8 Most Helpful Books on Writing Fiction
by Diana Urban | Oct 20, 2017
I rarely read nonfiction, but when I do, it’s usually on the craft of writing fiction. There’s a bit of irony in there somewhere.
With each new book I write, I’m always looking to improve on my craft. As someone who never took creative writing classes or pursued an MFA, books on writing are my go-to resource for instruction and inspiration. Deciding which books to choose can be overwhelming, so I wanted to share a few of my faves with you. These might not be the best choices for all authors based on their skill level, but after writing three novels, these are the books that I’ve found most helpful. Yay for caveats!
1. The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
The Emotion Thesaurus
What it’s best for: brainstorming or revising characters’ emotional responses
When I’m revising my novels, I have The Emotion Thesaurus sitting next to me at all times. It’s a quick reference for characters’ internal and external emotional responses. The book is organized into 75 different emotions, each including a list of options for a character’s physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, cues of acute or long-term emoting, and cues of suppressing the emotion. Even if you don’t choose one of the options in a list, they help to brainstorm replacements for filler emotional response descriptions (such as breath, breathe, inhale, exhale, or the dreaded “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” — ick!). I highly recommend buying it in paperback, not digital, so you can skim through any time.
2. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Save The Cat
What it’s best for: story development and structure
Save the Cat is technically a book on screenwriting, but the principles translate well to novel writing. The most valuable chapter for me was “Beat it Out,” in which Blake deconstructs the 15 beats an engaging story should have. While I prefer the plots of my novels to organically progress — I don’t follow his “Beat Sheat” beat-for-beat — it’s a helpful reminder for approximately where in a story major or minor disturbances should ideally happen. It’s also a quick, entertaining read!
3. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
Plot & Structure
What it’s best for: story and scene structure
This was the first book I ever bought on writing! I randomly picked it out at Borders back when those existed, and I’m so glad I did. I love this book in addition to Save the Cat because it offers specific examples in each chapter. The advice throughout is succinct and entertaining to read, and includes tips on constructing a scene, pacing, maintaining dramatic tension, and cutting bloat.
4. The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird
The Secrets of Story
What it’s best for: concept and character development (plus other great writing tips!)
While not quite as well known as some of the other books on this list, this one’s one of my favorites. This book emphasizes how you should write for an audience, and not just yourself — it’s not about chasing the market, but manipulating their emotional experience while reading your book. It also dives into creating compelling characters, staging a scene, and crafting dialogue. I might suggest skimming the chapter on structure if you’re already reading Save the Cat and Plot & Structure, but the rest is extremely valuable.
5. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
What it’s best for: writing inspiration
While this is a memoir rather than a book purely on writing advice, I loved learning about the experiences, craft tips, and writing habits of one of the most prolific writers of modern times. Whereas my previous two recommendations focus on structure and might be most helpful for outlining a book, On Writing helped me come to terms with the fact that sometimes I’m more of a pantser than a planner — and that’s okay. There’s no one right way to write a novel. Stephen describes how he usually starts a new novel by thinking of a character, getting to know that character, and throwing him into some ridiculous situation and seeing what happens. While it’s helpful to estimate the beats of a story, your characters decide where those beats will drop.
6. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamont
Bird By Bird
What it’s best for: writing inspiration
More of a memoir than an instructional guide, Anne Lamott tells the story of how she became a writer, and flurries in advice and anecdotes she shares with her students on writing and life as an author. She emphasizes how it’s okay to let your characters tell their own story. What you outline is not necessarily the story you’ll end up with, because your characters will learn and grow and find their own way through the story. Whenever I feel my characters taking over in my own novel, I feel kind of crazy — “they’re not taking over, they’re in my own head after all!” — but it’s nice to know that’s normal.
Yes, there’s a pattern here, people. Know the ideal structures that elicit an emotional response from an audience, but let your characters drive the story.
7. The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier
Writer’s Guide to Beginnings
What it’s best for: writing beginnings (obviously)
Beginnings are one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer. I seem to have a good grasp on pacing and maintaining tension throughout a novel (so my readers tell me), but I struggle with where/when/how my stories should begin. This book has provided me some much needed inspiration and instruction on this particular weakness of mine, so hope it can help someone else, too!
8. The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus by Fred White
Writer’s Idea Thesaurus
What it’s best for: brainstorming new story ideas
This book’s more an honorable mention, but can help spark creativity, so I thought it worth mentioning. I also recommend buying the paperback version, since it’s not a book you’d read cover-to-cover. Instead, it’s fun to flip through and scan the different story ideas. I’m not going to lie — it’s not likely you’ll pull a fully-fledged idea out of this book. In fact, some of the ideas are downright silly. But it definitely helps get the creative juices flowing, as you get in the groove of thinking CHARACTER unique for INTERESTING REASONS must do MISSION or else CONSEQUENCE, but OBSTACLES.
What other books on writing fiction would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
I would add to Diana’s helpful list, Dianne Doubtfire’s The Craft of Novel Writing, short, precise and practical.