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5 Books that Will Make You a Better Storyteller (and 1 to Avoid like Spoiled Ink in Your Pen)

I write kick ass novels and screenplays, thanks to my days as a copywriter.

When I first started putting words onto the page, my primary interest was in telling my story, with my being the operative word. I didn’t realize how much I was putting myself ahead of the reader, like so many writers are guilty of doing.

After losing my house and realizing that it would be a lot easier to feed my family by earning $1 per word writing copy that converts instead of the dead-skin-of-the-internet SEO articles I had been cranking out at five-bucks a pop, I never looked back.

Clear writing is essential to sales copy, but it is also the marrying of narrative with the surgical wordsmithing and reader-first aesthetic that has been the not-so-secret ingredient to my storytelling success ever since. 

I dropped out of high school, so believe me when I say this is a cheap education anyone can afford. If you’re interested in finding the balance between narrative elegance and reader retention in your own writing, I recommend reading these five books to get started.

Listed in the order I read them: 

  1. On Writing by Stephen King is a memoir-meets-masterclass from the storyteller who first kicked the door of adult narrative open for me. I sneaked a copy of The Talisman from my mom’s nightstand when I was eight years old, and had read all of his fiction, including the Bachman books, before my twelfth birthday. I read On Writing two decades later and finally believed that I could do it, too.
  2. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Not a copywriting book, but this was an essential read for me to learn how to craft clear and concise prose that makes it easy for the reader to follow my thoughts. I read The Elements of Style once a year for the first five years I was writing until the lessons had been fully internalized.
  3. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini. Understanding persuasion is crucial for effective copywriting, and Cialdini’s book outlines key principles that can help writers craft more convincing copy. But understanding human behavior will also improve your storytelling one-hundred percent of the time, because grasping the intricacies of human behavior will breathe life into your characters, making them resonate more deeply with your audience.
  4. Story by Robert McKee is a comprehensive exploration of narrative structure. McKee is a windbag, but he also knows his shit. I went to his three-day seminar, which is mostly him reciting parts of this book. Despite his verbose delivery, Story distills decades of wisdom into practical insights, equipping you with the tools to craft narratives that resonate and endure.
  5. Writing Without Bullshit by Josh Bernoff emphasizes clear, jargon-free communication. Effective writing directly connects the writer with the reader, and most writers have a lot of bloat in their work. This book helps to eliminate the unnecessary fluff. Writing Without Bullshit didn’t come out until 2016, so I already had millions of words under my belt by the time I read it, but the book still made an immediate difference in the quality of my writing.

WARNING!

Because I constantly see it as a “must read” for writers, I feel compelled to warn you away from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont. This book often finds its way into the hands of hopeful writers seeking guidance, but I strongly feel that it fails most storytellers looking for their voice or working to master their craft.

Lamont delves deeply into the struggles and emotional turmoil of writing, emphasizing hardships more than triumphs, and that focus casts a long shadow over the joy and fulfillment writing can bring, potentially discouraging those who are navigating their doubts and fears.

In contrast, King’s book on the craft embodies a spirit of encouragement and resilience. With his characteristic blend of personal anecdote and practical advice, he lights a path that feels both attainable and inspiring, acknowledging the challenges while framing them as obstacles to be overcome, not chasms to fall into.

These five books have collectively taught me that writing, at its core, is an act of service — to our stories, our readers, and ultimately, to the craft itself.

Whether you’re wrestling with your first draft or polishing your latest screenplay, remember that the essence of great writing lies not in the accolades it may earn, but in the truths it unveils and the connections it forges thanks to the profound act of sharing a part of your soul with the world.