9 Literary Classics That Can Improve Your Storytelling

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

It is unfortunate that many writer’s familiarity with the classics of literature comes from film adaptations. While these movies sometimes become their own works of art, often they don’t hold up to the original written work. This has caused some writers to avoid reading the classic books that these films were based on.

Seeing how masterful writers have put stories into words, executed themes, and developed characters can be of tremendous benefit when you are working on your own script. Summer is a great time to commit to reading a new book – whether on vacation or simply as an exercise in acknowledging a new season. If you haven’t read a classic work of literature since high school, perhaps it’s time you visited your local library and took home a few books that might just take your storytelling to the next level. Here are a few important literary classics to consider picking up and how they can improve your writing.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1615)

In this Spanish novel about a nobleman that sets out to revive chivalry and bring justice to the world, sidekick characters such as Sancho Panza serve as tremendous examples of how to use secondary characters to develop the story’s protagonist. Any writers who work in the realm of fantasy or epics should consider this book required reading.

Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)

Infused with style from the Gothic and Romantic movements, Shelley creates an intense mood through her descriptions of atmosphere and environment. She mentally paints canvases in our mind where the stories she describes take place. Rich themes and layered characters fill the pages of the book, but audiences are left with nuanced and complex feelings as a result of the world that Shelley has created. Horror writers and those who enjoy tackling social metaphor can find important examples of how to skillfully implement their ideas in this classic work.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

A masterful example of how a narrator — in this case, a sailor named Ishmael — can paint a picture for the audience that could never be achieved in any other fashion. Through Ishmael we come to understand the obsessive Captain Ahab, who seeks revenge on the white whale responsible for biting off his leg. We understand deep psychological themes of human nature in many of the lesser characters, as well. Most of all, we are given a narrator whose voice-over brings us to deeper levels within the story, as opposed to simply lazily describing the scenery.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Coming of age stories have become a critical part of our current storytelling landscape. Every year, a great numbers of books, films, and TV shows center around this universal human experience. Hurston methodically walks us through the development of Janie Crawford, who journeys from being a teenage girl without a voice to a woman controlling the direction of her future. Hurston’s attention to detail is worth aspiring to.

Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

In this story of a man called Bigger Thomas, issues of race, crime, and poverty are explored with a raw yet poetic intensity. Writers who wish to deal with the realities of urban life, the difficulties of justice in America, and the importance of social protest will find help in examining how Wright executes his vision for the soul of the country.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Conner (1952)

The story of a WWII vet who returns home to his eccentric Southern town and starts an anti-religious ministry, Wise Blood examines the crises of faith that many people face when life becomes more complicated than the dogma of their youth allows. Writers that deal with the challenges and wonder of spirituality would do well to examine how O’Conner tackles such weighty issues, as her approach feels timeless and always relevant.

Ficciones (Fictions) by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

A collection of short stories, Borges most celebrated work offers different storytelling lessons in every narrative. Writers who commonly work in philosophical issues, secret societies, and conspiracies should familiarize themselves with how this legendary writer executes realism with that which exists within the human mind and consciousness.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Set after the Civil War, Beloved is a fine example of the American epic. Inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, a woman who escaped slavery to the free states, Morrison takes real life events and fictionalizes them with amazing results. Any writers wishing to take events from history and turn them into scripted narratives can learn a great deal from looking at Beloved.

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (1989)

A detective story focused around an unnamed chain-smoking narrator, the book uses allegory like few others in our modern era. Murakami uses specifics of Japanese middle class culture that resonate with American culture in an effort to make his storytelling universal. Writers wishing to tell a genre story outside their own culture owe it to themselves to read Murakami’s work.


John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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