When in doubt, go to the library. Hermione Granger’s attributed life philosophy has lodged itself into my brain less because of the original Harry Potter text it came from and more because of its evolution into endless internet graphics and t-shirts, but lodged itself it has—not in the least, presumably, because it aligns so closely to my own established reflex. Need to find an answer? To figure something out? To understand something? Go to the library.
To be clear, this recommended course of action does not necessarily mean you have to physically and only go to a library. Although libraries are great and free and usually an excellent place to start. The intent, however, is much more of a “go to books” recommendation, and going not simply to find particular answers to particular questions but rather to gain context. The first thing I do when I want to learn about a new topic is read books about it. I immerse myself in information about it so that I can create an environment with it. Then I start living in that environment, studying different aspects of it at my own pace and expanding its boundaries until I have made that topic my home and I can build something of my own there.
So when I determined to learn more about crafting stories, in words and in film, I first made a list of books to read. I cobbled it together from several other “best books about —“ lists I found, choosing the titles that tended to pop up most often and had the most to recommend them in terms of authors, reputation, etc.
There’s a crucial difference between a reading list like this, made in the course of self-education in the pursuit of exploration, and the reading list you would receive, for example, at the beginning of a college course. In the latter case, there is an established expert who knows precisely which books will build to the result of completing the course. In my case, I am not an expert nor do I have definite definitions of a “course” or of “completion.” As a result, I’ve found myself reading books of variable quality and/or relevance to my knowledge levels or goals. But that is part of the process of creating context. In this course of reading, I have learned what I don’t need as much as I’ve learned what I do need.
All of which is to say I offer my own reading list here and now not to provide any sort of definitive list of the best books to read if you want to learn more about writing, filmmaking or general storytelling, but to share the framework I’ve used to explore a new place. If you take any of these recommendations, keep in mind that your mileage will almost certainly vary. Some books might be right on for you. Some might be frustrating or irrelevant. All will challenge your ideas of what you know, what you don’t know and what you need to know. Which, I think, is the chief value of an education. So, in that spirit, please proceed.
Note: I’m treating this list as a living document and will be updating as I continue to read. I have a lot more on my personal list to work through, but I won’t be adding them to the list here until I’ve read them and evaluated whether or not I believe there’s something of value to be had in them.
Another note: Each list item is linked to its entry on WorldCat.org, a library database that can point you to the closest copy of the item in your local library. There are also links at each of those pages to places to purchase the item online.
Yet another note: I’ve been referring specifically to books here, because I’m old and that’s how I still prefer to take in information. However—as I was reminded recently when I asked a much younger film student for a book recommendation on the details of his speciality, color grading, and he looked confused for a moment before responding, “Well, there’s this YouTube channel …”—there are a variety of resources out there and, as I continue, I intend to add websites, videos and other materials to this list as well. I am also very open to recommendations. Some of them might already be on my to-read list, but I always value more input.
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
- The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler
- Poetics, Aristotle
- Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, Ray Bradbury
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
- Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin
- Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative, Chuck Wendig
- Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud
- What It Is, Lynda Barry
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee
- Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Syd Field
- In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch
- On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, Alexander Mackendrick
- On Directing Film, David Mamet
- Making Movies, Sidney Lumet
- Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, Chuck Jones
- Chuck Reducks: Drawing from the Fun Side of Life, Chuck Jones
- The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life, Jessa Crispin
- Your Art Will Save Your Life, Beth Pickens
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert
- Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, David Lynch
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami