I’m sometimes asked to recommend a book on writing fiction. I’m not sure that doctors get approached at parties to suggest a book on how to perform surgery, but, unlike writing, not everyone thinks they can do heart transplants in their spare time.
I’ve read a lot of books on how to write fiction. Many take their theories from other books. Others are written by teachers who have not actually written fiction (using this logic I may write a book on how to be an astronaut). Still other books are written by writers who may write excellent fiction but are not as proficient at describing exactly how they do it. As you may have concluded, finding a good book on writing fiction is not easy, and, like so much of writing, it’s very subjective. The book you love might be one that someone else hates.
Now that all the disclaimers are out of the way, here are a few books that I would suggest to anyone who is serious, or getting serious about writing fiction.
The Art and Craft Of Story Telling, by Nancy Lamb. This book is an excellent introduction to writing for a beginning writer and also useful for a seasoned pro. Nancy touches on many of the basics including, plot, character, conflict, dialogue and theme. She has great examples of every subject and writes in a clear, concise, easy to understand style.
The Writer’s Journey, by Chistopher Vogler. This book is a beautiful analysis of the work of the legendary comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, and his elements of story structure, which he called, the hero’s journey. This theory eventually became the template for all Hollywood films. Agree with it or not, it’s important to be familiar with it. If you think it sounds too formulaic, consider the fact that while George Lucas was writing the script for the first Star Wars film, he frequently consulted with Joseph Campbell himself. When it came to writing, Campbell was Lucas’ real life Yoda.
Screenplay, by Syd Field. Though the book is about how to write film scripts, the three-act structure he diagrams is applicable to novels as well. The essence of a story is the three-act structure, a beginning, middle and end. Unless you are writing an “experimental” novel (which tosses structure out the window in favor of tedium) this is what you will be working with. Adapt it to fit your work. Like all blueprints, it is malleable and not written in stone. Take what you like and leave the rest. It’s one thing to break the rules it’s another not to know what they are.
Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder. It’s not often that someone comes along with a new way of looking at story structure. Blake was such a writer. Though his book is, like Screenplay, about how to write film scripts, his structure breakdowns are certainly transferrable to prose. His list of film genres is unique and brilliant. His theories are his own but are definitely useful to know.
I hope these books are helpful to you. But, like the warning that was written on a costume I had when I was a child, “This suit will not make you fly. Only Superman can do that.” Keep in mind that a book alone will not make you a writer. Becoming a good writer requires years of hard work. However, I think these books are a good place to start and are excellent reference works to return to whenever you need a refresher course. As Joseph Campbell might have said, “I hope you find the magic elixir you’re looking for.”