The best books on story structure (you’ve probably never read)

Marshall Dotson Author Of Actions and Goals: The Story Structure Secret
By Marshall Dotson

Who am I?

I’ve been a student of story structure for decades. As a novelist, this initially started as a means to learn as much as I could from those with more experience than myself, but quickly grew into a passion. I read everything on the subject I could get my hands on and eventually began analyzing the plots of novels and movies for myself, amalgamating what I had learned with my own theories and insights which coalesced into a wholly new structural paradigm. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with many talented screenwriters and novelists to help them shape their stories using Six Act Structure. 


I wrote...

Actions and Goals: The Story Structure Secret

By Marshall Dotson,

Book cover of Actions and Goals: The Story Structure Secret

What is my book about?

Most structural paradigms are vague to the point of being esoteric. Terms like “dark night of the soul” or “return with the elixir” are simultaneously too convoluted and too abstract to clearly impart their narrative functions. The Story Structure Secret: Actions and Goals eschews the traditional approach to story structure by teaching you how to use a simple, universal pattern of six character actions and goals to drive the structure of your narrative.

This sequence of actions and goals is the hidden foundation of your favorite novels and films, and by learning to align the unique actions your characters take with these universal story actions, you can easily create compelling and propulsive narratives. 

The books I picked & why

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Screenwriting 101

By Film Crit Hulk,

Book cover of Screenwriting 101

Why this book?

Most of the books on this list aren’t strictly about story structure but instead combine unique storytelling insights with innovative structural concepts. Topping the list in that regard is Film Crit Hulk’s Screenwriting 101. Equal parts writing guide and manifesto against overused storytelling techniques like 3-Act Structure and the Hero's Journey, his emotional approach to structuring stories is perhaps the most thought-provoking I’ve encountered. Unfortunately, the book is currently out-of-print, though I have heard that Hulk (a pseudonym, obviously) intends to release a second edition in the future. Fingers crossed.

This is currently out of print, but a new edition is expected soon.


My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Ten Ways to Toughen Up Your Screenplay from Opening Hook to Knockout Punch

By Jeffrey Alan Schechter,

Book cover of My Story Can Beat Up Your Story: Ten Ways to Toughen Up Your Screenplay from Opening Hook to Knockout Punch

Why this book?

Schechter divides the traditional 3-act structure into four parts; Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, and Act 3. While that’s not revolutionary in itself, he uses this four-part breakdown to structure multiple story elements like theme and motivation. My favorite element is his breakdown of the character’s story evolution into four archetypes: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, and Martyr. Seeing how these archetypes can be metaphorical such as Jason Bourne being “orphaned” from his previous life at the beginning of The Bourne Identity, or literal, such as Rose martyring herself by returning to the sinking Titanic to rescue Jack, is worth the price of admission alone.


Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!): STEALING HOLLYWOOD: Story structure secrets for writing your BEST book

By Alexandra Sokoloff,

Book cover of Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!): STEALING HOLLYWOOD: Story structure secrets for writing your BEST book

Why this book?

I read Alexandra’s book years ago and she’s since released several revised editions. This book provides an insightful history of the 3-act and eight sequence structures she uses, and offers invaluable insight into overcoming the pitfalls of the dreaded “second-act sag”. But perhaps the most important lesson her book instilled in me is the importance of taking the time to analyze the structure of your own favorite movies and novels to understand why they resonate with you. She calls this your Master List and it’s a tool that every writer should have in their toolbox to improve their craft. 


The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting

By Jill Chamberlain,

Book cover of The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting

Why this book?

While most structural paradigms rely on a sequential series of seemingly unrelated plot points, Chamberlain’s nutshell technique breaks stories into eight interdependent stages that create a natural and logical flow to a story. Additionally, within these stages, she places equal importance on both the external elements of the plot and the internal motivations of the character to demonstrate how their interaction shapes the narrative. This is one of the more well-known books on the list, but one that I can’t recommend highly enough if you haven’t read it. I’d lend you my copy but it’s dog-eared to pieces.  


The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success

By Stanley D. Williams,

Book cover of The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success

Why this book?

As the title suggests, Williams’ book focuses on identifying the Moral Premise at the heart of your story idea and building around it. It’s a very thematic approach to storytelling. This Moral Premise essentially breaks the story into four components: a positive “virtue”, a negative “vice”, desirable consequences (success), and undesirable consequences (defeat). You can use this to create a simple structure of “Vice leads to undesirable consequences (defeat), while Virtue leads to desirable consequences (success)”. I'm admittedly oversimplifying it, but it's a great tactic to get to the heart of your story's theme and strengthen your narrative. 


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