Books on writing

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Mar 052016


I watched the recording of your lecture “Teaching to fish.”

At the end you recommend books for the different subjects, and you said that a lot of people start with Joseph Campbell, but that there are a lot more, interesting books, out there.

Do you have any books to recommend about creative writing?

 — Christoffer Lundberg

Sure. Starting most broadly, the top recommendation is to read. Read a lot. And read widely, not just in one sort of fiction. I could rattle off a host of recommendations, but there’s probably no point — there’s a huge universe of well-written books out there to look at as models and inspiration. So let’s move on to craft books instead.

To start, though it may be a tough hill to climb, you could go back to Aristotle’s Poetics.1 The amount of terminology and best practices that we still get from this book is hard to overstate. For general writing books, among many others I like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. They perhaps tend a little more literary than others. I am tempted to also mention Babette Deutsch’s A Poetry Handbook, even if you don’t plan to write verse, because anyone who wants to master cadences of language, and the use of techniques of rhythm, assonance, and the like, would benefit from poetic training.

A lot of writing technique is developed by giving yourself exercises. I like What If? by Bernays & Painter, but there are many books out there, substantially similar in that they present writing challenges such as “write a scene using only description,” “write a story with only dialogue,” “write a story with an unreliable narrator,” and so on.

Moving more towards populist writing, Stephen King’s On Writing is also quite excellent, and more in touch with many of the sorts of stories that games tend to tell. Christopher Vogler’s distillation and updating of Campbell in The Writer’s Journey is worth a look, even if it is still hammering on the monomyth. If you really want to delve into genre fiction, as many games do, Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy has a lot of good material in it, regardless of what you think of the author’s politics.

Lajos Egri’s book on play and scriptwriting, The Art of Dramatic Writing, comes highly recommended by those I know who have worked in that field. Of course, these days the crass commercial approach is better epitomized by Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which has become the blueprint (down to the minute, actually!) for most movies. That said, for cinematic thinking, I really like Jon Boorstin’s Making Movies Work, since it goes beyond writing and into cinematic storytelling in general.

My favorite book specific to games writing in particular is Lee Sheldon’s Character Development and Storytelling for Games. From a less practical and more visionary side, Janet Murray’s classic Hamlet on the Holodeck should be eye-opening as regards the possibilities for storytelling using interactive and immersive media.

There are many many more; this can only scratch the surface. I hope you find it useful.

  1. All books in this post are Amazon Affiliate links, just so you know. That means I get paid a tiny bit if you buy them from here. 

  8 Responses to “Books on writing”

  1. Thanks, thats a lot of books for quite some time to come 🙂

    “What if” sounds especially interesting, I have always liked the idea about books that are not only read but also have challenges, a little like interaction. I’m interested to see if it lives up to the expectation.

    I have already read Stephen Kings “On Writing”, which I like (especially the x words a day), and both “Bird by Bird” and the “Art of Fiction” sounds interesting.

    I have “Hamlet on the Holodeck”, and are halfway through, but it felt like theres something that don’t click. I will reread it after I have read some of the books you recommended.

    Orson Scott Cards How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy: I’m surprised to see that he has written a “how to” book, strange that I have not heard about it before. I really like “Enders Game” and “Speaker for the Dead”, so it will be interesting to see how he explains things.

    I will start with these and check out the rest afterwards. Thanks again 🙂

    Also, when I “have you on the line”, I just want to say that I appreciates your articles about “Star Wars Galaxy”. Its very interesting to read about the original design goals and to see how they evolved (or got cut) during the project. Its something that resonate with the hobby game projects I have worked on, and in a way how the original concepts can be more appealing then the end result (how you want to try to implement the design concept again to see if it works different the next time).

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