10 books to become a better storyteller, writer, and creative
There are two ways to get good at just about anything:
Study the experts
Practice, practice, practice
The same is true for storytelling. And the best way to ‘study the experts’ is to dig into great books. So, today, I want to share the 10 books I most recommend to become a better storyteller.
Some are non-fiction, some are fiction. Some will surprise you, others won’t. They’re all incredible.
Hope you enjoy — Nathan.
Non-fiction — On Storytelling, Writing, and Creative Work
1. Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks
“Seek out the moments when you felt your heart move. When something changed forever, even if that moment seems minuscule compared to the rest of the story. That will be your five-second moment.”
Build your story around a five-second moment. Matthew says everything else is used to serve and bring that moment into the greatest possible clarity.
Stories show change of some kind. The change doesn’t have to be huge or positive. People want to hear about incremental, tough growth that was fought for, not about overnight success. Change is key.
2. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
“In a well-told story, reader and writer are so close together they’re one unit.”
Change the reader’s mind. The best stories don’t only display change in the characters, but they force a change in the reader — in their thoughts, emotions, or actions.
Fiction teaches empathy. You have one mind you spend all your time in. Yet in fiction, you spend your time in the head of a new person (a character) that was dreamt up by another person (the author).
Do it your way. Saunders only found success after embracing his style, and ditching the forced Hemingway-esque style he thought would sell better.
3. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield
“You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive?”
Reduce your message to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form. Then make it fun, interesting, or informative.
Nobody wants to read your writing. Or watch your video. Or hear your speech. They’re not mean, they’re busy.
4. Stories That Stick by Kindra Hall
“We need an identifiable character. Someone we care about and connect to.“
The right story, at the right time. A perfectly placed, well-delivered story captivates like nothing else.
The four components of a good story: identifiable characters, authentic emotion, a significant moment, specific details.
The greatest marketing mistake is to put what you offer at the center of everything instead of the person you offer it to.
5. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (can ya tell I like Pressfield?)
“If you find yourself asking yourself, ‘Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?’ chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”
The hard part of writing isn’t writing, it’s fighting the urge not to write.
Resistance shows need. The more resistance you feel toward something, the more you need to do it.
6. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
“If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work.”
Shitty first drafts. Almost all great writing begins with a crappy first draft.
Write toward vulnerability. People have great BS detectors. So, “Write straight into the emotional center of things.”
7. On Writing by Stephen King
“In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it 'got boring,' the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”
Kill your darlings. Get rid of unnecessary characters, storylines, and sentences. Even if you worked hard on them.
Read a lot, write a lot. The two things you need to do to become a better writer.
On backstory: “The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”
Fiction — Where I learn the most
8. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
“She says nothing at all, but simply stares upward into the dark sky and watches, with sad eyes, the slow dance of the infinite stars.”
Don’t be afraid to be ridiculous. The book features a fallen star, a boy who imprisons her just to fall in love, a group of friendly siblings fighting for their dead father’s crown, and a pair of witches. It’s ridiculous, and that makes it work.
Match your style and your medium. Gaiman wrote the book by hand in a journal. He wanted the first draft to feel like it was written in the early 1900s.
9. Red Rising by Pierce Brown
“You do not follow me because I am the strongest. Pax is. You do not follow me because I am the brightest. Mustang is. You follow me because you do not know where you are going. I do.”
Combine ideas. The first book takes the Hunger Games and wraps the story in space-based, science fiction. But it feels new, because that combo is.
Chekhov’s Gun: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Symbolism still works. Red are low class, Gold are high class. You get this idea instantly, and that base conflict helps drive the story.
10. Dune by Frank Herbert
“Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”
Create common, shared language. “The spice must flow” shows up so often you start to think it in real life when something must get done.
Experiment with structure. Dune features an unconventional narrative structure, with frequent jumps in time and changes in focus.
Be bold, be confident, go for it. “Fear is the mind killer,” as Paul Atreides says.
Three Resources — Nathan’s Picks
⚒️ Tool: Freewrite is a slick writing device that gets rid of distractions — no browsers, no Twitter, no email. I’m tempted to pull the trigger as I try to curb my phone addiction.
☁️ Quote: “It seems that when a reader has a problem, there is usually something that needs fixing, whether or not it corresponds to their suggestions,” Haruki Murakami writes in Novelist as a Vocation.
I found this quote in Dalton Mabery’s new newsletter The Wandering Reader and found it insightful. People can tell you the problem but often only you, the writer, the creator, the storyteller, can actually fix the issue.
📚 Video: “We don't tell a story, we tell a situation these days.” A young Quentin Tarantino talks about storytelling.
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
When you’re ready to go deeper, here are two ways I can help:
If you want a practical way to improve your writing and storytelling in less than 25 minutes a day, check out StoryWork (110+ students).
To sponsor the newsletter, reply to this email for details.
PS: Speaking of phone addiction, try turning yours to “Greyscale” mode. Settings —> Accessibility —> Display & Text Size —> Color Filters. Suddenly, the phone isn’t quite so tempting. Let me know if you try it.