Saturday, July 5, 2014

Book review: Into The Woods (John Yorke)

John Yorke is one of the most influential people in British drama: he's been Head of Drama at Channel 4 and Controller of BBC Drama Productions, helped win legendary soap Eastenders its first BAFTA, and was also instrumental in bringing series like Spooks, Life on Mars, The Street and dozens of others to the screen. Currently, he's the Managing Director of Company Pictures, one of the most important drama independents. And he created the BBC Writers Academy in 2005, which has produced a generation of succesful TV scribes.

So when John Yorke puts his thoughts on writing down on the page, it's a given that the result will be at the very least of great interest to screenwriters everywhere.

In fact, it's of great interest to storytellers everywhere - because Into The Woods goes beyond the obvious how-to approach and delves deeply into the why. Why do we tell stories, but also, why do these stories have a universal, underlying structure and why does it have the shape it has?

That all sounds like very heady stuff, and Into The Woods delves deeper into the evolution of narrative and drama than almost any non-academical text. It's also not a 'how-to' book, per se, though it provides a wealth of practical advice. And although it tries to uncover the Archetypal Story with its universal structural elements, it doesn't ever try to proscribe this Archetypal Story as the One True Way. Indeed, as John Yorke notes, several great films, novels and plays diverge from the Archetype very succesfully. But many other 'divergent' works fundamentally fail at telling a good story well.

Yorke's main intention with this book is to explain why stories are told the way they are, and why this Archetypal Story can be found throughout the ages and all around the globe. In Yorke's view, stories are about change, and their structure reflects how an individual deals with change. The three-act structure, and its thesis/antithesis/synthesis-dialectic, is a basic roadmap of how change occurs. It's not a static impediment to true narrative creativity, but an expression of a basic psychological mechanism.

But the book goes beyond 3-act structure and expands it to five-act structure. In fact, the book itself is in 5 acts: Act I is about story and act structures, Act 2 is about acts, the inciting incident and scenes, Act 3 is about showing and telling, Act 4 is about characters and dialogue, and Act 5 is about dramatic structure in television drama. Now, I'm sure this isn't the first time someone applied classical 5 act structure to screenwriting, but it is the first book I've read which makes the case so powerfully and clearly. Of course, 5-act structure is basically an elaboration of 3-act structure, in which the second act is subdivided

Not that Yorke wants everybody to be 'enslaved' by 5-act structure or any other model: he states that a screenplay can have as many acts as necessary. Each act being the attempt of the protagonist to reach a specific goal along the way to finally achieving or failing to achieve the major goal that drives the entire story.

Much of what is discussed here is well-known - inciting incident, midpoint, protagonist & antagonist, theme - but Yorke's enormous experience in script development, coupled with the impressive breadth and depth of his research, ensures that even experienced writers will find much of value here. And for beginners, this is a treasure trove of very practical advice to absorb and master. Although not a how-to book in the strict sense, most of the central concepts are immediately applicable to your actual writing.

What's also a little controversial is that Yorke is critical of many if not all screenwriting gurus (yes, even of the Mighty McKee). Though he does state that many screenwriting manuals are worthy of reading and can help writers achieve good results, he lambasts the gurus for overcomplicating matters, or remaining too superficial, or asking for too much money. It's very rare for this to happen in print.

You should also read the footnotes in this book - they are plentiful and often contain extra nuggets of wisdom, or examples of Yorke's dry wit. They form an integral part of the reading experience in this case.

Any criticisms? Well, apart from some regrettable typos (Guillermo Del Torro, sic), I do feel a little underwhelmed by the final conclusions - not that they are bad or wrong (or final - Yorke clearly states that these are his conclusions based on the current knowledge and research available to him), maybe just a bit too... normal. There's no Sixth Sense-like twist ending to turn everything we thought we knew about storytelling on its head. Which is reassuring, of course, but I guess the sensation-junkie in me was hoping for a bigger wow finish.

But rest assured this is one of the most entertaining, intelligent, deep and yet accessible books on storytelling on the market. Anyone remotely interested in screenwriting and storytelling will find this an insightful delight. You can get the book here:

And for the real enthusiast, John Yorke is doing a (pricey) online course here, starting on July 14th:

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