Reading List: The Essential Books For Writers

 

Greetings dear reader!

Since I started making video essays about writing, many of you have asked me what books I think writers should read. My immediate answer is ANYTHING and EVERYTHING. 

As Stephen King puts it, “If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

So read everything you can lay your hands on, especially in your chosen medium and genre. This much is obvious. 

But it’s not a real answer to the question, since people want to know what books about writing they should read. 

Well, here are my picks (as well as some other novel recommendations to boot!)

The Most Important Books About Writing Are…

1) Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee 

 
 

This is pretty much a guaranteed pick for anyone talking about screenwriting or writing in general. I consider it the best starting point for new writers who are serious about growing their knowledge of the craft.

It helped the guys at Pixar write Toy Story so it’s gotta have something going for it, right?

In Story, McKee makes some excellent distinctions between the different kinds of plots, the basic units of storytelling, and how to map themes into your writing. 

So read it, then read it again, and then watch this clip from Adaptation making fun of McKee. 

Also worth checking out is his more recent book on dialogue called… Dialogue. 

2) Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

 
 

Bear with me. I don’t think this book is perfect. I called this section “most important” not “best” for a reason. In fact, I made a whole video about why Save The Cat is so often misleading. This is the book that offered a page-by-page “cheat sheet” promising writers they could sell scripts by following its formula. 

The result?

In my opinion: a lot of mediocre movies. So why am I recommending it?

Well, if you want to be a screenwriter, then it’s absolutely essential, because every other screenwriter has read it, and it has had an enormous impact on the industry. But I also recommend it for the stuff it isn’t famous for. 

Don’t read it to get the unbeatable formula to “win at Hollywood.” Read it to get a better understanding of how and why Hollywood buys and makes certain scripts and not others, (and for a handful of miscellaneous tips on common screenwriting mistakes). 

3) The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

 
 

This is the best book on writing I’ve encountered, although it is a little advanced. I’d recommend reading some of the other books on this list first before tackling Truby.

The subtitle of this book — the 22 storytelling steps — may make you have Save The Cat flashbacks, as in “Ugh, another book that thinks there’s some step-by-step secret to stories laid down in stone! Pass!” 

But the brilliance of Truby is that his “steps” are, by design, interchangeable and removable. He has 7 he argues are inherently in all stories, and these can expand out accordion-style to the full 22 (or more, depending on genre).

A key line: 

“If most writers use an approach that is external, mechanical, piecemeal, and generic, the writing process we will work through might be described as internal, organic, interconnected, and original.” 

This isn’t about following a formula. His approach is all about finding the elements of story that you can use to enhance your creativity. Read it as soon as possible. 

Other books about writing I highly recommend: 

BONUS!

An Amazing Novel I Just Finished Reading Is…

 
 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

This book is a treasure, and one of the best uses of an omniscient narrator I’ve ever seen. The way Ng glides between the viewpoints of the Richardson family and their new tenants, the Warrens, is masterful and emotionally intense.

The story is a mystery, but it’s a “why-dunnit” not a “whodunnit.” 

We open on a scene of a suburban house burning down and the knowledge that the youngest child of the family is responsible. But why did she do it? 

Well…give it a read to find out!

The Novels That Taught Me The Most About Writing Are…

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Who by Junot Diaz
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Happy reading!

 
 
 

Sage Hyden is the creator of the Just Write video essay series. 

Follow him @SageHyden