The best books on storytelling and what makes great stories great

Graham Rawle Author Of Woman's World: A Novel
By Graham Rawle

The Books I Picked & Why

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

By Syd Field

Book cover of Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

Why this book?

Syd Field is revered as the original master of screenplay story structure, and this guide continues to be the industry's gold standard for learning the foundations of screenwriting. Even if you’re not writing a screenplay, read this book.

I have learned over the years that the principles of three-act structure can be recognised in, or applied to, almost every form of storytelling, whether you are making a film; telling a joke; designing a firework display; writing a novel, a play, a song; performing a magic act or making a speech. No one explains 3-act structure more clearly than Syd Field. He doesn’t offer it as a failsafe formula, but I have found his paradigm invaluable as both a writer and a teacher, especially for identifying narrative flaws in a story that is not working. (Usually mine).

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The Elements of Style

By William Strunk, E.B. White

Book cover of The Elements of Style

Why this book?

This writing style manual is a rigorous guide to good writing. Revised and expanded many times since it was first written in 1918, it has been criticised for its blunt prescriptivism, but I love it. The main message to take from it, I think, is the importance of cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity. Citing numerous good/bad comparisons, it helps us to identify structural imbalance, verbosity, and weakness in our sentences. It proclaims that a sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. This reminds us of the larger principles, that everything should be there to service the story; anything extraneous should be cut.

The Elements of Style has been praised by numerous great writers over the past century. American poet Dorothy Parker once said: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

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If You Want to Write

By Brenda Ueland

Book cover of If You Want to Write

Why this book?

Ueland firmly believed that anyone can write, that everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. In this inspirational book, she encourages those of us with no elite education or literary culture to get down to writing our stories in our own voice, offering tips and strategies to ease us through the process. ‘Get out of your own way – stop trying to write and just let what you have to say come out.’ (I love that. I often need to get out of my own way.)

Her encouragement is invigorating, empowering her students to write passionately about what is important to them. ‘Tell me more,’ she says, ‘what did you see, how did you feel?’ She advises them not to worry about style, genre, whether the writing will be good or bad, whether it will get them an agent, please a publisher or make money and, most importantly, to ignore the critics, particularly those near and dear to us. ‘Families are great murderers of the creative impulse,’ she says, ‘particularly husbands’.

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On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director

By Alexander Mackendrick

Book cover of On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director

Why this book?

Another book focusing on the medium of film, but again the lessons to be learned about good storytelling are universal. Alexander ‘Sandy’ Mackendrick directed such classic Ealing comedies as The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers, also the Hollywood masterpiece, Sweet Smell of Success. After retiring from filmmaking in 1969, he spent nearly 25 years as a professor at CalArts in Los Angeles where he helped students to write better stories and communicate them effectively through the craft of filmmaking.

This book is compiled from Mackendrick's legacy of masterly handouts and lectures. One section I found incredibly insightful is his comparison of two versions of a key scene from the script of Sweet Smell of Success (initially written by Ernest Lehman and subsequently rewritten by Clifford Odets), seeing how increased tension between the characters is achieved.

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Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

By Scott McCloud

Book cover of Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Why this book?

McCloud has a unique gift for describing things visually. In Understanding Comics, he ingeniously uses the comic form itself, employing a host of visual narrative devices to communicate complex theoretical ideas simply and clearly in a way that is accessible to all. Particularly interesting to me is his section describing the role of the reader in closing the narrative gap between panels. I have long been intrigued by what can be made to happen in the space between two images, two sentences, two scenes. It’s the basis of film montage: one shot cutting to another, inviting the audience to find a connection. It makes them an active part of the storytelling rather than passive spectators. I’m currently making a collage feature film of Woman’s World, which explores how this idea can be expanded to create narrative coherency from discontinuous, mismatched found footage.

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