red riding hood

I know a little more about novels than about screenplays (which is to say, not enough of either), but I get it that whenever you write an engaging story of any kind, you’re tapping into some very basic human cravings. If your story didn’t capture their imagination in a really deep way, it wouldn’t keep your fellows from falling asleep around the campfire. Same with television shows today.

Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (Overlook Press) by John Yorke takes a profound and unconventional look at the art of storytelling. Yorke, managing director of Company Pictures and former head of BBC Drama, explores a five-act (Shakespearean)—as opposed to the more typical three-act—structure for telling stories, whether those stories are destined to be plays, movies, TV scripts, or novels.

Some of the amazing shows with which John Yorke has been associated will be familiar if you’re a fan of Brit TV: Shameless, Life on Mars, Hustle, Spooks (known in the U.S. as MI-5).

Yorke uses references familiar to most of us when he compares the narrative thread of Jaws to the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, Avatar to Pocahontas, and all monster films to every James Bond film and every episode of House.

Here’s how Yorke describes the evolution of his initial exploration into screenwriting into something more:

[The book] morphed slowly into a historical, philosophical, scientific and psychological journey to the heart of all storytelling, and—in turn—to the realization that dramatic structure is not a construct, but a product of human psychology, biology and physics.

Yorke is smart. This isn’t a how-to book. He acknowledges that you can be a genius without knowing specifically that you’re re-enacting the hero’s journey in your work, but that it won’t stop you from being a genius if you learn more about the underlying structure of story. It’s kind of liberating: we can delve into why good stories are so compelling without feeling we need to suddenly start obeying rules numbered one through ten.

And of course, a lot of what Into the Woods is about is known by good writers on a subconscious level. But as writers and readers, it can be fun and enlightening to bring some of that to the surface. Demystifying needn’t take anything away from the experience of awe we feel in the presence of a compelling story, any more than understanding the physics of light denies us the beauty of a rainbow.

Yorke explores the “Rubber Ducky” moment, the thing that happened before the story began that explains the character’s present pathology. He details a variety of reasons “why stories manifestly recur in a similar pattern,” including making the real world bearable by the addition of hope. Whatever aspect of story he confronts, he does so with humor and flexibility. 

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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