7 Books to Read to Become a Better Storyteller
Great storytelling is a craft, one passed down for generations and stretching to the earliest era of human existence. But as you try to trace the history of mankind’s relationship with story, you’ll likely stumble upon a few big questions: Why are we, as a species, so drawn to story? And what makes some stories catch on while others fade into obscurity?
It’s hard to hide: Us filmmakers are inherently curious, and we’re pretty sure you’ve found yourself asking some of the questions above, wondering how you might master narrative techniques and tap into the power of story.
As we’re always looking to tell better stories, we think it’s a good idea to consider how our ancestors taught the craft of storytelling: by listening to master storytellers weave their tales. While we might not spend as much time around campfires as our storytelling predecessors, us modern storytellers can certainly benefit by considering the perspective of others. And we’ve found that heading to our neighborhood bookstore is a great place to start.
Here we’d like to share a few of our favorite books. Some of these were written just for filmmakers, helping us understand how each technical decision affects our stories. Others take a more general approach, examining how human beings are wired to respond to narrative, and how you can craft your stories to better engage your audience.
Here are 7 books that will help you to tell better stories:
1. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
What sets humans apart? You might mention any number of traits that differentiate us from other species in the animal kingdom. But one thing is clear: Only humans tell stories. And yet, despite their undeniable presence in all aspects of our lives, we hardly recognize how stories shape us.
Jonathan Gottschall aims to unravel some of the mystery of storytelling in this captivating page-turner. What we love about this volume is that he never tries to use scientific research to unlock any code as to why stories work or explain away the magic of story. Instead, he aims to better understand how stories define so much of the human experience.
As filmmakers, it’s not only encouraging to hear how stories define us; understanding the role storytelling has played throughout human history should challenge us to tell stories that matter.
2. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee
Robert Mckee is famous for his international seminars on screenwriting. And he crams a lot of that same content into this monster 480-page volume on the craft of writing for the screen.
His approach focuses on identifying what he views to be the primary forms (i.e. formulas) of storytelling, and then tutors readers on the features that make great contributions to each genre. This approach certainly has its detractors and might be taken with a grain of salt. But it’s hard to deny the power of his argument and the effectiveness of his rather abrasive approach.
If you’re a filmmaker looking to brush up on a more traditional and time-tested style of screenwriting, this is the one book that will help you speak the language of professional screenwriters and improve your understanding of plot.
3. Wired For Story by Lisa Cron
Let’s be clear: This book was intended for writers—novelists, to be precise. But we believe the concepts here also apply to story-driven filmmakers like us. Lisa Cron does something few other authors have attempted: Explain how to tell a story not based on formulas and structures, but on the notion that unforgettable stories ignite the brain's hardwired desire to learn what happens next.
While she often makes reference to writers throughout, the underlying principles here hint at the deeper nature of excellent storytelling. She relies on recent research in biology and neuroscience to understand the evolutionary nature of storytelling, and how we—as filmmakers—can tap into this organic purpose to electrify the curiosity of our audiences.
Wired for Story will help you create the kind of story that captures your audience’s attention from the first scene. It may be intended for writers, but the storytelling principles here are just as helpful for filmmakers aiming to tell great stories.
4. Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
Have you ever wondered why some stories go viral and others fade into obscurity? Well, this might be the perfect book for you.
Written in his punchy public-speaking style, Jonah Berger looks at a wide range of research to find out what sorts of things make us talk about a product or share a story. And while a lot of the content targets marketing professionals, storytellers will find a lot to love here, too.
What we like about this book is that Jonah isn't trying to tell us how to engineer viral content. Instead, he looks at the anatomy of contagious concepts, and identifies qualities that can help us tell more engaging stories.
5. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
In many ways, the question Made to Stick poses overlaps with Contagious, but when you start reading this entertaining book by the Heath brothers, you see how they approach a similar topic from a different angle, and make some compelling observations relevant to us storytellers.
Chip and Dan make it their mission to try and define the concept of “stickiness,” analyzing a variety of urban legends and conspiracy theories to see what makes these modern myths so irresistible. Chock-full of amusing anecdotes, what we love so much about this book is how actionable it is. There are worksheets and different activities you can try to really test the principles the authors explore.
While much of the book can feel like a self-help course for myth-weavers, filmmakers—especially documentary filmmakers—will appreciate how the book helps them find the engaging core of complicated or seemingly dull topics.
6. The Filmmaker's Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age by Steven Ascher
You’ll find The Filmmaker’s Handbook on the reading list for many film classes and on the bookshelf of many expert filmmakers. And this is all due to the fact that few other books are as a reliable reference guide on making films. We suggest this book because all filmmakers could benefit from the handy reference volume when they need to brush up on some technical skills.
This book is in no way a replacement for fun, intuitive tutorials and a supportive community of fellow filmmakers (for that, you should check out our Academy of Storytellers). But this volume will prove to be a great introduction to technical concepts as well as the business of making a movie.
7. The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau
If you’re a professional storyteller, you’re no longer just an artist. You, my friend, have entered the creative marketplace, and that means you run a business. And just because you’re great at telling stories doesn’t mean you’re a great businessman.
But, take heart. A lot of the same principles that apply to making great films also apply to business (collaboration, a winning idea and a supportive community, just to name a few). Thankfully, globetrotting author Chris Guillebeau understands this, and he’s avoided the business jargon and marketing buzzwords in favor of telling stories of unexpected entrepreneurs and identifying the qualities that have made them successful.
As a filmmaker, you’re in the business of telling stories; this story-driven volume boils down business principles in an honest, relatable fashion—all while telling some truly remarkable stories in the process.