure arrives later once the story is present. This book set me on my journey to find an alternative to structure.

Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

By Robert McKee,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Story as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Structure is Character. Characters are what they do. Story events impact the characters and the characters impact events. Actions and reactions create revelation and insight, opening the door to a meaningful emotional experience for the audience. Story is what elevates a film, a novel, a play, or teleplay, transforming a good work into a great one. Movie-making in particular is a collaborative endeavour - requiring great skill and talent by the entire cast, crew and creative team - but the screenwriter is the only original artist on a film. Everyone else - the actors, directors, cameramen, production designers, editors, special…


By Roland Barthes,

Book cover of Mythologies

Why this book?

A story is not the words that you write down. That’s a narrative. A story is what your audience builds in mind for themselves when they receive the narrative.

If I give you a six-word story: For sale. Baby’s shoes. Never worn. You don’t just see an advertisement. You think about the lives of the people who placed the advertisement, right?!

What you just did in your mind is how stories work, and Roland Barthes was the first to recognise this. His book is a series of articles demonstrating the mythology that lies behind the words and symbols we are fed in everyday life.

My knowledge gap theory of how stories work owes a great deal to Roland Barthes, and this book in particular.


By Roland Barthes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mythologies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"No denunciation without its proper instrument of close analysis," Roland Barthes wrote in his preface to Mythologies. There is no more proper instrument of analysis of our contemporary myths than this book―one of the most significant works in French theory, and one that has transformed the way readers and philosophers view the world around them.

Our age is a triumph of codification. We own devices that bring the world to the command of our fingertips. We have access to boundless information and prodigious quantities of stuff. We decide to like or not, to believe or not, to buy or not.…

Book cover of The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller

Why this book?

This book is different. After a slew of books all pedaling the same material based on the dreaded Hollywood formula, it was really good to find something that bucked the trend. 

Truby focuses on morality in stories. He maintains that every story is actually a moral argument, and gives his practical steps for harnessing that morality and using it to create a strong story. 

I feel there is a lot to be said for this. The only real flaw is that there are actually twelve sensible bases for a story and although the moral argument is undeniably one of those that generates a strong story, it is important for writers to understand all of them.

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller

By John Truby,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Anatomy of Story as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"If you're ready to graduate from the boy-meets-girl league of screenwriting, meet John Truby . . . [his lessons inspire] epiphanies that make you see the contours of your psyche as sharply as your script."
―LA Weekly

John Truby is one of the most respected and sought-after story consultants in the film industry, and his students have gone on to pen some of Hollywood's most successful films, including Sleepless in Seattle, Scream, and Shrek. The Anatomy of Story is his long-awaited first book, and it shares all his secrets for writing a compelling script. Based on the lessons in his…

Book cover of The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies

Why this book?

Bordwell is an academic who is encyclopedic on Hollywood.

He has written several definitive works on Hollywood and despite their depth and learnedness, they are very readable and enjoyable to absorb. So when he turned his attention to ‘classical’ Hollywood story telling, I knew it would be a good one, and I was not disappointed. 

Most story theorists have an approach that they are arguing for. Bordwell is analysing from a pure perspective, without ‘skin in the game’, so the result is balanced, critical, and highly enlightening for the aspiring writer. 

The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies

By David Bordwell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Way Hollywood Tells It as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hollywood moviemaking is one of the constants of American life, but how much has it changed since the glory days of the big studios? David Bordwell argues that the principles of visual storytelling created in the studio era are alive and well, even in today's bloated blockbusters. American filmmakers have created a durable tradition - one that we should not be ashamed to call artistic, and one that survives in both mainstream entertainment and niche-marketed indie cinema. Bordwell traces the continuity of this tradition in a wide array of films made since 1960, from romantic comedies like "Jerry Maguire" and…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in film, aesthetics, and storytelling?

8,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about film, aesthetics, and storytelling.

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