Suzanne Collins: THE HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY
Wait a sec…isn’t this supposed to be a list of my favorite books on how to write a great story? Uh, yes. Exactly. I have read the entire THE HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY probably a dozen times, and every single time I discover new tricks of the trade–except it takes a master of her craft to write books this good. In particular, these three books are an exemplar of fabulous story structure. They are incredibly tightly woven and brilliantly executed. If you want a set of books to analyze and pick apart to understand how a well-told tale is actually told, well, I can suggest no better book than these three. Yes, study each of these three wonderful books individually and study them as a whole. The story structure is precise, the themes and characterizations rich and compelling. You’ll learn a lot about how to write a blockbuster, off-the-charts fabulous book by studying these gems. Use this as a study guide and example of near-perfect story structure.
I consider this book a treasure. Not particularly because of its insight into how to structure a story–though there’s a whole big section about that. I have tons of craft books. The most interesting part of this book’s craft section was how the multitude of ideas in my library of craft books can be distilled down to a short, efficient system of creating a new story. Very interesting and very useful. But the real treasure for me was the first part of the book, about the first third or so, in which author Rachel Aaron describes how she, as a full-time author, moved her productivity from about 2000 words/8-hour writing day to 10,000 words/day. I’ve tried some of her suggestions. And…they work! Use it to lift your writing productivity to unbelievable heights while still producing your best-quality work!
John Truby: THE ANATOMY OF STORY
This is my bible for quality, drop-dead wonderful story construction. It was the very first writing book I found that didn’t stop at theoretical discussions, but instead provided an actual story building process.
With that said, that process is really challenging to follow. In large part that’s because the individual chapters in this book are not as well organized as they could be. Plus, because Truby is primarily a script doctor for screenplays, not a novelist, the examples are almost all from movies. While a good book shares much with a great movie, there are differences that Truby doesn’t always reflect. Still…this book should be a bible. Use it to take your initial story idea to a detailed, scene-by-scene story plan.
Jack Bickham: SCENE & STRUCTURE
I credit my first sale to this book. A number of years ago, my critique group consisted of all-unpublished writers. We found this book and started critiquing ourselves for quality scene structure. Within 18 months every one of the writers in this group had become published with a major NY publisher.
The thing about scene structure is that it’s one of the craft fundamentals that beginning writers often overlook. It’s about how to place that wonderful story you have in your head into words on the page–words that will keep the reader turning pages. This books tells you exactly how to accomplish that feat. Use it once your story is fully planned to take your brief story description to well-composed scenes on the page.
Larry Brooks: STORY ENGINEERING
This book is another true gem. There are, unfortunately, times when figuring out Truby’s process becomes too difficult. In particular, I find that Truby’s story weave step is extremely challenging. There just doesn’t seem to be enough structure in his directions for me.
Then I ran across this book. It provides a fresh perspective on many of the same issues as Truby, but written from the point of view of a published novelist rather than a script doctor. Brooks has had to sit down and actually do the changes in manuscripts, as opposed to simply identifying what needs to be fixed. Believe me, those are two completely different kettles of fish. Is the process Brooks uses different from that Truby describes? Not a bit. The reality is, they’re both talking the same thing. The difference is that Brooks has better organization (though again, that could still be improved), and his approach is from a novelist’s perspective rather than a critiquer’s point of view. Use it to finalize your story planning to ensure that your scenes are well laid out for an effective overall story structure.
Donald Maass, founder of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, is one of the top New York agents for anyone who aspires to write best-selling fiction. Furthermore, he is devoted to educating writers on how to tell stories that not only sell, but sell like hotcakes. I’ve attended his Breakout Novel Intensive (BONI) workshop, one he typically gives a couple times a year in conjunction with Free-Expressions Editorial Service. It is a phenomenally good education on writing breakout novels, ones that lift you out of the slush pile and help you build your career. The two titles pictured are two of Donald Maass’s most recent books about how to write for today’s market. You can also consider his earlier books, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK. All are great books, and all will help you polish your fiction till it shines. I have all of them on my writing bookshelf, including a few others by “The Donald.” And if you have the time and money to go to BONI, I recommend it highly. You’ll be amazed at what you learn. Use these books primarily after you complete a draft of your novel and want to make it breakout-novel worthy!
These three books are the best, most down-to-earth I’ve seen on how to use setting most powerfully in writing fiction. It’s probably no coincidence that, like the Brooks novel on Story Engineering mentioned earlier on this list, these books were written by successful, professional novelist. I think that may be a hallmark of really helpful writing books. When they’re written by someone who has struggled through the day-to-day travails of writing a publishable novel, the advice is both practical and effective. Each is only $2.99 as an e-book, making them great bargains. Book 1 is about using engaging prose to present setting, using setting to deepen the reader’s experience through sensory detail, and maximize the setting potential in your story. Book 2 is about using setting to enhance character development and ramp up the emotional context of the story, and using setting to present back story. Book 3 is about using setting to anchor the reader in the story, using setting in a series, and avoiding the most common setting mistakes. Together, these three books are like a Master Class in the use of setting in storytelling. Do not miss these gems! Use these books as part of an early revision of your story. In fact, do one full revision of the novel focusing on your use of setting to make sure you’re using it to its greatest effect in your story.
Attending Breakout Novel Intensive (BONI) in September 2013 uncovered another really great writing book, Lisa Cron’s WIRED FOR STORY. This presents a psychological, neurological, physiological understanding of character. What? You think biology doesn’t play a part in defining your characters? Think again. This is a fabulous writing book. I recommend it strongly. You may come up with some in-depth understanding of what makes people–and therefore your characters–tick. Use this book in the story planning process to help you develop your characters. In addition, use it to help make your story events speak to the deeply realized goals and fears of your characters.