What are the best books for students of fiction? I’ve been a student of fiction for the last twenty years. I’ve read a lot of books, interviews and essays about the craft of fiction, some as ancient as Aristotle’s Poetics, which still features on the top list of all the recommended readings for aspiring writers, and some written by more contemporary authors. Some books are all about the ineffable, the artistic, the creative aspect of writing, while others are more practical how-to’s intended to give coherence to many of the time-tested methods of constructing story.
All of the books I have read have given me precious insights and new visions towards both what fiction is and as what it could be, but some are ones that I come back to over and over again.
I will not discuss the obvious selections: Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, Stephen King’s On Writing, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down The Bones. These are all highly recommended books, books any ambitious writer ought to study, but to be fair, they are also either about theory or spiritual attitude. More importantly, they do not focus as deeply on story and story-telling as the selections I have listed, at least not in a way that is both theoretical and also organic. The short list I compiled below is about some books I’ve been able to use to give me and my students practical guidance as well as a theoretical understanding of what makes story work.
You may notice that most of the books I’ve listed address story-telling far more thoroughly then they address other important issue of craft. These reflect my personal obstacles and attitudes about writing fiction. While voice, character, point of view, setting, and style are all truly important elements of the craft, what separates fiction (and screenwriting) from other genres for me is the all important issue of plot.
Plot is the mystery unsolved, and the reason I am often driven again and again to study myth, fable, and fairy tale: to uncover what it is about the human journey that so compels the soul. Why do mythical and archetypal structures seem to speak to us through millennia? Why do the same stories and the same heros and heroines appear again and again in muted form through the culture of all peoples? Plot is what makes the writing of fiction a journey into the fascinating mysteries of the human mind. My list reflects this belief of mine.
I hope you find this list useful, and also that you might contribute your own favorites. I have a huge pile of books on the subject that I’ve yet to read, but I will get to them, sooner or later, and I will get to all of your suggestions, too, if you’re kind enough to post them. 🙂
This is an edited and adapted version of Robert Olen’s Butler’s lectures at the University of Florida about his own journey into the subconscious and his writing process. Olen subscribes to the notion that stories are born deep in the subconscious, in a place he calls “the white hot center” of our spirit. He admits that for any writer wishing to write art, journeying to this “white hot center” is uncomfortable, even disturbing on some level. However, he doesn’t stop at philosophizing about the difficulties of tapping into such a place of deep exploration, but gives invaluable advice for how to deal with the process, and for how to avoid writers’ block. For one thing, I appreciate the primary importance he gives to dreaming one’s story, outside of writing lines on a page or index card. Butler points out that for every novel he has ever written, he has taken time, daily, to actually visualize every scene in the story before he even sat down to write the first line. Some of the many pieces of valuable advice that I took out of reading this is Butler’s five ways of rendering emotion. While I have been using his methods, unknowingly, for some time, had I understood all the subtleties of it when I first started writing, I might have saved myself years of rejection letters. Sure, every writer says you have to write every day, but Butler suggests it is important to a fiction writer not just to write (and dream) every day, but also to write every day using this method. While he does not state this specifically, it is implicit in the rest of the lecture that fiction writing demands more than just putting thoughts on a page. Pondering abstractedly about your philosophy of life, even if you spend hours writing it down, won’t help a fiction writer train for her craft. There is more, including a step by step demonstration of how to dive into the subconscious for a story and bring it back to the page. The book comes with a link to a website where hours of Butler’s seminars were recorded. This was definitely a great find for me, addressing both a strong theory of fiction, and a practical method for applying it to my own writing.
Truby is primarily a screenwriter, so the book, while written for both novelists and screen writers, it tends to skim over certain types of literary writing, for example, what he calls the twentieth century’s “anti-plot” movement. (He writes about it accurately and respectfully, but he doesn’t give us advice on how to approach this type of writing if we wish to). However I found this book one of the best books that I have ever read in terms of breaking down plot step by step and explaining each element’s role within a structure that involves both plot and character arc. (If you’re a fiction writer you probably know that plot and character arc are one and the same, but it does serve us to make the distinction when we try to analyze the process). Truby pays close attention to what Edgar Alan Poe termed the “inner conflict” and its relationship to the outer conflict. Although Truby makes no mention of Poe’s theory, his explication of the importance of identifying a moral dilemma in the protagonist, and in differentiating it with a psychological need builds on Poe’s premises to create a solid and wholesome theory of character development that, as far as I can see, is truly fool proof and will lead to compelling and textured writing. Moreover, his step by step break down of the hero’s journey is accurate, as far as I can tell, although it ignores feminine narrative structures. At times the book gets a little bit too prescriptive, betraying the writer’s preference for screen writing and its inflexible and demanding form, but every chapter comes equipped with generous examples from both literature and film, and with an exercise that leads the student through deep analysis of the more elusive elements of writing: character’s reasoning, motivations, psychological processes, emotional life, and more. Sometimes I think this should be required reading for all advanced fiction classes.
Another screenwriter, and let me be upfront: this is about screenwriting. All the same, as Robert Olen Butler says, “Fiction technique and film technique have a great deal in common.” There is more in common between these two genres than there is not, and as long as you understand the fundamental differences, studying one will enhance and inform the other. I recently attended a fiction seminar at the awesome Books and Books Cayman Island Writers Conference led by the amazing Ann Hood. She revealed that she uses one of McKee’s methods outlined in this book, that of emotional polarity within a scene to build tension, and ever since then, I have also begun to implement this method, not just in my writing but also in my classes. McKee tells us that every scene should land on the exact emotional opposite of where it began. I have since began to study my favorite short stories and find that each scene must have this important change in order for it to be effective. There are other things I find immeasurably valuable in McKee’s methods. I loved his explanation of the different types of ironies encountered in plot. As I am a big fan of Aristotle and of his application of irony and reversal, I found McKee’s classification to be both practical and insightful. There is certainly much that fiction writers can learn from their brethren on the silver screen.
Another film student turned me on to this book years ago. To my knowledge this book has been in print for at least three decades. It is essentially Joseph Cambell’s The Hero of A Thousand Faces, simplified and adapted for writers, primarily, writers of film, but also for writers of novels. The first chapter alone is worth the purchase of the book, but I really enjoyed Vogler’s thorough exploration of Cambpell’s archetypes and hero figures. This is a great supplemental read for Truby’s book, because when Truby explains the character net, it is essential to have an understanding of archetypes and their roles in expressing a story. Since it’s my belief that writers of fiction are writers of myth, exploring the various facets of the human subconscious and its expression in culture (through heros and archetypal characters) is certainly required knowledge for all serious students of fiction. One could read Campbell’s work, of course, and I recommend it, but if you’re looking for a text to use for your classes or a simple yet thorough and applicable guide for your own writing, this is the book that will strike the best balance between scholarship and practicality.
Up to now I have focused only on books about novel writing, but I also write short stories and like every other interested fiction writer out there, I am sensitive to the shifts that literature is taking in favor of innovative, fabulist, and other forms of experimental fiction. This book is an anthology, and the stories included, I will admit, are not always my favorite. Oftentimes innovation becomes a gimmick rather than an aid to narrative, something that I have observed and criticized in this otherwise favored genre of mine within the literary fiction umbrella. However, the opening essay should be essential reading for any student of fiction, in my opinion. It explains in terms both simple and thorough the various approaches and terminology assigned to this often misunderstood form of fiction, and it provides ambitious writers a glimpse into the vast landscape of possibilities of this imaginative, fantastical, and often still unexplored genre of ours.
I am a fan of John Gardner’s work both as a novelist and as a critic. His other touted book, On Being a Novelist, is another one of those classics on the required reading list of any aspiring novelist, but this other book has at least one chapter that I think should also be required reading for all students of fiction. It’s the essay titled “Common Errors,” which discusses with abundant practical and insightful examples where beginning fiction often goes wrong. The discussion spans everything from subtle shifts in point of view to faulty sentence structures. Whenever I use this book (particularly, this chapter) in my classes I see the light strike the faces of my students. We are then able to look at every piece and identify specifically stumbling blocks in the narrative and structure, and methods to address them that are both simple and effective.
I should say upfront that I’m a student of John Dufresne: I know his methods so well, I have subconsciously repossessed them and claimed them as my own. By the time he wrote his book, I had already taken many of his classes and participated in his Friday Night Workshop at Florida International University for years, so I was familiar with everything in it. Nonetheless his applications and methods are for me fundamental to understanding how a piece of fiction is crafted, and for how it should be read. Dufresne is indisputably a literary writer, and also a great teacher. His approach to character and plot are entrenched in the understanding that plot is an internal journey, and that every character action is motivated by psychological needs and obstacles. I still use his methods in my classes for both beginning and advanced students. This is the book to study for any serious literary writer.