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5 Books for Learning to Tell Great Stories


How does one learn the art of storytelling? These books offer a few suggestions…

It’s no exaggeration to think that people are made up entirely of stories. If we examine carefully everything we believe of ourselves, we’ll discover at some point that all of what we believe are stories we’ve heard at some point in our lives. They’re stories we’ve adopted and believed not only true, but necessary for existence, or at least, for understanding what we call existence.

Stories will shape our realities. Personal narratives do, but speaking a little more broadly, some will structure the entirety of our collective lives. Our identities, our memories, our habits, religions, governments, sciences, social rules, histories, economics, subjectivities and explanations of objectivity, myths, hypotheses, all that which was once believed true and was later supplanted by some other truth, and the fictions with which we give meaning to reality: everything, in its way, is a great story. Perhaps it’s complex, multiple, or unexpectedly elementary, but ultimately, it’s a story.

The books shared below each explore, from multiple perspectives, the elements that make stories so fundamental to people. And in part, the purpose of this brief compilation is to show that knowing how to tell a story is an art that can be learned and perfected through practice and creativity.

Hitchcock/Truffaut, François Truffaut
In long conversation between two great film directors, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut, here, Truffaut takes a position more modest, that of a mere interviewer, albeit a clever one. At several moments, he was able to ask questions so precise as to uncover the very secrets which made Hitchcock the master of suspense. In many cases, readers observe that the possibility of really captivating the attention of the public is the result of a choice in which rationality, ingenuity, and a certain random element of intuition are all carefully coordinated.

Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
Based on the lectures Nabokov gave at Cornell University in the spring of 1972, with the patience and care for literature that characterized the Russian writer, here many of the capital works of European literature are examined. Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dickens’ Desolate House and further stories by Gustave Flaubert, Jane Austen and Marcel Proust are all explored. Nabokov’s careful reading reveals many of the mechanisms which make these works stand out.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars, the hero’s story has been told in specific ways and tracing specific steps. Studying multiple myths from different cultures, Joseph Campbell identified the “hero’s journey” which, converted into a tale, immediately draws everyone’s attention.

The StorytellerReflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov, Walter Benjamin
In this short essay, Walter Benjamin approaches the modern world’s storyteller from a philosophical and sociological point of view, and how this personae, who once told stories around a campfire, has been transformed little by little until it’s almost disappeared. A lucid reflection, Benjamin invites questions on the content of the stories we continue to share.

The Interpretation of Dreams and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud
What more fantastic and seductive stories are there than dreams? Which stories are more effective than jokes? These two books from Sigmund Freud bring an entirely different perspective to the art of storytelling. They remind us that a story’s appeal is not only to the rational and the conscious in people, but also to our natures which, irrespective of their being totally present, also direct our very thoughts and our actions.

BONUS: How about the book, movie, comic or any creative work that you enjoyed the most?
If you have a favorite story, ask yourself: why do you like it so much? Is it simple or complex? Does it move you or make you think? Did you like it gradually, more and more? Or from the beginning, did you already possess everything necessary for understanding and following it? How does that process take place? What did the narrator do to keep the reader’s attention captive? If you look closely, you’ll discover many of these same elements that make any story work.

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